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Day 10/03/2014

Thinking Broadly and Deeply: How to Cultivate T-Shaped Skills

Among my colleagues at rethinkED…*, we like to pride ourselves on having “T-shaped skills”, capable of thinking both broadly across disciplines and in depth about a variety of issues in specific fields. Lately I’ve been thinking about what is the underlying goal of our education system and what should the underlying goal of our education system be. As educators, are we aiming to produce T-shaped skills? Should we be stressing breadth or depth?

Due to the pressures of standardized testing and assessment, I’d argue that today’s K-12 classrooms largely focus on breadth of knowledge, often at the detriment to depth of knowledge. It is difficult to truly delve into the intricacies of the Revolutionary War or provide time for children to fully understand all potential outcomes of a science experiment when the social studies or biology curriculum still has 10 more units that teachers must get through by June. However, inert knowledge is hard to remember and even harder to apply.

There has been a large movement towards the importance of depth of learning. The Information Age (also known as the Digital Age), that began to change modern society in the early 1990s is currently in full swing. With access to so much knowledge now at our fingertips, there has been a call in the education world for a paradigm shift to teaching fewer topics in depth rather than superficial coverage of many topics, requiring teacher knowledge of topics in depth, and changing assessments to test deep knowledge rather than surface knowledge.

In Grant Wiggins’ blog post “Thinking about a lack of thinking,” he asks teachers to be more thoughtful about what they do and to cultivate thoughtfulness and higher level thinking in their classroom. Furthermore, he argues that many current pedagogical strategies and practices do the exact opposite- they stifle thoughtfulness. He talks about thoughtlessness built into the design of curriculums when they rely on textbooks and memorization of inert facts. There exists this fallacy that teachers should be teaching “stuff”, rather than processes and skills. Our pedagogical objective should be to convey ideas and not definitions. Yet teachers are boggled down by the need to teach content that leave students with a superficial understanding of many things and true comprehension of nothing.

Additionally, in the creativity course I took last fall, much of the literature on cultivating creativity also prescribes a “depth over breadth” approach. It is largely heralded that domain-changing creativity can only come after expertise, and expertise takes approximately 10 years to develop (Weisberg, 2006). In fact, some educational researchers specifically urge gifted students to specialize as early as possible and to not be concerned with having many skills (Stokes, 2005).

Ideally, we would produce students with T-shaped skills, individuals who are knowledgeable about a general set of common knowledge but specialized in a few specific things. How can we do this? I’d argue that in the classroom, teaching depth and teaching “how to learn” are far more important in today’s society than breadth. One major affordance of technology is that the breadth is widely accessible outside of the classroom (or within a virtual classroom).  In the spirit of the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” proverb, providing students with the tools to learn broadly as well as specific in-depth knowledge of the topics that most interest them may result in more fruitful educational outcomes than trying to cover the entire textbook in 10 months. With the combination of technology and new pedagogies, the T-shaped skillset is well within reach.


Stokes, P. D. (2005). Creativity from constraints: The psychology of breakthrough. Springer  Publishing Company.

Weisberg, R. W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding innovation in problem solving, science, invention, and the arts. John Wiley & Sons.


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