Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences Education

Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences

This article provides helpful information about the Cone of Learning. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.

If you were to walk into a classroom on a college campus, there is a very high chance you would observe many students, sometimes hundreds, listening to a professor lecture and click through a PowerPoint presentation. Sure, this prepares these college students for future meetings where they will be doing the same thing, passively listening and receiving information, but are they really learning? Chances are, and research shows, if this is the only method used to teach a student then they are probably only learning 10 to 20 percent of what they are truly capable of digesting. This is called, in the teaching world, the “sit and get” method. Learners are being talked at, given information and expected to absorb it. This practice used to be fairly common in all areas of education, even with young children. Thankfully, it’s being phased out with research proving that it generally does not work when it is by itself.

So how do students learn information best? Teachers are now trained to use a range of passive and active teaching tactics that work together to create learning. This is especially important for those kids that struggle with learning challenges. What method may work for one child, doesn’t always work for another. If the child is an auditory learner, they may learn best by listening to the teacher. However, if the child is a visual learner, they may retain more information through pictures instead of listening to a lecture.

Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences | ilslearningcorner.com

The Cone of Learning

In the mid-20th century, a researcher, Edgar Dale, “theorized that learners retain more information by what they ‘do’ as opposed to what is ‘heard,’ ‘read’ or ‘observed.’ His research led to the development of the Cone of Experience” (Educapyscho). The Cone of Experience is often misinterpreted as the pyramid shape that would insinuate some options are better than others. After all, the pyramid shows that people will only remember 10 percent of what they read and 50 percent of what they see, so why would anyone waste their time reading? This is where the misconceptions lie. The key to the cone is that educators should work in all aspects in order to access the student’s full capabilities.

Another important aspect of the Cone of Learning is that each step continues to build on each other. For example, if your child struggles with their motor skills development, cognitive development later down the road is much more difficult. The lower levels of your child’s brain must be developed first before they can move on to more complicated learning topics.

Passive Learning

The top half of the pyramid is made up of all the ways a student learns passively. This is reading, hearing words, looking at pictures, watching a movie, looking at an exhibit and watching a demonstration. The students are not active players in their learning. They are like a sponge, soaking up all of the knowledge. If you had to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, this method would be like someone reading a recipe to you, and showing you a picture and a video about how to make the peanut butter and jelly. Will you learn how to make this delicious meal? Yes! However if you become an active learner in this process, you will be more likely to remember it if you actually make the peanut butter and jelly yourself.

Active Learning

The bottom half of the Cone of Learning is known as active learning. This is participating in a discussion, giving a talk, doing a presentation, simulating the real experience through your senses, doing the real thing. In all of these examples, students are the active learners. They are the ones responsible for getting their information. Children use this method particularly when they are young through sensory integration (using their senses to learn). The teacher can provide them with helps and stepping stones, but they are learning first hand. Going back to our peanut butter and jelly example, if you actually try, first hand, to make the sandwich, you will be an active learner in that process. You are not simply receiving information from someone, you are learning by your own hands.  However, if someone just throws you into making a PB&J without reading you directions or showing you a picture, you will struggle. This is why balance in the Cone of Learning is important and why children must be exposed to more sensory experiences at home and in the classroom.

Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences | ilslearningcorner.com

Depth of Knowledge

As a middle school teacher, I was never taught about the Cone of Learning specifically, however my entire education was basically mastering how to incorporate all parts of the pyramid to educate a child. I was taught Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Depth of Knowledge (DOK), which directly correlates with the Cone of Learning. There are four levels to the depth of knowledge scale. Recall, Skill/Concept, Strategic Thinking and Extended Thinking. To have any sort of success in my classroom, I have to use all four of these levels every single day. I teach “regular” students as well as highly gifted students, and I reach the fourth DOK level (Extended Thinking) with my “regular” kids every day. I also start at the first DOK level (Recall) with my highly gifted students every day. The levels in the DOK circle are meant to be accessed by all students, gifted, special needs, and “regular.” It’s just a matter of how long the teacher stays at each level.

Let’s use an example from my class yesterday. We are learning how to write an argument essay. They first had to read an article and identify a claim, or what the author is trying to tell the reader. They then had to summarize the article. The third step is to find evidence to support the author’s claim. Lastly, they had to create an essay to prove the author’s claim using the evidence they found. What sounds like a simple concept is not so simple at all for 7th graders. We practice this weekly, with new articles. This was the first week of school, so we did our first article together. By Thanksgiving, they will be able to do it all on their own.

Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences | ilslearningcorner.com

This entire unit involves many parts of the Cone of Learning, without any one of them, the lesson would fall apart.

When I first started teaching, I was skeptical that I would ever get to the fourth level of DOK with my lower students. This level asks them to do some really hard stuff, be active and in control of their own learning. It forces them to think differently, think at a deeper level. However, once I started pushing my students to that level 4 DOK, to actively learn by participating in a discussion, giving a presentation, do the real thing, I realized that students want to get to this place. They want to be given the opportunity to be in control of their own learning.

Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences | ilslearningcorner.com

Simulating Real Life 

Don’t be mistaken, the learning that will be retained the longest is found in the active category. This is because these experiences usually simulate real life the best. I sat in a desk for four years before I was ever in a classroom, and I can guarantee that I learned more in the 10 weeks that I was a student teacher than I ever did sitting in the desk learning by the “sit and get” method. However, your child can’t get there unless you go through all the steps beforehand. “A librarian might decide to implement a peer coaching activity because the pyramid says teaching others is the best way to remember something, but if the students don’t have the appropriate knowledge, they will probably just end up confusing each other” (Arclog). The Cone of Learning would probably be more accurate if it looked like a staircase. Each step is necessary in order for a student to learn.

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Cone of Learning: Creating Active Learners through Sensory Integration and Hands-On Experiences | ilslearningcorner.com


Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning disabilities achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs


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