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Bogus pyramids: Learning methods, Maslow and Bloom

Pyramids seem to attract a lot of attention among conspiracy theorists and peddlers of books about alien mysteries and new age nonsense. Similarly, they pop up in education and training. It is rare to see an educational or training theory course or PowerPoint without a pyramid, preferably with rainbow colours. 
Indeed, once you catch on to the pyramid scheme trick, you see them everywhere. If there’s a theory to be peddled, usually simplistic and overly-hierarchical, ignoring the real complexities of the theory, someone will have turned it into a pyramid. There are Leadership pyramids (tons), Pyramids of Success, Competency Pyramids, Values Pyramids, even Inverted Pyramids to show reversed hierarchies. This is not to say that such images are always wrong. They can do a passable job in getting the broad brush-strokes of a theory across. The problem is that they haul in all sorts of preconceptions and fictions with them, like progression and hierarchy. Rarely do they actually represent the complexity of a theory or reality.
Let’s take just three, perhaps the most commonly used pyramids to unpack the problem. One is a fake (Learning methods),  One, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is badly researched, simplistic and has two versions. One, Bloom’s hierarchy, also has two versions and both are misleading.

The pyramid that never was

I have seen this in presentations by the CEO of a large online learning company, Vice-Chancellor of a University, Deloitte’s Bersin, and in innumerable keynotes and talks over many years. It is a sure sign that the speaker has no real background in learning theory and is winging it. Still a staple in education and training, especially in 'train the trainer' and teaching courses, a quick glance is enough to be suspicious.

The whole mess has its origins in a book by Edgar Dale way back in 1946. There he listed things from the most abstract to the most concrete: Still pictures, Visual symbols, Verbal symbols, Radio recordings, Motion pictures, Exhibits, Field trips, Demonstrations, Dramatic participation, Contrived experiences, Purposeful experiences and Direct. In the second edition (1954) he added Dramatised experiences through Television and in the third edition, heavily influenced by Bruner (1966), he added enactive, iconic and symbolic.
But let’s not blame Dale. He admitted that it was not based on any research, only a simple intuitive model and he did not include any numbers. It was, in fact, simply a gradated model to show the concreteness of different audio-visual media. Dale warned against taking all of this too seriously, as a ranked or hierarchical order. Which is exactly what everyone did. He actually listed the misconceptions in his 1969 third edition p128-134. So the first act of fakery was to take a simple model, ignore its original purpose, and the authors warnings, and use it for other ends.

Add fake numbers

The cone was flipped on its side and turned into a serious looking histogram. First up, why would anyone with a modicum of sense believe a graph with such rounded numbers? Any study that produces a series of results bang on units of ten would seem highly suspicious to someone with the most basic knowledge of statistics. The answer, of course, is that people are gullible, especially to messages that appeal to their intuitive beliefs, no matter how wrong. The graph almost induces confirmation bias. In any case, these numbers are senseless unless you have a definition of what you mean by learning and the nature of the content. Of course, there was no measurement – the numbers were bogus.

Add Fake Author

At this point the graph was quite simply sexed up by add some academic seasoning, a seemingly genuine citation from an academic and Journal. This is a real paper, about self-generated explanations, but has nothing to with the fake histogram. The lead author of the cited study, Dr. Chi of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert on ‘expertise’, when contacted by Will Thalheimer, who uncovered the deception, said, "I don't recognize this graph at all. So the citation is definitely wrong; since it's not my graph." Serious looking histograms can look scientific, especially when supported by bogus academic credentials.

Add new categories

The fourth bit of fakery was to add ‘teaching others’ to the end, topping it up to, you guessed it – 90%. You can see what’s happening here, flatter teachers and teaching, and they are more likely to buy it. They also added the ‘Lecture’ category on at the front, to reel in academics. In fact, the histogram has appeared in many different forms, simply altered to suit the presenter's point in a book or course. This one is from Josh Bersin’s book on Blended Learning. It is easy to see how the meme gets transmitted when consultants tout it around in published books, courses and PowerPoints. What happened here was that Dale’s original cone concept went through several levels of fakery, to turn it from a description of media, to the prescription of methods.

