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Expert Tips: The cone of learning


Revealed: JB’s magic secret for making nutrition and exercise knowledge stick to your brain like a barnacle!

Some time ago JB posted this little gem: The Cone of Learning.



He wrote:

“This is a model that demonstrates how active learning is much better than passive.

In other words, we learn and retain A TON more by doing vs. just reading, listening, etc.

This works for school as well as training and nutrition. (And it doesn’t bode well for keyboard jockeys.)

Knowing is DOING!”

Let’s look at the Cone of Learning in a little more depth.

The Cone of Learning

Most folks on the PN team work as teachers, trainers, and/or counsellors in some capacity. So they’re interested, naturally, in learning — how do people learn, and how can they help other people learn too?

If you’ve read your PN manual, you may remember that JB mentions the “I know, I know” phenomenon. This is when we “know” something, but fail to actually act as if it were true or important. For example:

PN: You should eat vegetables.

You: “I know, I know.” [Meanwhile, fridge contains only half a frozen pizza and three cans of beer. Scurvy imminent.]

PN: Nutrition is important for good health.

You: “I know, I know.” [While eating a Twinkie wrapped in bacon.]

And that’s where the “knowing” stops. So how it is that something can be in your brain, but you don’t act as if you truly know or understand it? Well, in part, it could be related to the way in which you’ve learned it. The manner in which we absorb and digest information affects how we retain and act on it. This is what the Cone of Learning expresses.

Have you ever leafed through a newspaper, and then ten minutes later forgotten about it completely? If someone said, “Hey, what’s going on in current events?” you might be able to recollect (vaguely) some story about a funny dog, or maybe the general principle that the world economy is flushing down the toilet. But let’s say that you are stationed in a war zone, and that morning, something crazy went down. I bet you’d be able to recount that event in vivid detail, and it would teach you an intense, unforgettable lesson in subjects such as foreign policy, human relations, political theory, and the physics of explosions. Ten years from now you’ll have forgotten the story about the funny dog. But you won’t have forgotten the event that you personally experienced.

This is the difference between active and passive learning. When you read websites, books, or magazines, or watch television or a speaker, you are learning passively. Information is flowing into you. You are assimilating some of it, but probably only a little bit. Passive learning can be informative but isn’t particularly strong. Sure, you may be struck so strongly by something you’ve read that you want to make important life changes (and we hope that’s true of the PN website and books). However, usually it takes doing to make it stick, and to really understand.

When I was trained as a university teacher, we had a little scheme known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy was a way to organize learning tasks from simple to complex. They are as follows:

  • Knowledge: Knowing information or data, and being able to recall it. Example: Knowing what foods have protein in them.
  • Comprehension: Understanding the principles of something. Example: Understanding generally that protein is important for muscle recovery and protein synthesis.
  • Application: Being able to use one idea or practice elsewhere. Example: Taking PN advice and making a shopping list.
  • Analysis: Taking something apart and understanding how the components work together. Example: Looking at your diet plan, and understanding what all the pieces are — what is the macronutrient ratio? Etc.
  • Synthesis: Constructing something new from the ideas and tools presented. Example: Making your own PN-compliant diet and/or workout program, complete with new weekly menu and shopping list.
  • Evaluation: Judging the merits of something. Example: Being able to evaluate someone else’s diet plan to see whether it meets PN requirements, and explain your reasoning.

You can see how there’s a lot of mental work between the first step — knowledge — and the last one — evaluation. How do you get from being someone who can only repeat things they’ve been told to being someone who’s able to see and understand the big picture?

This is where the Cone of Learning comes in. The more active your learning, the more you’ll grasp and retain. The more you do, the better you’ll learn. “Active” in this case refers largely to doing and experiencing things. Let’s take an example.

First, you may “know” that high-intensity interval cardio and conditioning circuits are a great forms of activity for helping people stay lean and/or lose fat. You’ve probably read about it. That’s a pretty passive stage.

Maybe you saw the video we posted recently, in which I get my ass kicked by JB along with Amanda and Alaina. Now we’re moving a little farther down the cone, to “seeing a movie”. This is a more active form of learning. After watching the video, you probably had a more concrete idea of the types of exercises that someone might use in a conditioning program, and what people look like when doing them. (Apparently they make a lot of frowny faces.)

You could pause the video and look at exercise form, or replay it. Now you’re interacting a little bit.

Finally, you could try reproducing these exercises yourself. This is the most active form of learning — doing. You could start with the second-lowest tier on the cone, which is simulation of the real experience. Perhaps you go to your gym and try swinging a very light kettlebell, just to get the feel of things.

And then: do it. Once you’ve played around with reproducing the exercises, go and bust it out, full speed. Trust me, that will be a learning experience! You’ll have gone from “knowing” that high intensity conditioning is good to feeling its effects on your body. (And you may also learn that it’s really nice to lie on the floor for a while.)

So if you’re having problems with making information “stick”, try moving down the Cone of Learning, and see how far you can get!

"Ohhhh now I get it... THAT'S interval training."
“Ohhhh now I get it… THAT’S what interval training feels like.”

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