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Gender and Learning Differences in IT

Most people tend to teach things the way they themselves learned it. This is probably more true in the case of informal every day teaching (showing a new coworker the ropes, sharing a power user tip, teaching in a train-the-trainer type environment ) than in more formally planned classroom environments where the teacher has the opportunity to plan and may reflect on whether an alternative presentation might have better results. People involved in more formal training activities may also have access to people with training in curriculum design and adult learning. However, even most university professors are trained and do research in their subject, not teaching per se. This same teaching as you were taught applies to documentation as well. The tradition of starting introductions to computer languages (even languages like Javascript where it does make much sense) with an example "Hello World" program is a case in point. Written learning materials also tend to follow models or standards. For instanced, Unix man pages, GNU Info, and Microsoft TechNet all follow a set format. Conference presentations and papers, which is how a lot of new technology is introduced to larger audiences, also have somewhat standard formats. The popular "For Dummies" books are an even more extreme example of this.

The teaching and documentation styles that are used within the computer field are those that tend to be effective for the majority of people in the field. However, this doesn't mean that they are effective for the majority of people in general. This is where gender bias starts to come in. Studies on learning styles show that gender and learning style closely correlate. So much so that learning styles are often attributed to one gender or another. A number of times I have seen behavior attributed to sexism ("He / they won't teach me because I'm female.") that is more appropriately attributable to a mismatch of teaching and learning styles. (This isn't to say that I haven't also seen sexism.) I think this also may be a reason why so many attempts to get more women in the IT field have been unsuccessful. I don't, however, think that the solution to this problem is to attempt to change the teaching styles used in the IT communities to include those that are more common among women. In general, I believe that good teachers teach to multiple learning styles. However, in a field where we are teaching each other, it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect everyone to be good teachers. Most importantly, I think that the teaching styles commonly used within the IT community generally do a good job of supporting people who learn by experimentation. The ability to figure things out using experimentation is a critical success factor for most jobs in IT. There are lots of situations where we don't know the answer and need to discover it. If we've already found the general solution to a problem, there's a good chance it's been automated, added to a library or otherwise added it to the body of knowledge in a way that it can be used without even necessarily needing to understand it. Debugging, troubleshooting, quality analysis, performance testing, modeling all require experimenting and learning from the results and one or more of them are part of most technical jobs. If we want more diversity, we should teach people to experiment. If you want to be in IT and aren't already comfortable with tinkering, trying things and experimenting to discover new information, this is a skill you should work on acquiring. And if you feel like your coworkers don't seem willing to teach you anything, try to see if they are giving you opportunities to try things and waiting for questions.

Need to practice your experimental skills, try these educational project kits at Amazon.com

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