E-learning and Sex

the essential difference

I’m guessing that I’m probably the first person to connect these two terms in a single blog post (but hey I may be wrong). I’m not doing it for effect, aware as I am of the concept that sex sells. I’m doing it because I’ve just finished reading ‘The Essential Difference‘ by Simon Baron-Cohen which describes the two fundamentally different ways in which male and female brains operate.  Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor at Cambridge University in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. His book is based on based on years of research and specifically research into Autism, and as one of the quotes says:

This no Mars/Venus whimsy, but the conclusion from twenty years of experiment.

The tenet of the book is that men have brains that are wired for systemizing while women have brains that are wired for empathising.

Empathizing is the drive to identify another persons emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion, and is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behaviour, and to connect and resonate with them emotionally.

Systemizing is the drive to analyse, explore and construct a system. The systemizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system. This is done in order to understand and predict the system, or to invent a new one.

To illustrate this imagine you are in a bookshop in the business section and are looking for a book on starting up a new business. Which of these two titles would you choose?

‘Start-up on a Shoestring’
Learn how to get your idea off the ground by hearing the stories of 10 successful entrepreneurs. See what worked for them and learn from their (frequent) mistakes.

‘The Superfast Start-up Model’
Avoid the classic mistakes and take your start-up from creation to sale in just three years using our tried and tested system.

Prefer option A; then you are an empathiser. Prefer Option B; then you are a systemizer. If you chose the wrong one for your sex then don’t worry. Men can be good empathisers and women can be good systemizers too!

I think it’s clear that men and women do think differently in some fundamental ways. 200,000 years of evolution hints at why this is the case and relatively recent cultural advances can’t change that behaviour easily. Of course the differences aren’t black and white but an infinite variety of shades of grey. Simon Baron-Cohen is clear about the fact that not all men tend towards systemization or that all women tend toward empathy – it’s just that in general men are more tuned to systems (things) while women are more tuned to empathy (people). In practice we probably all lie along a continuum and the distribution along that continuum follows a normal curve.

the essential difference

So if men and women’s brains are wired slightly different how might this shape how they learn?

In developing hundreds of e-learning programmes no client has ever asked me to design differently for a male or female audience. If we go along with the empathiser/systemizer concept, and the idea that there is an essential difference how might this affect our learning design?

Learning for Systemizers
The focus would be on underlying patterns and abstract concepts. Systemizers love models, graphics, charts and mind maps. They want to see the big picture and how each piece fits into the overall whole. For a systemizer learning is about solving the puzzle and putting all the component pieces in their appropriate places.

Learning for Empathisers
The focus is on outcomes and emotions. Stories and case studies are key to relate the learning to the real world. Empathizers prefer scenarios and dialogue type interactions. They like to identify with others and see the situation from their perspective.

In practice our audience is likely to have elements of both depending upon where they lie on the continuum so we probably need to balance the two types of learning activities to engage as wide an audience as possible. This is largely how we cater for different learning styles in e-learning.

Since I’ve finished the book I’ve enjoyed applying an essential difference lens to various aspects of everyday life. From interacting with the satnav to catching up on the news or simply giving advice to your partner it’s amazing how we oscillate between systems and empathy in the course of our everyday lives.

I’m wired as a systemizer – I instinctively knew that as I read the book but afterwards I took the SQ and EQ tests and came out with the following results:

Systemizing Quotient – 52 (way above average for a man, very high ability for analysing and exploring a system)
Empathy Quotient – 40 (about average for a man)

I came out as a strong systemizer but over the years I’ve recognised the value of empathy and have learned to be more people-centric in my work. It takes a bit of practice to re-wire our evolutionary brains but the result is a much more rounded view of the world.

More stuff here:

Guardian Article on ‘The Essential Difference

Take the Systemizer Test (SQ)

Take the Empathy Test (EQ)

Simon Baron-Cohen’s ‘The Essential Difference’ book on Amazon

Learning to Forget

On the BBC news last week there was some criticism of A Levels (the pre-university qualifications used in the UK). One university admissions spokesperson said that in some cases courses had become too ‘modular’.

Some of the courses have become too modularised. The focus is on learning a chunk of content then testing that content immediately afterwards. This approach has resulted in an approach that encourages ‘learning to forget’.

I think anyone involved in e-learning would recognise this behaviour of ‘learning to forget’ but instead of modules lasting three months ours last just 30 minutes!

Of course taking a 30 minute e-learning module on Time Management or even a 3 month A Level Module on Oilfield Geology isn’t going to result in deep learning. It can only prepare the ground for true learning by application later – most learning interventions focus on this exposition phase with maybe a little activity in the instruction phase (see Clive Shepherd’s post). Only occasionally do we take it to the higher phases – guided discovery or exploration.

Learning to forget is likely to characterise much of our ‘learning’ in today’s information rich environment. Increasingly we will be exposed to vast quantities of information and knowledge. Whether we simply scan that information or embed it deeper build on it and synthesise from it will depend upon our motivations, needs and preferences.

YouTube Learners

There is a ‘perceived wisdom’ among many of my clients and potential clients that younger workers need a different type of e-learning to other workers. These ‘digital natives’ are characterised by having a short attention span and valuing form over function, and because many of them have grown up playing computer games it’s assumed that their learning needs to be more game like in order for them to be motivated to do it. In reality the situation is more complex than this – these learner’s are awash with information – the problem they have is about relevance. With so much to learn, about so much, they need learning experiences that build capability quickly and which are appropriate for ‘here and now’ – not some future point in time. Motivation isn’t the problem – relevance is. This video sums up the issue from an educator’s viewpoint:

I love the segment from 21s to 29s. Enjoy and learn.

Can you learn from watching a video?

The definition of e-learning has always been vague but in my view one of the tests of proper e-learning is the inclusion of learning interactions.

But in the last year I have seen increasing use of video positioned as e-learning. Whole platforms like Videojug or Learnable rely on video as the sole vehicle for learning and a lot of m-learning is also adopting the ‘learn by watching a video’ approach. But can we really learn simply by watching a video?

A couple of years ago I delivered a seminar at Learning Technologies with the Sponge team where we looked at whether or not we could learn from watching a documentary on TV. We didn’t have a definitive answer – it was done more to provoke some thinking on how we use video and in particular documentary techniques when building e-learning programmes.

I guess that when we watch a documentary most of us will say that we have learned something new – but that learning is quite shallow. Watch a documentary tonight on ‘Global Warming’ and in the morning we will be able to reel off some interesting facts but one week later the forgetting curve has kicked in and we will struggle to be able to recall anything other than the fact that it was a ‘good documentary’. As for actually changing our behaviour – in other words applying the learning – well the chance of that is pretty minimal.

Of course true learning is best seen as a path or a cycle:

  • You are exposed to something new
  • You then interpret the new information
  • You then try out what you have learned
  • Finally you reflect on how it all went
Simple Learning Cycle

In Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle this roughly equates to the four phases of watching, thinking, doing, and feeling.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it. David Kolb

Watching a video may fulfil the first two stages but won’t help much with Stages 3 and 4. In many ways a lot of so-called learning actually only makes it to Stage 2 – but good learning online or offline completes all four stages.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the immediacy that video brings to e-learning programmes, but video alone will not deliver the full learning experience. It needs to be supported by a range of learning interactions preferably both online and offline.

Try it for yourself. Here are some examples of video used for learning. Which works best for you?


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