Universities need to re-envision the purpose and practice of education.

By Jim Lucas, Assistant Dean, Global Education & Curriculum

Maybe you have heard the term “T-shaped”—or for short, the T—discussed around campus. Maybe, when you heard the term, you rolled your eyes and thought, “not another thing.” To be sure, education is rife with new theories about today’s students’ needs, concepts ranging from significant learning to global education to liberal learning. Surely all the new terms can be confusing, but the idea is quite simple: universities need to re-envision the purpose and practice of undergraduate education.

The T-model suggests that higher education has historically done a good job teaching technical knowledge and skills as bounded by students’ majors or fields of study, and with experiential and co-curricular learning opportunities linked to these majors,  the model in use has also helped students build some capacity to apply their learning in specific contexts. In other words, higher education has traditionally done a good job at preparing engineers to work in the auto-industry or social workers to work for government agencies. We call these students I-shaped individuals. They are well-trained and well-prepared to work in specific contexts.

In the 21st-Century, knowledge economy though—technical ability bounded to a single system is insufficient. In a world where information is readily available on a student’s phone and facts and figures change daily, content delivery as the sole purpose for education is out-dated. According to recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (March 2015), the average person born between 1957 and 1964 changed jobs 11.7 times between ages 18 and 48, and recent data pushed in Forbes suggests that young people born between 1977 and 1997 intend to change jobs at an even faster pace. These changes in job, and even career, require that students be flexible and adaptable in terms of knowledge and skills. Also, as problems become more complex, interdisciplinary, and “wicked” students need the ability to continually learn and reach across boundaries; they need to have the skills to apply knowledge appropriately in diverse settings.

As such, the T-model states that students need to be able to span the boundaries of disciplinary structures—artists need to work with economists, environmentalists need to work with policy makers, and urban planners need to work with medical professionals. In addition, students must be able to apply their knowledge into multiple systems not only to better understand the complexity of modern problems, but also to be prepared to adapt professionally in the new workplace. In the past, educators have used the term soft-skills to refer to this situation, but evidence suggests that these skills are what students desperately need, yet often lack, to be successful.

Looking at the T-shaped model then, one can easily connect the other concepts. The T is a recognition that we must move away from surface-level, content-based educational environments to those that foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility—characteristics of deep, significant learning. T-students can use and apply their information in new contexts, not just memorize facts and repeat them for a test.

Second, just as the T-model highlights boundary spanning across systems, global education and internationalization implies a similar skillset, albeit focused toward physical and cultural spaces. Today’s students need to span boundaries to understand and resolve complex problems, contextualize situations from an intercultural perspective, and understand the connection between local and global systems. They need to understand and be able to successfully negotiate interactions with a myriad of diverse cultures, including (but not limited to) national, professional, disciplinary, religious, and racial-ethnic. Our students must do more than study abroad or interact with diversity on campus: they connect these experiences to their lives and careers in meaningful ways. They need to have global learning woven throughout their curriculum in meaningful ways to help them navigate complex systems and work effectively in teams.

Finally, even the MSU undergraduate learning goals, formally called the liberal learning goals as part of a renewal of a liberally-educated student agenda—mentions T-shaped abilities in reference to having students be able to “critically apply liberal arts knowledge in disciplinary contexts and disciplinary knowledge in liberal arts contexts.” Put simply, the concept of integrative reasoning suggests that MSU students can connect their general education requirements, electives, co-curricular experiences, and major content into a cohesive whole that helps them be better problems solvers.

Overall then, If you think about what the T-model really means then, you realize the idea is not that new or different from what we’ve been discussing at MSU for a very long time. Actually, the idea is core to American higher education in the form of general education requirements. Historically, we’ve called upon students to learn content and concepts outside their major, and we’ve argued that doing so makes them well-rounded. The T backs this sentiment up with a more utilitarian, professional need as expressed by employers. They need students who can think not just repeat facts.

If you’re still reading, then you might be thinking, “okay, so this idea is not so new and not very scary.” Well, it shouldn’t be; through its learning goals, MSU has acknowledged all these theories and integrated them into its goals for undergraduate education. The institution seeks to prepare students who have the ability to analyze information from multiple sources and integrate that information together as effective communicators and citizens who understand culture.

Even though we have this basis in place, the changes can be very scary. Not because the idea is new or different, but because we now have strong, external forces calling us to change and act differently. In other words, higher education faces increasing scrutiny to prove that we are doing what we say we are doing. This situation is most evident in our upcoming NCA accreditation.

MSU doesn’t need to be scared though. This institution has all the structures in place on campus to ensure that students are exposed to global, T-shaped learning. Over the next year, the APUE newsletter will focus on different aspects of the MSU experience, highlighting the amazing work our faculty and staff are doing to ensure T-shaped, global learning. If you have ideas for programs, initiatives, or individuals that you would like to highlight, please email Jim Lucas at lucasjam@msu.edu.