Lawyers and Priestesses in the World of Tests

Lawyers and Priestesses in the World of Tests

By: Curtis Kelly

I remember this student I once had, Junko, a forerunner of many others that came later. Junko was smart, interested in English, and one of the best students in the class. I perceived her as an archetypal A student. Then came the test. Her score was surprisingly low. She had been doing her homework regularly and coming to class, so this result did not make sense. It baffled me, so I asked Junko if she had studied for the test. She said “Yes.” I asked her why she did so poorly in a subject she was obviously good at and she just mumbled, “I’m just not good at tests.”

Not good at tests

That made my antenna go up. “In other classes as well?” “Yes, in all of them.” So here was a smart, hardworking student scoring way below where she should have been. Why? Could this reflect some difficulty like test anxiety or not knowing how to study? Or a disability like dyslexia? To find out, I watched Junko carefully in the next test and saw nothing out of the norm. Nor did she report any particular difficulties when asked. She could read the questions well enough, but she was just choosing the wrong answers. There was something about tests that she was not good at.

I suspect you have had students like Junko. Or maybe like these: I once watched a particular women’s university class where the teacher had her students perform a play, one by Tennessee Williams, I think. The students in the lead roles were the kind most teachers hope do not show up in their classes, the incorrigibles. They displayed bad attitudes about school, never doing homework, wearing too much make up, and working in bars at night. But in this case, those ill-fitting students were fabulous. They gave the play their all, creating strong, deep characters. I was moved by their acting. They seemed so talented in that foray into enemy territory, to a level of genius. These same young women, who were failing most of their other classes, were brilliant, shining, and awe-inspiring in this one. Who were these priestesses of the dark and light arts? How had we missed their wonderful abilities in every other class? Seeing them made me realize that the educational means and measures we use seem tilted, tilted towards one particular kind of brain, and tilted away from another. The main culprit? Tests.

Of course, we have always known there are problems with tests—they measure only a sliver of proficiency, they cause anxiety, and their validity is suspect. Nevertheless, in this age of psychometrics, we are irrevocably tied to them. We can try to improve the way we test, but we can no more give up on this particular method than we can give up on classroom education. Tests replace arbitrary subjectivity with some degree of objectivity. They give us standards we can apply across large groups, whether that be hundred-student classes, or countries. We cannot get rid of them, so instead, let us try to understand them a little better. In that regard, I’d like to look at the problem mentioned above, that tests and all the ways of studying for them might be biased towards a brains configured in a certain way.

After all, there are students who seem to thrive in the traditional assign-and-assess methodologies, and others, like Junko, who wither. The ones that thrive tend to focus on grades, are willing to study the minuscule, and almost seem to enjoy taking a test. The ones that wither tend to get bored in class easily, and they tend to focus on their outside lives, especially their relationships. Being with friends is the medium they grow in. They often find it hard to get motivated in school, except by those things that allow them to be creative, original, and connected.

I like to think of the former, good at memorizing and spewing up details as the engineers, accountants, and lawyers. They organize and analyze well. I like to think of the latter as the artists, priests, and priestesses. They are better at working with the big picture than details, and more interested in people and relationships than objects. The difference between these two kinds of people made me wonder: Does this difference just reflect different levels of motivation? Or is there something deeper, a difference in learning styles or even a difference in brains? At that time, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences were rocking our world, so that suggested a difference deeper than just motivation, but the connection seemed weak. Then, too, there was no mention of these learning styles in Rebecca Oxford’s famous book: Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know (more here).

Something unfrogettable I came across

It was about this time, almost thirty years ago, that I read an amazing paper that turned on the lights. In 30 minutes, my 20 years of teaching experience was explained. This paper created a small splash at the time, but perplexingly, the ideas it offered just seemed to disappear after a couple years. In Acknowledging the Learning Styles of Diverse Student Populations: Implications for Instructional Design, educators James Anderson and Maurianne Adams tried to identify learning style differences in minorities as opposed to “the white, middle-class males who have traditionally been the dominant group in undergraduate education” (1992, p. 19).

They portrayed the minorities, mainly Blacks and women as more likely to have a relational style and the traditional white male group as more likely to have an analytical style (I wonder if this is a riskier thing to claim now than in 1992).

(Source: Anderson & Adams, 1992.)

Let us add two other factors that seemed linked to their study—that relational learners are more motivated by relationships and analytical learners by scores, and that relational learners learn best when doing so with others while analytical learners learn best alone (see interpersonal vs intrapersonal learners)—and voila, we have a good picture of college students in Japan. The students I have encountered range from analytical learner who would memorize dictionary pages to friend-centered relational learners that would skip school if their favorite friend was absent (one became my wife).

