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

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