You can’t beat a good debunking!

It’s been a good week for debunking.

Hand wielding knife.

Will Thalheimer assembled an assassination squad for the ‘I remember 10% of what I read…’ myth, and Wired magazine turned its guns on Learning Styles.

Of course debunking is more than an intellectual exercise.  There’s a grisly satisfaction in seeing sacred cows taken down. There’s an aspect of superiority, even macho about some debunkers, and skilled contrarians like Donald Clark provide entertainment as well as enlightenment.  I realised that when he went on the attack against mindfulness training, something I believe is valuable; I found myself drawn in and swept along by his vehement rhetoric  the way I have been at countless talks he’s given , even when I was thinking ‘Noooo!’  You can’t beat a good debunk.

The real point of both articles is not so much the content of the theories or models but the way they’re used – particularly by learning practitioners – as support for what they want to do anyway.  Every night on the news, somewhere you hear the phrase ‘Scientists say that …’ and it bears the authority that would have been borne years ago by ‘The Bible tells us that …’  The villains of the piece in both these articles are trainers who support what they want to do with spurious references to ‘research’.

Thalheimer narrates how the ‘cone of experience’ started from a graphic used to illustrate the gradual loss of sensory information from concrete to abstract experiences and ended up with percentages added  – from nowhere and inconsistently – to say we recall x percent of what we see, hear etc.  Is it ‘20% of what we see’ as in one diagram or 30% as in another, or 20% of audio and visual as in another?  Throw in a bogus quote from Confucius and you’ve apparently got both science and philosophy on your team.
Thalheimer’s team remind us that the data isn’t credible, the original Cone diagram is misused, it’s then combined with spurious ideas about retention and littered with references to papers that don’t exist!

Learning Styles have been regarded sceptically for a while, particularly as there are so many versions of them that all human life is there, in one model or another.  They’ve been used either to justify multi-learning-style courses, or used by idiots to say ‘ I’m not reading that, I’m an Activist’.  There’s no evidence to support the idea that designing for different ‘types of people’ promotes learning, any more than saying ‘If you’re an Aquarius listen to this, if you’re a Taurus, argue with this’.

Phil Green sums it up nicely:  ‘Like most fair-minded and objective individuals, I love it when research tells me I’m doing things right. Then it becomes reliable science!’
As for me, I recall 99% of any  praise I get,  80% of what embarrasses me, 15% of what I read (this morning) and 1% of compliance training.

But … however … wait a mo.

How many of the L&D practitioners who now shuffle backwards away from Learning Styles or NLP or tell-tell-test were enthusiasts ten years ago?  Today’s heroes are tomorrow’s targets.  The guns will surely one day be turned on brain-based learning, social learning, bite-size nuggets and all the rest of today’s lares and penates (look it up).  What’s  bad will be stripped off and what’s good will remain.  After all, who has time to plough through research papers to see what they were really saying and how they were really conducted?  (Answer: Will Thalheimer – he does it so you don’t have to!)

Will Thalheimer: Mythical Retention Data and the Corrupted Cone

Wired Magazine: All You Need to Know About Learning Styles in Two Minutes

(see also: and )

It gets better! Just after I wrote this I saw this from Cathy Moore: How To Be a Learning Mythbuster

2 thoughts on “You can’t beat a good debunking!”

  1. As a musician, you might appreciate this: Several years ago I took one of those online learning style inventories. I wasn’t surprised to be told I was a strongly “visual” learner, because, yeah, I like pictures. But my “auditory” score was zero, zilch, suggesting that I can barely interpret spoken language or tell a moo from a train whistle. Interestingly, when I took the inventory, I was spending hours every week as a traditional musician, learning everything by ear, figuring out harmonies by ear, teaching by ear…and strongly *preferring* to learn by ear instead of having to look at printed music. So even with my experimental group of one the whole thing seemed mighty suspicious.

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