Monday, December 07, 2009

Lots of people point the finger at research in social science or education and profess skepticism (or even hostility) but an awful lot embrace natural science or medical research more easily - because the data and methods are not "soft." I am generally pretty skeptical, even of so-called "scientific" research, including medical. (See my post about educational technology; as an undergraduate, I told a history professor "technology kills me" and he proceeded to write it on the board the next class to spark discussion.) So the recent controversies about climate change, the hackers, and the suspicious emails and data don't shock me.

How many cases of dishonesty can you cite? Just give it a moment's thought. In my class that covers academic dishonesty, I ask students to consider all the things that have been in the news in the not-too-distant past: corporate corruption (insider stock trading & employee/retiree pension squandering); government corruption; sexual abuse by clergy, school personnel and others with access to children; plagiarism and fabrication by news reporters and writers; increased reports of cheating by students; fabrication of scientific evidence by researchers; violations of fair play, as well as crimes etc. in athletics; theft of public funds by school district officials; falsifying assessment data by teachers and administrators; and medical and legal malpractice. (List adapted from University of Michigan Center for Ethics in Public Life.)

This doesn't raise to the level of many of those scandals, but it does speak to how common (at best) incompetence, and (at worst) fabrication can be in widely accepted (and respected) research. In 2000 or 2001, I attended a conference where the keynote speaker was a man presenting on student learning styles. I’d never given the subject much thought, and in fact, did not really study the issue myself until several years later, after I started teaching. But the presentation that day really captured my interest. He was a very dynamic speaker. I remember he spoke a great deal about the ways students learn, and the proportions they retain, based on each way. Something that stood out was that he asserted that students don’t remember as much from some approaches, and retain a lot from others. Things such as reading and listening were very low on the retention scale, while drawing or speaking were higher. He even illustrated this point on a flip chart.

A few years later, after I started teaching, I was interested in what he presented for two reasons: first, when thinking about various assignments in my classes, and second, because in one of my classes we study educational philosophy and psychology. Over the years I remembered the presentation, and did some research to see if I could find anything in the literature to support his points. I was never able to find what it may have been based on when I searched. Then, a few years ago, when I was working on material about learning styles and online learning, I made a major effort again to see if I could find anything related to what he had presented that day, and finally I landed on it.

What he presented was based on “Dale’s Cone of Experience,” from 1946. It depicts learning from concrete to abstract and was the first to attempt to describe the connection between educational theory and technology (specifically, audio-visual). Computers weren’t around so this means radio, movies, television, etc.

Here is the original cone:

Dale, E. (1946, 1954, 1969). Audio-visual methods in teaching. New York: Dryden.

At some point, proportions were assigned to the various approaches, just as I remembered from the dynamic speaker at that conference nearly 10 years ago. Problem is, there is no evidence to support the proportions; although they are frequently attributed to Dale, he never suggested we retain 10 percent of abstract approaches and 90 percent of concrete approaches. He never implied one approach was better than another. However, the proportions continue to crop up in papers, websites, presentations, etc. I think it sounds “anecdotally good” to us, that hands-on approaches such as internships result in more retention of material than listening to lecture or reading a book, that watching a DVD is somewhere in the middle. But there is no data to back this up.

Here is a version of the cone with proportions:

A number of sources de-bunk the proportions, document how widespread citing the proportions remains, trace where the proportions originated, and this one does all three.

Not one person at the conference challenged the presenter. I wish I knew more at the time, so that I could have done so. It would have added a bit of spice to the Chicken ala Marriott! What is funny to me is that I so distinctly remember his presentation, yet did not speak, take notes, draw, watch a video, or present. (So much for only retaining 20 percent of what I hear.)

Unrelated: It did snow on Saturday, maybe 3 inches. I shoveled! One more thing Bob can't do. It wasn't enough snow to make getting someone else to do it worthwhile. With our new, pristine sidewalks, it wasn't so bad.

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