Does our gender affect the way we learn?

Does our gender affect the way we learn?

I’m currently reading ‘The Essential Difference’ by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, which describes two fundamentally different ways in which male and female brains operate based on 20 years of research.

The tenet of the book is that men have brains that are wired for systemising while women have brains that are wired for empathising. The empathising–systemising theory was developed by Baron-Cohen while researching autism and proposes that there are individual differences in the wiring of the brain that result in two different approaches to the way a person may processes information: empathising and systemising.

Empathising is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathising 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.

Systemising is the drive to analyse, explore and construct a system. The systemiser 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 the business section of a bookshop and are looking for books about starting 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 countless mistakes!

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

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

I think it’s clear that men and women do think differently in some fundamental ways. 10 million years of evolution explains provides an explanation, and more recent cultural developments such as sexual and gender equality won’t change that overnight. 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 systemisation or all women tend toward empathy – it’s just that on average men are more tuned to systems (things) while women are more tuned to empathy (people). In practice we probably all lie along a continuum.

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

In e-learning no client has ever asked me to think differently about a male/female audience. If we go along with the empathiser/systemiser concept and the idea that there is an ‘essential difference’ how might this affect our learning design?

Learning Design for Systemisers
Systemisers are likely to prefer models, frameworks and diagrams. We need to explain the big picture before getting into any detail. They also like to see concrete examples and see how to apply a solution to a real life problem.

Learning Design for Empathisers
Empathisers are are also keen to hear how people have solved problems but they want the story from the horse’s mouth not from some abstract model. They also want to hear different viewpoints, to hear about success and about failure too. They prefer scenarios that let them experience the topic as though they were actually there. Finally they want good old fashioned advice of the practical steps that they can take to improve the way they do things.

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 preferences 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 appear to oscillate between systems and empathy in the course of our everyday lives.

I’m wired as a systemiser – I instinctively knew that as I read the book but afterwards I completed the SQ/EQ questionnaire and came out with the following results:

Your Empathizing Quotient is 31
Baron-Cohen (2003) suggests that this means “you have a lower than average ability for understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately”.

Your Systemizing Quotient is 44
Baron-Cohen (2003) suggests that this means “you have an average ability for analysing and exploring a system”.

I came out more of a systemiser than an empathiser of course, but over the years I’ve recognised the value of empathy. It takes a bit of practice to re-wire our evolutionary brains but the result is a much more rounded view of the world.

Check you own result by completing the questionnaire:

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