Myth Busters


No not the  TV show, but the importance of not being taken in by some of the myths floating around the learning and development and associated consultancy space.

Or at least the importance of not confusing 'models' with research tested theories.

Claims with, as far as I have been able to discover, little or no research data to support them include:

  • "People remember 10% of what they read, and 70-90% of what they see, hear and do." A moment's thought should make us gasp at the sheer scope of this. A pretty fixed set of numbers, irrespective of the type of thing people are reading, let alone the type of thing they are looking at or doing. Or the type of environment they are in, or the type of person they are, or the education and life experiences they have had. There is actually no real evidence for this at all. There is a useful discussion in the blog, People remember 10%, 20%...Oh Really?  This is not an authoritative text, but someone has taken the trouble to have a look.
  • "People learn best if teaching style is matched to their learning style." Once more, there is no clear evidence at all. From the 1970's on, as many studies have failed to support this hypothesis as have supported it. See a good discussion and source of references in the fun read '50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology' by Lilienfeld, Lynnne, Ruscio and Beyerstein. Pub. Wiley- Blackwell 2010.  The evidence suggests that people learn best when exposed to a range of styles.
  • The 70:20:10 rule - 70% of learning is informal/experiential, 20% comes from mentoring and feedback, and only 10% comes from formal learning. There is not a smidgin of real evidence for this, although very popular as a framework for organisational learning. Again, the scope of the generalisation is breathtaking. Even if there was evidence, these figures could, at best only be averages. But what about the range? You only need to think clearly about this for a moment before realising you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

This last is obviously very popular with those organisations attempting to sell social media as a vital learning tool (a way of capturing the 70%). It may also be useful as a device/trick to encourage coaching, mentoring, performance management and continuous improvement. As one pragmatic O.D. Manager said to me last week, "we use it, but just as a broad framework".

Incidentally, the original piece of research which apparently kicked the whole thing off seems to have been Alan Tough's 1968 paper dealing with motivations for learning in a study of 35 individuals. Yes 35, that's all.

We note in passing that Harvard University, in promoting one of its business publishing newsletters, delightfully emphasises that "according to some estimates, people learn 70% of what they know about their jobs informally, through processes not sponsored by the company", (my italics).

Princeton University offers it as a "philosophy of learning" and, Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger for the Center for Creative Leadership state that "the odds are that development will be": about 70% from on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving, about 20% from feedback and from working around good or bad examples of the need, about 10% from courses and reading." (My italics)

This sounds reasonable. But only if we have a good method for calculating the odds. And I don't mean just asking people for their opinions using a 5 point scale and reporting the results as numbers. (This might tell us what people think, but it won't tell us if they are right). Nassim Nicolas Taleb, of Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan fame would love this whole area.

Pragmatically, the message seems to be that using percentages like this has been found to be useful in focusing attention on the reality that workshops are not the only way people learn.

The big problem is it masks the fact that one of the main O.D Challenges can be getting people to 'unlearn' bad practices they have picked up when workplace culture is not what it should be.

While I'm on this, have a look at the recent "white paper" produced by Deakin University, they have taken the trouble to have a look at some of the current use of the model.

This is useful and can be found at


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