That article had a big impact on me. It explained a lot of what I could not understand about my classes in Japan, mainly because the educational system in Japan is fundamentally geared towards the analytical style. Testing dominates Japan, but that style does not fit so many of the learners I have met. Suddenly, because of this article, everything changed. I became much more aware of why, for some learners, relationships were the foundation stones upon which they build everything else, why getting good (or bad) scores did not work as a motivator, and why they responded more positively to group projects than traditional methods. It also explained why the kinds of students I encountered in law and engineering seemed different from those in sociology or languages.

No wonder those young women in the play felt so alienated by traditional schooling, but could bring their global knowledge of relationships and social systems into the star performances they did in the drama. I could just imagine them at an earlier stage of life studying for discrete item tests, including the ubiquitous entrance exams, and failing; being forced through classes and homework exercises that they felt were bone-crushingly boring; and when admonished by their teachers, parents, and peers, for their lack of effort, breaking away and finding other places where their differences and skills were appreciated, even if it was in bar jobs.

One of the great tragedies of our times is that we measure intelligence and academic success in a way that precludes the wonders of neurodiversity.

So, I understood. Or did I? I worried that maybe I had just cherry-picked this one particular paper to validate a belief I so wanted to be true: that we are all intellectually equal and it is basic brain difference, rather than discipline and moral fiber, that determines who succeeds in the educational system. Was I seeking a way to let bad students off the hook? Possibly because I used to be one too? Maybe. After all, the idea of relational vs analytical learning styles just seemed to disappear a couple years after that paper was published.

Years later, the notion came back

But then, last year, that changed. I once again came across something amazing, that again had a major impact on my thinking and teaching, but this time the ideas were nailed down by scientific research. I heard a Brain Science with Dr. Ginger Campbell interview (audio or pdf transcript) with Simon Baron-Cohen that blew a hole in my brain. Let’s take a side trip into his work, and come back later to test-taking.

The neuroscientist Baron-Cohen, once a teacher of autistic students, proposes that 70-100,000 years ago, two skills evolved in our brains that made us uniquely human and set us off towards world domination: the systemizing mechanism and empathy. The systemizing mechanism allows us to understand cause-effect relationships and identify if-then patterns in our environment (If I do this, then this will happen). Its emergence set off a technological revolution. Empathizing, connected to emotional intelligence and the social brain, allows us to understand others’ thinking, a skill that set off a social revolution. Baron-Cohen and colleagues conducted a project in the UK, a brain-type study, in which the systemizing and empathizing tendencies of 600,000 people were surveyed (Greenberg et al., 2018).[1] Interestingly, the results fell into a bell curve: Everyone has both of these skills, but most people tend to be weaker in one and stronger in the other: “…the better you are at systemizing, the more you struggle with empathy and vice versa” (Campbell, 2021, p. 4) These skills are not mutually exclusive, but some people are better at seeing if – then patterns and some are better at communicating and socializing.

What people on each side of this curve are interested in, follows. More people working in human services tend to be on the empathizing side, while more people working in STEM fields tend to be on the systemizing side. For example, Baron-Cohen noted that Bill Gates is a hyper-systemizer, with fantastic memory for detail and patterns. He once memorized all the license plates in his parking lot to ascertain employee patterns in arriving and leaving.

[1] The study first framed systemizing and empathizing traits along gender lines, and it was found that in general women tend towards the empathizing and men towards the systemizing sides, also supporting the extreme male brain theory of autism (summarized here). It is interesting, however, that Baron-Cohen avoids mentioning gender in his Brain Science interview, which I am guessing reflects controversies on these topics. Let us skip the gender part, too.

A correlation to autistic traits

Now here is something interesting. Along with empathy and systemization, the researchers analyzed a third tendency, (the somewhat maligned) autism, and found that autistic traits correlated with systemizing.[2] The more people favored systemization, the more autistic traits they had. And autistics themselves, at one end of the bell curve, were far more interested in systems than dealing with people. The researchers also found that their sample could be organized into five groups: about 30% of them were better at systemizing and weaker at empathizing; 30% were better at empathizing and “more tuned into the world of people than objects” (Campbell, 2021, p.7); and the 30% in the middle were equally good at both.[3] Then at the extreme ends of the curve were the last two groups: the autistics on one side and what Malcolm Gladwell called the connectors on the other.

[2] Think spectrum. Having autistic traits, which most of us do, is not the same as being autistic. Being more interested in how things work than reading novels is an example. Note that 38,000 diagnosed autistics also took the surveys. (And from Julia Daley: see this.)

[3] When editing, Stephen M. Ryan mentioned that the breakdown in thirds makes us want to know about the sample. The sample was 670,000 people who watched a BBC television program on autism and went to a site, aged between 16 and 89, with more women than men. While not truly randomized, the large number, and a follow-up replication, makes the study relatively reliable, even if the exact percentages are off.

