If there is one constant in our current world, it is the speed of change. Digital transformation in particular happens at pace. New tools are coming online faster, and it is a huge challenge to keep up to speed and adopt new technologies as they become available and usable. In this maelstrom of change, it is worth looking at some long-established models of learning, to see what we can take from them about how we should be approaching learning around digital transformation.

Here is our pick of the models, and the implications for your own learning process.

The Learning Pyramid

The learning pyramid, also known as the cone of experience, cone of learning and cone of retention, is attributed to a man called Edgar Dale. He published it in a book on audiovisual methods in teaching, and intended it as a simple visual representation of the ‘stickiness’ of various types of audiovisual media. At the top of the pyramid is reading, then hearing. This followed by videos and images, then exhibitions and demonstrations. Next is participating in hands-on workshops, and then doing something in practice. 

This model has been updated and republished many times. It now often has percentages of information retained attached to it, such as 5% for reading, 10% for hearing, and 75% for practising a skill. However, these are generally not evidence-based, and their origin is unclear.

Whatever the numbers, the principle is reasonably sound: you retain more when you ‘do’, rather than when you just read or hear about it. This may be to do with preferences for how you take in information. However, it is probably more likely to be because you retain more when you are more engaged—and you are more engaged when you are using more of your senses. Participating and learning by doing requires you to look, listen and touch, so it follows that you will remember more. 

The 70:20:10 Model

The 70:20:10 model is similar to the learning pyramid, but simpler and based on research rather than made-up numbers. It was developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership in the 1980s. It says, broadly, that 10% of what you learn comes from formal learning, 20% from developmental relationships—that is, through interactions with other people—and 70% from on-the-job experience. This gives you some idea of the relative importance of different types of experience in learning.

The Forgetting Curve

In the late nineteenth century, a man called Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a series of tests on his own memory. He showed that knowledge is lost exponentially over time, and that we tend to have forgotten half of what we learn within an hour of learning it, and 90% within a week.

This is a fairly depressing thought. However, anyone who can still remember obscure facts from their early school days knows that this does not always follow. It turns out that when you reinforce information, the rate at which you lose that information declines. In other words, when you go over learning, you remember it better.

Lessons from learning models

If we bring these models together, what can we learn? 

First and foremost, formal learning of any kind will only take you so far—and that is really not very far at all. It doesn’t matter whether you are attending a lecture, reading something up for yourself, or watching a video, most of that learning won’t stick. Even a practical course will only take you some of the way.

Instead, you need to build your learning through social interactions with other people, or trying out ideas on the job. You really start to learn when you are experimenting with new tools in the proper context for your use of them: your genuine need for them at work. You also need to use tools often and regularly to build and maintain any skill in them. Talking to others, including teaching them, will also help you to improve your own skills.