Final coloured pyramid

The next bit of fakery, was to go full technicolour and turn it into a pyramid. Going back to Dale’s pyramid but with the fake numbers and new categories added, it was a cunning switch. The odd that complex and very different things lie in a linear sequence one after the other. It is essentially a series of category mistakes, as it takes very different things and assumes they all have the same output – learning. In fact, learning is a complex thing, not a single output. A good lecture may be highly motivating, there are semantic tasks that are well suited to reading and reflection, discussion groups may be useless when struggling with deep and complex semantic problems like maths and so on. Of course, the coloured pyramid makes it look more vivid and real, all too easy to slot in, as a simplistic bromide, to a lazy 'train the trainer' or 'teacher training' courses.
What is damning is that this image and variations of the data have been circulating in thousands of PowerPoints, articles and books since the 60s. Will Thalhemer’s original work did much to uncover this fakery. Investigations of these graphs by Kinnamon (2002) found dozens of references to these numbers in reports and promotional material. Michael Molenda (2003), did a similar job. Their investigations found that the percentages have often been modified to suit the presenter’s needs. Just search on Google for The Learning Pyramid and click ‘Images’ and you’ll find page after page of variations. This is a sorry tale of how a simple model published with lots of original caveats can morph into a meme that actually lies about the author, the numbers, adds categories and is uncritically adopted by educators and trainers.

Maslow’s misleading pyramids

Maslow (1908 - 1970) is almost synonymous with his hierarchy of needs. The author is invariably mentioned in the same breath as his hierarchy, which is just as invariably displayed as a pyramid.  It has been a staple for decades as a first step in educational theory, teacher training, train the trainer and management courses. Yet few who put it centre-stage in their PowerPoints, realise that Maslow never created this coloured pyramid. It never appeared in any of his published works. Fewer still question its validity.
His basic concept of prioritising needs was first published in 1943, in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation (1943) in the Psychological review. Then, based on a rather odd, selective and cursory analysis of successful people, his full-milk, hierarchical theory was published in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.  It was here that he pared back learning to a hierarchy of basic human needs and desires. His aim was to uncover the precursors to what motivates people to learn.
So how did we end up with a pyramid? There were several sleights of hand here. Douglas McGregor, at MIT’s Sloane School of Management took Maslow’s general ideas and applied them to management. In doing so, he simplified and distilled Maslow’s ideas, removing much of the subtlety. Note that he did not invent the pyramid, that came later with Keith Davis, who in his book on management, represented Maslow’s ideas as a right-angles triangle, with a pinnacle. That was the first step, the second was in the psychologist Charles McDermid’s article How money motivated men, where the pyramid first appeared. Note that there was a rather odd method to his madness, as he thought this was a way of pushing profits. 
To be fair to Maslow, although oddly researched, with celebrity sources, his work was far more nuanced than the pyramid suggests. His focus was very much on the concepts of self-actualisation and transcendence, and whatever one thinks about those as concepts or theories, they are not magic projections off the top of a primitive pyramid.

The bottom four are all ‘deficit’ or ‘D-needs’. As each of these needs are satisfied, he individual reaches homeostasis and the feeling or need to fulfill that D-need stops, so that one can proceed to the next.
If they are not present, you will feel their absence and yearn for them. When each is satisfied, you reach a state of homeostasis where the yearning stops. It is simple and has an intuitive appeal.
The last, self-actualization, does not involve homeostasis, but once felt is always there. Maslow saw this as applying to only a few people, whose basic four levels are satisfied, leaving them free to look beyond their deficit needs. He claimed to have used a qualitative technique called ‘biographical analysis’ where he looked at high achievers and found that they enjoyed solitude, close relationships with a few rather than many, autonomy and resist social norms. Spontaneity, simplicity and respect for others were other characteristics.
What is rarely known is that it was discovered that Maslow, in 1970, the year of his death, changed his original thoughts, developed in the 1950s, to a more complex model of needs. In unpublished work, ‘knowing and understanding' and 'aesthetic' were discussed. This upgraded version of his theory was largely ignored, as the earlier model had become so deeply embedded in teacher and trainer training courses. Anyone familiar with epistemology and aesthetics will immediately see the problem. Both are notoriously difficult to define. In any case, Maslow never actually published the first or updated motivational model as pyramids. It never appeared in any of his published or unpublished writings. 

Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally and when it was, from the 70s onwards, was found wanting. Empirical evidence showed no real evidence in terms of a strict hierarchy, nor the categories, as defined by Maslow. 
His ‘biographical analysis’ was armchair research. based on a self-selected group of just 18 people and in itself is defined in terms of a set of subjective criteria. . His list of 18 self-actualized people included Einstein, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Beethoven, Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and, of course - Abraham Maslow! He only included two women in his list of self-actualised people, bizarrely, the anti-Semitic Elanor Roosevelt and nun Mother Teresa. It is hard to imagine that a full theory of human nature could be built upon such strange and extreme examples. One thing that helped Maslow become the guru of motivation was that his books were very popular and he was part of a sixties movement that helped promote his views. He was friends with people like Timothy Leary (Maslow’s daughter Ellen was Leary’s research assistant). Linda Sargent Wood writes in A More Perfect Union about the rise of these holistic, utopian visions for humanity. She shows that these were largely populist, and not research or evidence, based movements. 
Kenrick et al. (2010) found huge variance in Maslow's so-called self-actualised people, showing divergence rather than convergence. As there is no control group, this is simply circular. Self-actualised people are selected by him, then used as evidence for self-actualisation.  The self-actualisation theory is therefore largely subjective. 
An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict hierarchy. It is clear that the higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied, so the theory has been repeatedly falsified. There are many counter-examples and indeed. For example, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. Maslow himself felt that the lines were not that clear. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel. A different set of people could be chosen to prove that self-actualization was the result of, say, trauma or poverty (Van Gogh etc.). 
Subsequent research shows that real needs and motivations do not fall into this neat pyramid or hierarchy. For example Rutledge (2011) claims that complex social connections are needed for all of the assumed levels in the hierarchy and that it falls apart when this is taken into account. Typical of the many studies that show the irrelevance of the hierarchy is Tay and Diener (2011), where 60865 people from 123 countries were questioned on Maslow's needs. It showed that the hierarchy was quite simply wrong. The problem is that the reductive nature of the analysis ignores the much messier nature of motivation. In general, the whole idea has been abandoned in modern motivational theory. 
His hierarchy is often hauled into training programmes, without any real understanding of why and whether the theory is indeed correct, beyond some simple truisms. Its appeal seems to lie in the endless repetition of a clear and simply coloured pyramid, rather than any evidence or sophistication in terms of human nature. In fact, it is a hopeless caricature of human nature, one that is best avoided.
Indeed, apart from being fossilised as a component in bad teacher-training and train the trainer courses, it is hard to see how it has any real relevance to what teachers, trainers, lecturers or instructors actually do when they teach. It is clear that having somewhere to live, food to eat, friends, and feeling safe are important but not in the hierarchical or developmental way they are presented. As a teacher, or manager, one can recognize the basic needs of a person without recourse to the pyramid structure at all. Indeed, it may be misleading. Most sets of indicators for the wellbeing of children are more complex, sophisticated and do not fall into a simple hierarchy. There are many such schemas at international (UNICEF) and national levels. They rarely bear much resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy.
Maslow has been almost omnipresent in education and training. However, it is not clear that his theory has had any real effect other than encouraging people to look at others as human beings, rather than subject to some instrumental manipulation. This is an entry from Maslow's own journal in 1962, “My motivation theory was published 20 years ago, & in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the most minor modifications”. He was right. It is not a hierarchy, was not tested and as a theory of human nature it is simplistic and banal. To argue that the theory, although wrong, is useful, as it promotes a holistic view of learners, employees, managers etc. is to open the door to any subjective theory that fits a prejudice. It seems to live on, not because it is validated, real or useful, largely, perhaps, because of the colourful triangle that looks great as a PowerPoint slide. It’s a false meme.
As if to confirm its status as meme not theory, more recently, the pyramid became an internet meme, when some wag added ‘Wi-Fi!’ to the bottom of the pyramid. Many other joke needs have since appeared.

This accidentally confirmed the truth, that the pyramid is actually a bit of a joke.

Bloom’s fictional pyramid

Bloom’s taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) is famous for the most commonly used taxonomy in education and training. It includes three overlapping domains:

Cognitive (knowledge)
Psychomotor (skills)
Affective (attitude)

Bloom published this taxonomy in Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Yet it was not wholly Bloom’s work. The book was edited by him but the taxonomy came out of a series of conferences and the work of a committee of colleagues at the University of Chicago. These were published as three ‘handbooks’, in other words practical texts that bridged theory and practice.
In the 2001, 45 years later, Bloom’s student Lorin Anderson revised Bloom's taxonomy in A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Note that Bloom is neither an author nor contributor. The theory is expanded as psychology had shifted away from behaviourism towards cognitive psychology, so more recent theory informed the update. It is a complex framework that integrates knowledge with cognitive activities in learning. Far from being a simplistic pyramid, it lays out four dimensions; what is taught, how it taught, how it is assessed, and their alignment. It is a holistic and interconnected work. Importantly, in neither the original text by Bloom nor its revision by Anderson, did a pyramid appear.
It was never meant to be pure progress from lower to higher, it was more multidimensional. It is a practical, organizational structure more correctly represented in two dimensional tables, which is how they first appeared, so that one could match different dimensions. There is increasing spectrum of complexity not a hierarchy of value. Unfortunately, some like to reduce his work to word lists or represent the taxonomies as pyramids suggesting, both implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that knowledge, at the bottom, is inferior. It was devised to assist teachers and trainers to classify educational goals and plan and evaluate learning experiences. Unfortunately, the pyramid is about as far as most people get. They rarely dig deeper. Yet the actual theory and practical recommendations are lost in the pyramid representation, which not only simplifies but misrepresents the original theory and its updates.
This is how Bloom’s taxonomy commonly appears:

Yet, here it is straight from the original author’s mouth:
The triangle does not appear in either (original or revised Bloom’s) Taxonomy. The triangular representation was quite likely designed by someone as part of a presentation made to educational practitioners.”
Lorin W. Anderson
Note: Lorin W. Anderson, recommends Daniel Willingham's diagram, as it puts knowledge in an overall and foundational position without invoking the hierarchy, progression and apex.

