“The ‘O’ shaped student, preparing the next professional for the 21st century”

Title: “The ‘O’ shaped student, preparing the next professional for the 21st century”

Abstract Synopsis:

The “T” shaped professional has been identified by Tim Brown of Ideo as the desired profile for 21st-century professionals.[i] Breadth and depth of knowledge is an accepted framework for thinking about the professional student. In the 21st-century , a new set of challenges including climate change and social inequity requires a new, more well-rounded, holistic and ambitious framework for student learning. This presentation will propose the “O” shaped student: transdisciplinary, empathetic, systems thinking and creative problem solver as next “letter” shaped student.


The framework of the “T” shaped student is widely accepted in higher education. Jeff Selingo, a well-known expert in innovative learning states, “The idea of the T-shaped individual first emerged in the early 1990s as a kind of “Renaissance Man.” The vertical bar of the T represents a person’s deep understanding of one subject matter — history, for example — as well as one industry, perhaps energy or health care. The horizontal stroke of T-shaped people is the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence. But Tim Brown from Ideo proposed a more nuanced and richer version of the “T” to describe the professionals that succeed in his remarkably successful innovation company. Now, the traits of empathy and transdisciplinary practice have been included. He writes about a more powerful horizontal bar of the ‘T”, “First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective – to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them.”[ii] Furthermore, Michigan State University held a 2017 conference on “T” shaped students adding the skill of “Crossing Boundaries” in the horizontal bar but more importantly adding “deep systems thinking within at least one system” to the vertical bar.[iii]

Jefferson is already a clear leader in the continuum of thinking holistically about the “T” shaped student. But for this proposal the “T” is used as a starting point to probe even deeper to discover the core of what a professional will look like in the 21st century. The clear and present danger of climate change and the rise of social inequity as critical issues in society require a further evolution of the “T” shaped professional into and ‘O’ shaped citizen professional. The new professional is, of course, well equipped to disrupt, innovate and create new ventures, but at a deeper level, at the very core, the ‘O’ shaped student is guided by empathy. This is not the soft a fluffy affective empathy but rather cognitive empathy, which focuses on taking up another’s position, to really experience their perspective. Furthermore cognitive empathy can be applied as a powerful sustainable design tool when it is used in the following way:

  • Across scale – understanding how climate change effects people in faraway places
  • Across Time – understanding the perspective of humans not yet born
  • Across species – understanding how plants and animals are under threat
  • Across perspective – understanding how different types of people experience reality in different ways – a gateway to obtaining authentic equity in organizations.


The process of developing the ‘O’ shaped student is through a transformation of Ideo’s ‘T’ shaped professional into a square – which is a more complete, better representation of the holistic nature of the ‘T’. Then the specialized characteristics of the Sustainable design are layered on top of the square – adding Sustainability Principles and Frameworks along the bottom, Systems thinking and Discipline Ability remain on the vertical bars, topped off by the unique idea of a meta-discipline. A meta-discipline is perfect for a 21st century professional who must constantly adapt to a changing landscape as influenced by social, technological, and more recently, profound political changes.

The corners of the square are “softened” or “rounded” by specific expressions of cognitive empathic teaching and learning – as described earlier. This new ‘O’ shaped student is the output of Jefferson’s MSSD program where the positive economic, aesthetic, environmental and societal impacts of the alumni bear out the power of this model. This model stands as a starting point for other’s seeking to develop “O” shaped students in their graduate programs.

In conclusion, we must constantly innovate new models for teaching and learning not just to develop better professionals, but also to lead the way in creating a better world.

[i] https://chiefexecutive.net/ideo-ceo-tim-brown-t-shaped-stars-the-backbone-of-ideoaes-collaborative-culture__trashed/

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/06/01/the-myth-of-the-well-rounded-student-its-better-to-be-t-shaped/?utm_term=.f97017b52b31

[iii] http://tsummit.org/about


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