The X-shaped Learner

There is an emerging conversation around the X-shaped learner, what it is and what the implications might be. I have been following this conversation for some time as I have previously referred to the T-shaped learner to illustrate the changing focus towards a broader range of transferable skills or skill clusters to be prepared for a changing world. In this blogpost I have attempted to summarise the changing nature of learning, talent and workers and to share some of the links that I have found particularly useful in exploring new horizons as an X-shaped learner.

There are three predominant models of workers and learners that have been typically mentioned in the need for change. I would like to start by outlining these and to consider how each connects to the previous. The three focuses are the I-shaped learner, the T-shaped learner and the X-shaped learner.

The I-shaped learner

The I-shaped learner has depth in one (or several) area(s) of knowledge or skillsets, often referred to as stocks of knowledge. There are many industries and professions where deep expertise is critical, but in an increasingly complex world knowledge does not stand as a unique discipline without reference to others.

Those who simply keep their heads down in their own silos of expertise are less desirable for employers if they cannot relate to others. Morton T Hansen refers to these as ‘lone stars’ who do their own work well but do not contribute beyond that. The I-shaped learner is one dimensional, linear and one directional. This specialisation can lead to them missing opportunities or connections because their expertise can make them blind to other ways of thinking. This linear thinking can also limit the range of options they have in their toolkit when things go wrong. Effectively to a hammer everything is a nail.

The T shaped learner

The T-shaped learner was popularised by the CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown. The T-shaped learner/worker has a broad range of skills in selected niches but along with this has deep expertise in the ability to work with others.

In a T-shaped learner the vertical stroke still refers to deep knowledge or skills of an I-shaped learner. The horizontal stroke adds the ability to collaborate across disciplines. The horizontal stroke adds breadth to a learner,  and connects more to the world of multidisciplinary thinking.

Based on his research on Collaboration, Morten T. Hansen suggests that T-shaped managers are the way of the future. They are able to perform their individual work well (the vertical) while also contributing effectively across the whole organisation (the horizontal).  Whether in managers, workers or learners the key is both strong expertise and the ability to connect.

If you take away the knowledge (ie the vertical lines), there’s nothing left to hold the horizontal line in place. You’re effectively just left with a dash!

If you take away the horizontal line all you are left with is the connecting, collaborative skills, but no content to connect about. T is broad and deep but can still be top heavy in valuing academics.

The X-shaped learner

The X-shaped learner moves in the transdisciplinary space where learning includes interdisciplinarity with a participatory  approach and a more holistic focus on a common goal. Learning in this space often focuses on a problem of society at large, such as climate change and global warming.

Heather McGowan refers to this space as leading to the end of occupation identity, ie where it becomes less about knowledge and skills at a particular point and time or a ‘one-occupation self’ and more about finding purpose.  You can check out her excellent ideas in  What if the Future of Work starts in High School.

An X-shaped learner has a higher degree of self awareness, adaptive capacity and the competencies to thrive in the future. These uniquely human skills are grounded in empathy and purpose. X-shaped learning moves from stocks of knowledge to requiring us to be in the state of learning flow, continually adapting to the environment.

Heather McGowan takes the X-shaped learner one step beyond transdisciplinary learning, identifying collaboration between humanity and machine as a key part of the future of work. This makes a great deal of sense to me, as I see technology increasingly interacting with people to enhance learning, work and society.

Diagram Acknowledgement Heather McGowan

Another person who is using the concept of X-shaped learning is David Clifford. His work focuses on the intersection of design thinking and diversity, inclusion and equity. He sees the X-shaped learner as human centered and authentic.

What I like about his thinking is the reinforcement of some key ideas that are really important to me. In particular the idea of Noticing – acknowledging your own power, identity and context. X-shaped learners are able to notice their own thinking, biases and assumptions. This focus on equity,  social justice and creativity has led to the development of Liberatory Design.

The diagram below reimagines high school graduates in the X-shaped learning space. It has four key features as follows:

  • Stories – about people’s experiences and the rich social capital they bring. This is the space of self identification and your perception of self and others
  • Strengths – focuses on your unique strengths and talents
  • Skills – both within your school or workplace, and beyond
  • Stance – your values, beliefs and passions, being you in the world and all the things that will make your organisation great

Diagram acknowledgement David Clifford

DSX has lots of resources or ‘gifts’ that you download and use in your work. Check out for more details. I especially like the idea of “Equity Pauses”, where there is a deliberate stopping to consider your personal role in developing relationships and shared purpose. It is about being aware and reflecting on the impact of your behaviour – observing power relationships, noticing oppression and having the agency to interrupt your own thought patterns.

How I see the X-shaped learner

Both Heather and David recognise the interconnected nature of learning and the complexities associated with learning in preparation for the future. In considering both these approaches I think the key things are that learning must keep humans at the centre, at least in the near future.

I agree that humans and technologies are becoming increasingly intertwined. Cobots regularly work alongside humans and there are projects that are moving people towards technological integration, such as the Neurolink proposed by Elon Musk. In the X-shaped learner technology plays an ongoing role in learning.

I see the exponential growth of technology and its role in learning as placing increased importance of us to be deeply centered. So I have tried to show this in the adapted diagram below, with a hat tip to both Heather McGowan and David Clifford.

My combined diagram places humanity at the centre. The circle represents the intentional space where learning grows. It is this space that is very much at the core of David’s work and the four s’s are at the centre. The importance of context and place are critical in this centre spot. Māori have a term called Tūrangawaewae, which identifies with a ‘place to stand’. This is a place of memories and deep connections, a place of roots and history, of people, families and tribal connections. It is the heart of the X-shaped learner.

Some X-Shaped thoughts

  • This increased focus on transdisciplinary learning does not mean that deep knowledge isn’t important but academic learning is only part of the equation.
  • Learning is more likely to be merged with clusters of skills being developed and transferred as we negotiate a lifelong learning path. The Tertiary Education Commission’s Hidden Links, New Opportunities report is one of the best explanations and practical resources I have come across in this conversation.
  • The good of humanity must always be the driver. In an increasingly perturbed world we will need to emphasize this as intentional human behaviour.
  • The centre of the x also represents the importance of people, place and planet and the interwoven nature of ecosystems.

Questions to ponder

What is curriculum?

I am wondering why many schools are still working in in silos of learning? In a time when our national curriculum is being reviewed it is the ideal time to require deep links to be formed, for at least interdisciplinary approaches to be considered and for common threads linked to sustainability; competencies and skills to be reinforced and the connections that make us deeply human to be the glue…we cannot wait.

What is your response?

How does X-shaped learning get recognised?

Extra reading

2 comments on “The X-shaped Learner
  1. Pingback: T-shaped lawyer: the new commercial awareness. Part 1/2: Why should you become a T-shaped lawyer? (003) | CEE Legal Tech

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