I was co-facilitating a workshop not long ago when an experienced classroom trainer came to run a session on facilitation skills. Last time she brought up “learning styles.” This time she came in with a “Dale’s Cone” handout.  Even though she’s plenty smart and a wonderful facilitator, she was propagating ideas that have been discounted and debunked and even ridiculed, sometimes for years.

We Know Now What We Didn’t Know Then

I know a lot of people in this business who once believed in teaching to learning styles. Heck, I was one of them. Thanks largely to propagation by instrument-and-workshop peddlers partnering with schools eager to promise parents “individualized instruction,” the idea, though misguided, has fallen into the realm of common knowledge. (See the Reference at the end of this article.) But we know better now, as I outlined in the July Guild Research The Truth About Teaching to Learning Styles, and What to Do Instead.  But, you know, we evolved. We’re still bringing some others along—the ideas still run rampant in places like second grade classrooms and HR—but most of us know better now, and have adjusted our practice accordingly. 

Stop and Think

It’s easy to pass along an appealing, seemingly intuitive idea without giving it much thought.  Dale’s Cone is a great example. You see it for the first time and say, “Well, of course people would remember what they do more than what they just hear!”  And that’s pretty much where it began: In writing about incorporating audio-visual materials Edgar Dale, back in the 1960s, offered a “cone” diagram. It had no numbers associated with it and Dale himself warned that it shouldn’t be taken too literally. What happened next: Others took the simple idea and slapped numbers on it—numbers that can’t possibly be legitimate.  There is no evidence that people remember some particular percentage of anything, and it should be clear by the convenient numbers that something is off. But the model—bastardized, hacked, over-designed, and taken far too literally—has been appropriated by designers and others who use it to construct learning experiences or justify decisions about them. In turn learners are subjected to an inferior, possibly harmful, experience.  What was especially disturbing about my colleague with the Dale’s Cone handout is that she has an advanced degree in training and development with the accompanying training in reading research: How did she miss the obvious problem with anyone claiming that people “retain 20%” of anything?

Read Up

Staying current is vital, and it seems many may not realize that, as with any other profession, what we know about learning and skill development isn’t fixed. While the idea of teaching to “learning style” emerged in the 1940s, it was experimentation in the 1990s and early 2000s that showed the stunning lack of evidence for the practice. Keep up with professional reading, and remember what Covey told us about Important/Not Urgent tasks:  Professional reading is the kind of thing that is vital, but easy not to do. Make time, make it a habit, and schedule it if you need to.  Don’t know where to begin: Well, you’re here. The eLearning Guild offers near-daily updates to Learning Solutions

Find Your Tribe

Or more specifically, find a credible tribe. One of the problems with communities is that they can become too insular, falling into too much confirmation bias and promoting bad practice. Find people who are working to stay current, who do a good deal of nonfiction reading, and who will play devil’s advocate from time to time. Find groups that include some people who aren’t selling anything. You may find this physically in some local gathering or online conversation like Twitter’s #lrnchat, or a LinkedIn, Facebook, or similar group.  If nothing else, finding a good community will help you stay energized and active about your practice.

Be willing to evolve your practice.


Riener & Willingham, 2010. “The Myth of Learning Styles.” 32 – 35.