Bumblebees Can’t Fly, by Fred Parker

I came across a lengthy discussion started by people upset that Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience keeps popping up. I read all of the comments and all of the linked information. Some of them offer excellent insights, while others not so much. I started to post a comment but ended up with this blog post.

This sort of discussion always amuses me.

It reminds me of all the flap over the years about whether bumble bees can or should be able to fly. After all the fuss aerodynamicists concluded that, per rigid wing calculations, the bumble bee would not be able to fly. So, they had to come up with flexible wing calculations. Of course the bumble bee can fly, it just took a while to figure out how. For them, they had the hard science of mathematics to fall back on. Does that mean, then, that either model is “true” or “false?” Or, are they both helpful when used as intended?

Even in the hard sciences, though, much of their work is still theory because it can’t be proven: Gravity is a law, but we still have the theories behind electronics, the theory of relativity, etc. Boeing 737 Max, anyone? Even Einstein, at one point despaired that he did not have enough mathematics.

There is no proof.

In our profession the challenges are even worse. Humans are so wonderfully and magically complex that everything we do is based on observation, conjecture, and theory. We rely on the soft sciences to give us “proof,” but there is no proof. We do the best we can. The last I knew there were over 250 different schools or theories of psychology. Lots of articles have been written about “Adult Learning Theory.”

I have done pretty well for almost 50 years in this profession, and I have seen lots of “models” and “theories” come and go, dozens. I pick and choose what works for me, what helps the learner progress. The observations and intuition of successful practitioners of our craft have the same opportunity for my use as the research of the experts. The Hattie Ranking of 252 influences, for instance, may be interesting, but it is virtually useless. Trying to use it would likely turn us all into millipedes (see below).

When dealing with human behavior, everything works and nothing works.

Edgar Dale offered his personal experience, observation, and intuition, based on his work in the audiovisual world. His original model had no numbers, and he even said that it should not be taken too seriously. Every model I have come across has some validity because it was developed by someone trying very hard to explain things that may be unexplainable.

We might complain that people misuse or misinterpret the information. So what? Granted it is possible to become dogmatic to the point of, “I am right and everyone else is wrong!” To me that is a personal problem. Information is simply that – information. Information analyzed and collated with other information may become intelligence.

I have used this model for most of my career in different forms and will continue to use it for what it is worth. The primary value of this model is to illustrate that the more people are involved, the better they soak up training and skill. Parents know that just talking or yelling at children is not very effective. However, invite a child into the kitchen and work with them at turning a pumpkin into a pie may create a lifelong passion for cooking.


Another analogy from the animals. The story is told of an ant who asked a millipede how it was able to keep all of its legs from getting tangled when it walked. When the any came back later the millipede was stopped dead, lying on its side, because it could not consciously explain how it could walk.

Richard Farson

In a wonderful book called, Management of the Absurd, by Richard Farson, chapter 4 is titled, “Once You Find a Management Technique That Works, Give It Up.” His point is that learning a technique can become a trap that becomes a way to trick people into doing things. It makes human interaction mechanical and manipulative rather than personal and flexible. I believe the same can happen in training. We are supposed to be able to meld together everything we can into programs that meet the learners at their point of need.

Several years ago, I was working with a mid-size company to build a training department and train their newly hired personnel. One of them asked what it would take to become a good trainer. My answer was to read everything they could find about training. When it all began to sound the same, they would be getting close. In the meantime, Along the way, use what works for you and your organization, and avoid being a helpless millipede. I helped them on their way with bits and pieces of my experience. They did very well, and I moved on to the next project.


I once heard Herzberg’s Kick in the Ass (KITA) “Theory” of Motivation explained in simple terms. Sometimes people need a pat on the head and sometimes they need a kick in the ass. We are supposed to be aware enough and learned enough to figure out which one to apply when.

Bottom line, for me, is there is no “true” or “false.” “always” or “never,” “right” or “wrong,” there is only “agree” or “disagree.” Now, before you start jumping up and down, I know that statement is not “true” either.

Well, the bumble bees keep flying, the millipedes keep walking, and I just keep helping people learn using whatever experience, models, theories, and intuition that work for me.


You might remember the line from Simon and Garfunkle, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Here are two links to articles that agree.


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Fred Parker is the Director of Course Design and Development at Fred has half a century as a Performance Management Consultant designing, developing, and delivering performance-based training including all manner of technical training, individual development soft skills, and basic leadership. Clients include all sizes from a local sandwich shop to the military to fortune 500 multinationals. Now Fred is converting previous ILT courses to remote delivery courses available on our web site.

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