Baron-Cohen theorizes that the numbers break down that way, the majority in thirds, for a reason. Societies need systemizers to invent new things, but empathizers as well, to keep us from killing each other over them. Of course, if we evolved this particular distribution through natural selection that means there has to be a genetic connection. And, in their second study, the researchers found just that! Analyzing blood samples from 50,000 people in the sample, they found genetic variances that correlated with each type. They also found the hyper-systemizer genetic variance correlated with the autistics. In other words, genes play a role in one’s systemizer-empathizer orientation, mainly because of different levels of prenatal sex-related hormones, especially testosterone.

That some people have both empathizing and systemizing predilections is worth noting. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking these are two separate and exclusive types. The traits lie, sometimes erratically, on a continuum. Many of the people I know on the pattern seeking side are also highly social and empathetic, and many of the highly social people I know are good at memorizing details and taking tests. In regard to empathy, Heather Kretschmer informed me of a theory that the way we see empathy might be a neurotypical bias (see here). And of course, the studies did not really discover distinct brain “types”–although for simplicity I am using that term–but rather a symmetric distribution of skills along a continuum. We do not yet know what other differences in structure or skill sets these proclivities might be part of.

Still, I think Baron-Cohen’s discoveries fit what Anderson and Adams put forth a couple decades before. The analytical learners are systemizers and the relational learners are empathizers. Fortunately, while Adams and Anderson could merely observe and postulate, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues had more powerful tools at their disposal–the internet, genome studies, and 23andMe–making his findings less conjectural.[4]

So, Adams, Anderson, and Baron-Cohen have convinced me that there are different brain types that are better or worse at tests . Systemizers are better at recognizing patterns and remembering details. In a way, tests themselves are pattern recognition events, and most tests focus on detail recollection. Details! Do you remember what Baron-Cohen said about Bill Gates, the hyper-systemizer? “…fantastic memory for detail.”

[4] Or as Ginger Campbell said, “It sounds like pretty strong science to me” (Campbell, 2021, p.8)

Baron-Cohen’s research shows the story goes deeper than just test anxiety and motivation, as deep as our genes. That means we are seeing a tragedy unfolding. We live in an age where tests lay out life paths, opening doors for some and closing them for others, while the whole time we buy into the fiction that they are ‘fair.’ It seems though, that the deck is stacked. If most tests are biased towards a particular brain type, then using this one particular measure to determine lives is capricious. So, let us go back and scrutinize the way we evaluate learning, and while we are at it, rethink “intelligence”. Good memory for detail and strength in discerning patterns tends to be seen as “smart,” but its counterpart, the ability to make others feel good, tends to be seen as “nice.”

Is being a pattern seeker an advantage?

So, it seems the systemizers have an advantage in life doesn’t it? However, a step back reveals another picture, one much bleaker. Baron-Cohen tells us that systemizers often suffer in other aspects of life. Most schools have them sitting in a large group of students while a teacher explains things to them, not a good learning scenario for the way their brains are built. Learning by doing, especially alone, fits them better, trying things and seeing what happens. They also often suffer more in the workplace than empathizers since success at work usually requires good people skills. Autistics, even those who are quite intelligent, have great difficulty getting jobs. The National Autistic Society in the UK “estimates some 85% of autistic adults are unemployed” (Campbell, 2021, p. 13) and thus, unsupported, a situation that leads to poor mental health and depression. “One third of autistic adults have attempted suicide” (p. 11).

Changes needed in education and the workplace

Baron-Cohen is acutely aware of this problem, and he says we have to change education and the workplace so that everyone can use their strengths. He urges us to accommodate neurodiversity (as we do in the Think Tanks here and here). “A key idea is that there is no such thing as a ‘normal brain’ because neurodiversity is normal” (Baron-Cohen in Campbell, 2021, p. 13).

So, in conclusion, let us acknowledge that there are different types of brains, and keep neurodiversity in mind when we do tests, or lectures, or start thinking some students are “smarter” than the others, or some have “bad” attitudes. Let us also avoid a fixed mindset in regard to these types: Someone might be weaker in systemizing or empathizing skills today, but that does not mean they have to be tomorrow. People grow. Looking at hyper-systemizer Bill Gates again, let us note that although he had trouble with peers in his early days, he has spent the latter part of his life as a philanthropist, trying to help people all over the world.

When we serve ourselves up with a meal of neurodiversity, let’s sprinkle on a dose of neuroplasticity as well.

Key references (lesser ones hypertexted)

  • Anderson, J. A., & Adams, M. (1992). Acknowledging the learning styles of diverse student populations: Implications for instructional design. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 49, 19-33.

  • Baron-Cohen, S. (2020). The pattern seekers: How autism drives human invention. Basic Books.


  • Campbell, G. (Host). (2021, February 26). Interview with Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Author of The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Intervention. [Episode 181]. In Brain Science with Dr. Ginger Campbell,

  • Greenberg, D. M., Warrier, V., Allison, C., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Testing the Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(48), 12152-1215.

Curtis Kelly (EdD) is a founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd Think Tanks. He is confused as to whether he is an empathizer since his life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom,” or a systemizer that loves inventing stuff and playing computer games.

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