Are Learning Styles Really Going Out of Style?


It all started when I read an article re-posted by my Australian colleague that was titled, “The concept of different “learning styles” is one of the greatest neuroscience myths”. Like many of my colleagues, I have been a proponent of using a variety of participation formats in all my meetings. And, I have no doubt that this is still incredibly important to help keep people effectively participating. Yet the article caused me to re-think how I use my language around learning styles.

In the blog we’re going to include resources from a lot of the reading that I’ve been doing over the last few weeks that we think are valid and important for all facilitators, trainers and presenters.

The post included a link to a 200 page scientific article and I did read a lot of that. It thoroughly examined many of the dozens of learning style instruments that people have used for decades. The premise has been that if we know what our preferred learning style is, we can use that information to become more effective learners. The article in particular seemed to be saying that teachers and educators have been encouraged, and in some cases mandated, to try to teach individual students to their specific learning style. In other words, if I had taken a learning styles test and found to be a highly kinesthetic learner, the teacher would try to ensure that most of my learning involved some movement, action and practice through doing. If a different test had shown me to be highly oriented towards conceptual learning, the educator would try and ensure that I got a lot of theory and concepts around the topic. The article goes on to say that we don’t actually learn differently; we all learn the same way. The education system in some countries has invested so much money and effort in trying to adapt their teaching style to every specific student’s learning style. This has probably put a lot of pressure on teachers to do something that is not possible. However, the article doesn’t say that we should NOT use a variety of participation and learning techniques. (It is important to know that the article is very much geared towards schools and teaching.)

I would like to state a disclaimer before I continue. I am still digesting a variety of articles, books and talking to my colleagues to determine what is currently acceptable and what is not acceptable. I do know that brain science or neuroscience of learning became very popular in the 1990’s and has become the latest buzz word. I am definitely a person who picked up on that trend and prided myself in applying the latest scientific information to all my trainings and facilitated meetings over the past 25 years. I also have used learning styles tools such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument. Although I am less inclined to use it with groups now, I still feel the information provided in the assessments can be used to help us learn and be more skilful in communicating and being respectful/patient to others who appear to take in knowledge differently than we do. The author seems to be suggesting that new research is pointing to the possibility that we might be restricting ourselves with how we have applied learning styles theory. He says that if we hold too rigidly to thinking we (and others we interact with) can ONLY learn a certain way, we limit our potential.

AS I have sorted through this data, here are 4 things I still believe to be true. David Rock is likely still a very useful authority on how we can use our brains at work. We’ve quoted some articles that point to his and others’ thinking below in the Resource section and incorporated them in the points below.

1) Our meetings will go better if we are intentional about keeping them positive.

We can all remember times when there has been negativity and tension in our meetings. For example, there is fear of being shamed, aggravation around being pushed into a decision or frustration at the lack of purpose in a meeting. Those kinds of negative emotions are harmful to everyone in the room and to the long term effectiveness of the group. It does not mean you cannot have serious conversations around hard things. Having hard conversations can actually help a group feel incredibly encouraged and strong. Our experience and the research both concur however that we should ideally set up a positive tone and context for every part of the meeting.

2) The facilitator needs to be open, responsive and specific.

When we are open, responsive and specific, we increase certainty and fairness which are said to be two needs that influence whether or not we will engage/participate in the discussion or activity. You can read more about the 5 engagement factors that David Rock states are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness in the article called, “Engagement – It’s Not Rocket Science”. David Rock calls it the SCARF model.

3) Relaxing meetings are highly conducive to creative thinking.

Extraordinary results are more likely to occur when we offer some quiet time in meetings or trainings. For example, you can ask your groups to take 5 minutes to write out their ideas while no one is talking. This helps the brain more easily make new connections because it is not having to deal with details and/or navigate data. In addition, when we are not on “high alert” for threats, our brains access more patterns, associations and ideas.

A way I might do this, for example, is to have the group do a breathing technique (See our blog on Destress for Success) or do something that will stimulate a lot of laughter. both of these things will help people relax. David Rock also says that anything that makes people happy reduces our brains from going on high alert.

4) We need lots of breaks in our meetings.

We apparently cannot multi-task. And, we have a limited attention span of about 20 minutes. It is therefore important as part of our engagement strategy, to build in breaks.

Ways I incorporate “breaks” that are not official “leave the room breaks” include having people stand up and stretch; having a centerpiece in the middle of the meeting room for a visual “brain break”; giving people relaxation exercises; playing a song and dancing; and/or getting people to move to a different spot or chair in the room.

Generally speaking…

Another author who I have enjoyed is Sharon Bowman. She wrote a series of books called, “Training From the Back of the Room” and she has six principles that I have found helpful when I apply them to meetings. I recently participated in an in-depth training she created and it was well worth my time. Here are her six principles (i adapted her words a bit to be more easily understood by OUR non English readers). Try applying them as often as possible in your meetings, workshops or presentations:

  • Movement is better than sitting.
  • Talking is better than listening.
  • Images are better than words.
  • Writing is better than reading.
  • Shorter is better than longer.
  • Different is better than the same.


I’m leaving you with a number of links below but here is my own conclusion at this moment (subject to change). People will be more productive and engage in highly effective ways if you provide different participation formats in your meetings and trainings. It doesn’t matter if a person prefers to learn in a certain way. What matters is that you provide all participants with enough stimulation and pathways to connect skillfully with the topics being discussed, to navigate the relationships between everyone in the room, and understand and build connections between the ideas that are being discussed. You can decide for yourself what you know to be true about “learning styles’ from your own experience and your own research.


Original article that got me started:
The concept of different “learning styles” is one of the greatest neuroscience myths

Do Meetings Right: The Neuroscience of Great Meetings

Engagement: It’s Not Rocket Science (But it Is Neuroscience)

Rethinking How We ‘Conference’

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

1 Comment

  1. Brigid Riley on August 10, 2020 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you, Barbara!

    Moving people’s understanding of these concepts has been a big challenge for me for the past few years. I think it’s so important to “stay curious”, open ourselves up to adding new knowledge, and shift our perspective as needed to incorporate that knowledge. We’re learning new and different information about how the brain works all of the time, and have to continue advancing, knowing the next change is just around the corner.

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