Thursday, March 05, 2020

Honey & Mumford - All style no substance?

If VAK became a well-marketed, viral success in education, Honey & Mumford was the viral success in adult education and training. Once again, a derivative model, this time from Kolb, rather than NLP, took an experiential model and applied to general management skills

Four learning styles

Their learning styles were then labeled:
1. Activist – dive in and learn by doing
2. Reflector – stand- back, observe, think and then act
3. Theorist – require theory, models, and concepts and analysis
4. Pragmatist – experimenters who like to apply things in the real world
The learner is asked to complete an expensive, copyrighted questionnaire that diagnoses their learning style by asking what the learner does in the real workplace. Their learning style is then used to identify weaknesses that need building. To be fair, unlike the VAK evangelists, they did not fall into the trap of labeling learners, then teaching them in those styles alone. The idea was not to see these qualities as fixed but to recognise your learning style but also tackle your weaknesses.

All styles no substance

Honey and Mumford’s model, although marketed heavily, and used widely in adult education and training, seems to have no serious academic validity. As a theory it does attempt to widen the trainers’ view of learning, and trainees’ view of themselves as learners. However, beyond this intuitive appeal to difference, the theory is crude, crudely applied and even when the learning styles questionnaire is applied, rarely carried through to different types of learning experience for the supposed different types of learners.
This issue has been addressed in several commissioned reports. A review of learning styles commissioned by the Association of Psychological Science examined the evidence and found it wanting. "We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.
Frank Coffield, through Learning and Skills Development Agency research, found a ‘bedlam of contradictory claims’ with a ‘proliferation of concepts, instruments and strategies’. In total they uncovered 71 competing theories. All were found ‘seriously wanting’ with ‘serious deficiencies’. Many were downright dangerous as they ‘over-simplify, label and stereotype’.


Learning styles theories, in general, have been diagnosed as being flaky and faddish. They have an intuitive appeal but, given the proliferation of these theories, with success based more on marketing than evidence, it is a largely discredited field. In practice, it tends to be a dodgy diagnosis without any real carry through to treatment. Trainers rarely provide learning experiences that respond in any real way to the four-way schema. No sooner is the questionnaire complete than the PowerPoint is out. Given the stereotyping of learners and dangers exposed by recent research, it would seem that these theories should no longer be applied in real learning.


Honey P, Mumford A. (1992) The Manual of Learning Styles 3rd Ed. Maidenhead, Peter Honey.
Honey, P & Mumford, A (2006). The Learning Styles Questionnaire, 80-item version. Maidenhead, UK, Peter Honey Publications
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

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