A Place for Stories

I would like to use this space, and the comments section below, to preserve stories that help contextualize where the retention data and corrupted cone was seen and how it was presented. This is important, as the various versions of the retention data and corrupted cone have passed largely through informal information channels, channels that are often not captured in formal journals, books, or other sources. Obviously there are too many stories to include all here, so if you have a particularly interesting story, please send it on to me at betrusak@potsdam.edu, and I'll do my best to include it here. I'll start with a story of my own.

The New Sheriff in Town: Confronting a Teacher Education Colleague
In each semester since I began teaching at SUNY Potsdam in 1997 I have given a lecture about Dale's Cone of Experience to my graduate students in our Educational Technology program. In the lecture I cover the actual cone and what it is, and I also I point out the misconceptions about the cone. I discuss Dale's own cautions about misusing the cone, and I focus especially on the cone with the percentages attached (the corrupted cone). I emphasize to them that Dale himself placed a special value on the abstract parts of the cone, and that the top of the cone was to him the 'pinnacle' (my word) of learning. I re-tell the story that Barbara Seels told at an AECT presentation that I attended in the mid/late 1990s. Barbara (co-author of the 1994 definition of Instructional Technology) was a graduate student at Ohio State, and she said that Edgar Dale would walk the halls and often poke his head into classrooms where graduate classes were being held. He would state simply "Keep your feet out of the concrete," and move on. While somewhat amusing, there is an authenticity to this story, in that he seemed to be emphasizing to the graduate students to work their way toward abstract principles and thinking--a place from which good research tend to arise. I tell my students that I agree with Dale's position, as new knowledge construction necessarily must deal with abstract theoretical concepts. It is here, in these abstractions, that the most powerful knowledge is constructed and resides.In the same lecture, I also provide a counterpoint to this position with an explanation of how some experts rely heavily on personal experience, in the form of "heuristics," rather than adhering strictly to theoretical models. They may use these theoretical models, but often piecemeal, based on their own experience. I go on to explain that high quality approaches to problem solving are often found in equal parts personal experience, quality research, and sound theoretical underpinnings.

At the conclusion of the lecture, I make a point to "deputize" each of my students. That is, if they see an example of the corrupted cone in a class, workshop, or any place where a "bonified" person is presenting it as "truth," they are to contact me, and it is my job to follow up and contact them (as the sheriff).  

So, it was about 1998, and I had recently presented a version of my Dale's Cone lecture to my students, and one student pulled out a binder, and in it was a corrupted cone handout. He said he received from a faculty member on campus, in a teacher education course. Now let me pause to say that the premise of confronting a fellow faculty member about what they teach crosses all sorts of lines, including academic freedom, collegiality, mutual respect, and general relationship building on campus. Add to the fact that was they are teaching is "wrong," and you have a recipe for conflict. I knew that what I was about to do might come off as self-righteous, but I convinced myself that it was for the greater good, and that it had to be done.  So I put on my best satin gloves,took a big breath, and walked over to her office. And while I won't give you a blow by blow of the conversation, I will give you some of the main points:

1) When I suggested to her that the numbers associated with the cone were not based in any research, she suggested that "I just hadn't found the research," and she was confident that it had been done, by somebody, at some point, and that I "just needed to keep looking." Now keep in mind this was very early in the Internet era, and people still used things like microfiche and card catalogs. This was before the "Everything that Ever Was, Available Forever" era, so in her view the evidence was out there, I just hadn't found it yet.  

2) I then pointed out to her that the percentage numbers don't take into account learners experience, developmental level, what was being taught, the context in which it was taught, any instructional methods, or how learning was assessed. I said that to me, this meant that the numbers could not possibly be true, in that all learning is contextual.  She agreed with me on this point, but said that likely these numbers were taken from a research study that had all of this, but someone had just summarized the findings and attached them to the cone. Again, she said that I probably just hadn't found the original research.

---At this point I hesitated to continue, but for the greater good (I told myself), I pressed on:

3) In as nice, polite, and sincere way that I could. I pointed out to her that the responsibility of finding the original research really should be her responsibility, rather than it being my responsibility to prove that it didn't exist. I then pointed out the logical fallacy of proving that something does not exist. 

At this point I think the air went out of the room, and the conversation turned decidedly emotional, and understandably so. This was something that she had been using for as long as she could remember, and it had become an underpinning of her belief structure and her teaching. She was admittedly a strong advocate of constructivism, and the cone gave her "proof" to use with her students to show that it worked. I commiserated with her at this point, and said that I too was a supporter of constructivist principles in general, but that I also believe that I also believed equally in behaviorist and cognitivist learning principles, and that each has their strengths in various situations.

Finally, reluctantly, she agreed to stop using the percentage cone in her class, but it was not without cost. While my relationship with her continued to be polite and professional, I would not characterize it as overly friendly.  I repeated this scenario on a few other occasions, with similar results, and concluded that unseeding deeply held beliefs was a much more profound problem than I had ever believed, and came with significant interpersonal consequences. So, against my normal tendencies to take things head on, I have since embarked on a more "passive-aggressive" path, presenting at conferences, lecturing to my students, creating this web page, and otherwise indirectly confronting those with these deeply held beliefs.

So, if you are one of those folks who has been led to believe that the percentage cone is real, I apologize. You have been let down by the greater educational community, although there isn't anyone in particular to blame (unless you can find the original person who slapped the percentages on the cone). For my role, as the self-appointed Sheriff in town, let me suggest that we all agree to "cease-and-desist" using the corrupted percentage cone of learning. Remove it from your web space, throw away your handouts (after you've scanned them and sent them to me), and let's all help to reduce and minimize (eliminate?) instances of the corrupted cone of learning. And for everyone reading this post, you are hereby deputized.