The pyramid is worrying, as a sophisticated theory and its even more sophisticated revision, were essentially bastardized to represent a hierarchy, in which one had to progress from one stage to another, whereas learning is far more complex with different cognitive processes interacting and intertwined with each other. This is not to say that there are no dependencies. There is a strong argument for seeing knowledge as foundational in these taxonomies.
Bloom published his now famous taxonomy of learning in 1956. Few realise that this taxonomy is now over 60 years old. There have been lots of taxonomies since then that slice and dice, many variations on existing categories. Indeed we've had dozens of taxonomies that sliced and diced in all sorts of ways. We've had Biggs, Wills, Bateson, Belbin and dozens more. We seem to have got stuck in the Bloom taxonomy. To be fair there have been good revisions, taking the knowledge nouns and unpacking them into verbs but the problem with taxonomies is their attempt to pin down the complexity of cognition in a list of simple categories. In practice, learning doesn’t fall into these neat divisions. It is a much more complex and messier set of cognitive processes, so attention has shifted to how learning meshes with memory and techniques that improve organisation, chunking, encoding, practice and recall.
Another danger is that instructionalists, like Gagne, take these taxonomies and attempt to design learning that matches these categories, destroying much of the more useful approaches which an understanding of brain science brings; such as cognitive overload, working memory limitations, top-down processing and so on. Learning theory has moved on in terms of a more detailed understanding of memory, which has put everything on a more empirical and scientific basis.


These three pyramids have turned into pyramid schemes, repeated, adapted, amplified and unquestioningly adopted. It gives you the illusion of science to sell your product, usually a talk, lecture or course. Most who use three pyramids, and there are many more, are completely unaware of the fakery, lack or research, variations and updates by the original authors or bogus representations of hierarchy and progression. They are images that become fossilized in books, handouts, PowerPoints. Social media now amplifies them, as a brightly coloured image acts as clickbait on many a post. 
The allure of the pyramid is its geometric simplicity, representation of hierarchy and suggestion of progression. Add some colour and it appeals to PowerPoint driven education and training. More than this, the pyramid suggests progression towards the peak as the apex of learning. It promotes a view that things at the bottom and less worthy than things at the top, which plays into the narratives that some educators like, such as 21st century skills. All three misrepresentations play this game, which is why they have proved popular. People like shortcuts, especially when they fit their views of the world.
What keeps all of this going is ‘intuition’, the feeling that it seems right. There are germs of truth, even some reasonable claims in all three of these pyramids, some more than others. Intuition then trumps reason, as you buy into the simplicity of the image, its hierarchy and progression. The sun progresses across the sky, so you assume that it goes round the earth, when, in fact things are a lot more complicated. In fact, the opposite is the truth. In all three cases; the fiction, armchair theory and reasonable taxonomy, the image becomes the established theory, when it is actually a fake, a caricature or a misleading representation.
This intuition is fueled by something else – confirmation bias. If you are a teacher, lecturer or professional in the learning field, a theory and image that puts you at the pinnacle of its presentation is flattering. In the learning pyramid, you become the end point, the goal in all this, as ‘teaching’ is the ultimate learning activity. In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualisation suggests that education is some sort of holy grail for the soul. In Bloom’s taxonomy, you reach a peak of creativity. It puts you at the very top, beyond reproach. Oddly, the reality is that it shows the learning game to be full of fake, poorly researched and simplistic theories and tools.
In the end, a combination of faked imagery and projected extra meaning by both the presenters and viewers of such images is a potent and saleable mix. Sadly, it is quality assured, taught and assessed. Practitioners become qualified on the back of bogus theory and practice. These three pyramids alone account for a massive and incalculable amount of wasted time and cost in education and training, not only of teachers but learners. Don’t be dazzled by colour and geometry. Question what is given and assumed as research and fact.
 Finally, after 40+ years in the business, I am greatly dismayed that many educators get their information from oral presentations and secondary (and in some cases tertiary) sources. This practice tends to result in passing along half-truths and misinterpretations.
Lorin W. Anderson
We can do no better than quote the above warning by the author of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, on the danger of visual misrepresentations of theory.


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Blog by Lorin W. Anderson (2017)
Guskey, T. R. (2005). Benjamin S. Bloom: Portraits of an educator. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

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