Have you ever been lucky enough to mentor someone who really got it? Maybe you’ve had the opposite experience and the session ended up being a failure for both of you?

We are fortunate enough to be in an industry that gives us the chance to coach others and have a direct influence on the learning of individuals around us. But how do we know when we’re doing it right, or more importantly what can we do when it starts to go wrong?

Know your student, find their style

Let’s start with the science behind how we learn.

The first recognised attempt to identify different approaches individuals use in order to learn was David Kolb with the book ‘Experimental Learning‘. Kolb suggested that humans have a range of learning techniques available to us and that we tend to lean on one learning style above all others.

In recent times his research has proved to be inaccurate - yes people have different learning styles, yes they show an emphasis in one particular style but Kolb’s definition of separate styles was confused.

Enter Honey and Mumford and their 1999 adaptation on Kolb’s model. They identified four distinct learning styles which have since grown to be the preferred assessment of human learning styles.

Description Learn best Learn worst
Activists Enjoy doing, tend to act first and think later. They like working with others but often hog the limelight. When involved in new experiences, being thrown in the deep end and leading discussions. Listening to long lectures, reading or writing on their own. Following precise information to the letter.
Reflectors Like to stand back, listen to others, look at the situation, gather data and carefully come to a conclusion. Observing individuals or teams at work, reviewing what has happened and what they have learned from it. Acting as a leader in front of others, doing things without preparation, being rushed by deadlines.
Theorists Able to adapt and integrate observations into complex theories. Tend to be perfectionists. Detached and analytical rather than emotive. When put into complex and structured situations having to apply their skill and knowledge. Have the chance to question and probe ideas. With unstructured or poorly briefed activities. Will struggle in situations where emphasise is put on emotion or feelings.
Pragmatists Practical and down to earth. Keen to try things out they can be impatient especially with long discussions. Respond well to demonstrations of techniques that show an obvious advantage. Learning is all theory. No guidelines on how to accomplish activity. No apparent pay back.

The important thing to remember is not all individuals can be pigeon-holed into one group. These characteristics are evident across all industries and teams; I can certainly see myself and others in this list. Can you?

Now we can silo and identify behaviour, we can look deeper into the flow of learning.

Complete the circle

Let me introduce you to Bernice McCarthy. Bernice has been in education for more than 30 years so it’s not surprising she has an insight into her field. During her time in education she spotted a pattern and designed a framework that increased the success rate of individual learning.

Research suggests that this framework (4MAT) is proven to be successful as it follows the thought processes of individuals when they try to learn. It works by explaining not just the WHY? but also the WHAT?, the HOW? and the WHAT IF?


  1. WHY? => Convey the meaning and purpose of the change in order to engage people. Engage the why.

  2. WHAT? => Once it’s made relevant provide facts, structure or theory to explain what is going to happen. Inform the what.

  3. HOW? => Focus on the problems and how best to solve them. Applying the how.

  4. WHAT IF? => Ask questions and experiment. What else, what’s next. Learn by doing.

So how is this helpful?

If we look at the the 4MAT framework and overlay the 4 learning styles from Honey and Mumford we can see some obvious similarites:





This is really useful to know, by following the 4MAT framework you are reaching out to each learning style and increasing your chances of being successful in your role as a coach, mentor or teacher.

Theory schmery, how does this work in practice?

It’s easy enough for us to read this information and take it in, forget about it, move on.

But if we look at a real-world scenario, something that is relevant to our industry and is generally a tough problem to sell it’ll make it more tangible. In my world, that can be breaking apart a legacy application that has become too difficult to work with.

We have a monolithic website right now. The code is too complicated, has no obvious structure and is very tough to change. We need to be able to release solid code, fast.

The fact is we are struggling to maintain this application and we can forget about adding new features. Even small updates are causing outages. As a result our site performance has degraded to unacceptable levels.

The initial thought from the team is to break the monolith into identifiable pieces of functionality. We will try to get each piece behind an API. We hope to abstract the front-end code away so it communicates to these new endpoints.

What if we refactor with the MVP pattern first and see where the duplication lies? Is there an argument to leave the non-urgent areas of the site until the appetite is there to attack them? We think REST APIs are the way to go, what are your thoughts?

Do, there is no try

Outlining and truly grasping these styles can really help push learning in your team further. Try reaching out to different learning styles and see how people respond.

Maybe you are pairing on a tricky feature, struggling to get your point across. Perhaps you have a tough decision that you need to sell to your team. Let’s say you are lucky enough to speak at a conference in front of hundreds of delegates - you could do a lot worse than to remember WHY? WHAT? HOW? WHAT IF?