T-Shaped Elementary STEM Teachers

By Carter, Vinson; Beachner, Maggie et al. | Children's Technology and Engineering, September 2016 | Go to article overview

T-Shaped Elementary STEM Teachers


Carter, Vinson, Beachner, Maggie, Orona, Cynthia, Daugherty, Michael K., Children's Technology and Engineering


The notion of a T-shaped individual was introduced by the design and consulting firm I DEO and is a model used by high-end design organizations to discern which new employees have the capacity to be the most creative and innovative. T-shaped individuals have two central features, represented by the two strokes of the letter "T." According to an interview with I DEO CEO Tim Brown:

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter "T" to describe them. The vertical stroke of the "T" is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process... The horizontal stroke of the "T" is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. 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. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills (Hansen, 2010, para. 1).

Elementary teachers can be effective STEM educators by working to become T-shaped individuals and by striving to carry out the practices of T-shaped designers in the classroom. These are teachers who have depth of skill and knowledge of elementary education, but also have the ability to understand and deliver content from collaborating disciplines. T-shaped teachers are also skilled at critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. By becoming T-shaped individuals, elementary teachers may inadvertently pass these traits on to their students, thus producing the next generation of innovative and creative citizens.

T-shaped individuals are precisely the type of employees that innovative companies are searching for, not only in the United States, but globally. Many years ago, sociologist Dan Lortie (1975) suggested that teachers usually teach the way they were taught as students, which is a well-supported notion (Oleson & Hora, 2014). Because much of what educators know about teaching and learning comes from their own schooling experiences (Oleson & Hora, 2014), it stands to reason that the instructional methods experienced while a student might be the instructional methods practiced as an elementary teacher. By striving to develop a new generation of T-shaped elementary STEM teachers within the nation's university-based elementary teacher preparation programs, we may be able to prepare a more innovative and creative student population and eventually break the sequence of teachers using less effective traditional methods of instruction in the elementary classroom that include little STEM content. Supporting the potential efficiency of the interwoven relationship between formal education and future creative abilities, T-shaped elementary teachers assist in the skill development and STEM content knowledge of their students, therefore generating future T-shaped learners, entrepreneurs, employees, and teachers. Figure 1 is a snapshot of some of the characteristics that represent a T-shaped elementary STEM teacher.

Recent educational reform involving the movement to a standards-based curriculum has triggered a great shift in how teachers determine what should be taught in the classroom and how this content should be delivered to the students. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were established to help prepare students for college, career, and life (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA/CCSSO], 2010). The adoption and implementation of these standards have necessitated a change in the skills and dispositions required of the elementary teacher. To fully address the content standards identified in the CCSS and related standards, elementary teachers must be more than educational generalists who focus primarily on literacy. The content standards identified in the CCSS require teachers to think more broadly and allow for more fluidity between subject areas and core concepts. …

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