The Dale/Bruner “Cone of Experience”

I've already referred to the mess surrounding this model, here. Actually, it is not a single model, more a mash-up... It illustrates more clearly than any other idea I know of, the process of "Chinese whispers" (I'm sure someone will think that is racist...) and accretions which come from extending an idea beyond its range of convenience. Even so, it does draw attention to some useful points. If you wonder what I am going on about and want to know about its history, try here. And the Bruner (1966) reference is here.

Let's treat this as fundamentally an epistemological model (that means that it is about different kinds of knowledge). It is a useful way of formulating the question—"how should I pitch this stuff?"

The answer is that it is a trade-off;

There is nothing to equal the impact and richness of direct experience. "You had to be there!" "I hadn't a clue what it was like until it happened to me..." That is first-hand experience, or "knowledge by acquaintance". It is incomparably powerful and as the quotations indicate, it is almost incommunicable.

In education, we provide such experiences through fieldwork, visits, work experience, and so on. These are what Bruner called "enactive" experiences.

But we don't leave it there.  See here for practical material on turning experience into learning.Because experience is merely experience, as the Kolb cycle shows. So, in the simplest case, we tell other people about it. And we use phrases like those quoted above. So we move from real experiences to stories about experiences. Nowadays, we have many ways of telling such stories, directly in person, over the phone, exchanging letters, emailing, blogging... even Twitter. Not to mention the mass media, which are all about telling tales. But as the quotes indicate, we both gain and lose.

To make our experience communicable (and thus available to other people for learning), we have to sacrifice much of its richness. We have to select what is important and what to direct attention to. But in so doing we find common themes which resonate with other people.

I tell my story about the delights of getting through US border security; I concentrate on some aspects such as the sheer length of time and the bored children in the queue (line) making life a misery for everyone. I don't tell you that the most important feature was that I was dying for a pee...

This is the iconic level, in Bruner's terminology.

In teaching terms, we like to keep as close as possible to the concreteness of the enactive level, but we know that making connections between ideas, discerning common and contrasting themes—indeed everything above the knowledge/remembering levels of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain, needs a degree of distance and selection from enactive experience. You can't compare chalk and cheese as such, but you can compare their weights, their prices per unit of weight, and even their calcium content....

And as I write this I am fascinated to find that in order to talk about each level, I am compelled to move up to the next level to find the concepts to do so! Think about it.

I am no longer writing about concrete chalk and cheese, but about abstract attributes of chalk and cheese—their weight, their price, their composition. We have moved into the symbolic domain. There is more to chalk and cheese than we can describe, but now we can treat both of them as equivalent "commodities"—and of course we get into all kinds of moral/political disputes about whether or not we can legitimately do that...

This is epistemological minimalism (nice phrase for jargon-hunters!)

Perhaps less seriously but equally instructively, consider the necessity of the spherical cow.

There are resonances here with Bateson's levels of learning. But overall, use this model not as a prescription (despite the way in which Dale has been appropriated by some parts of the community) but as a fairly straightforward way (at the abstract and symbolic level, of course) of helping you to think about how to pitch your teaching, according to;

(Revised 13.08.13)

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Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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