The T-shaped model of learning

July 28, 2023 08:26
Photo: Reuters

In thinking about how we learn best, I have come to the (plausibly premature) view that learning is best conducted through a ‘T’ paradigm - one that combines the vertical strip (delving deeply into a particular issue) with a healthy spread (e.g. the horizontal plank at the top). Learning must feature both breadth and depth, yet at its core these two dimensions come together - they are not ‘balanced’ or ‘hedged between’, contra the views of those who believe in a carefully managed equilibrium between the two.

The horizontality of the ‘T’ paradigm is pretty self-explanatory, or so it seems. Individuals should cast their nets of knowledge far and wide, and seek to incorporate as much as is possible into their repertoire and bank of understanding of the world. Chemists should not be wary of engaging with the nuances of quantum physics - provided they can understand the basic infrastructure at hand; more distantly, as an example, historians ought to be curious about artificial intelligence (AI), just as technologists should be prepared to wrestle with questions of ethics. Knowledge knows no boundaries -- though those who pursue knowledge tend to establish all sorts of arbitrary limits, caveats, and conditions to what they know. That fact is greatly lamentable.

So how does horizontality in fact manifest? In two ways, I suppose: ‘distant’ knowledge areas outside one’s comfort zone can be intrinsically interesting or instrumentally helpful; furthermore, they may also enrich one’s existing knowledge base. To the former, a historian could find in AI a most helpful companion that aids them with synthesising and extracting past trends. To the latter, a technologist could infer from ethical paradigms deeper insights concerning what the right, the just, and the good involving technology fundamentally comprise.

The verticality of the ‘T’, on the other hand, behooves individuals to dig deeper, with rigour and precision. See it as a drilling exercise - the deep sea oil rig spots the ‘pot of gold’ by identifying the approximate location where oil reserves are most abundant; it then drills down, and down, and down to the bottom of the seabed (and beyond), with the objective of finding the very oil reserves that it has long been scouting. For some, the pot of gold would be 15th century English literature. For others, it could be the intricacies of Argentinian politics today.

Each and every one of us, as learners, thinkers, and writers, has our own ‘T-vertical’. The tricky bit is about spotting, reflecting upon, and acting upon the vertical that best comports with our dispositions and intuitions. There are those who argue that the ability to specialise is a privilege, an endowment with which only few are blessed. I would posit otherwise - if we apply sufficient concentration towards, paired with a suitably intense desire to cultivate interest in, a particular field, it would not be impossible for us to generate genuine understanding and grasp of the matter at hand. The key rests in how we approach these particular fields: do we read texts in them as merely objects for skimming and cursory engagement? Or do we seek to ‘deep dive’ into them by unpacking the argumentation, counter-arguments, and subtleties and finer details embedded within the claims?

Both horizontality and verticality are equally vital. Indeed, they intersect at the ‘nexus’, the point where the two lines of the ‘T’ meet. This is the point of organic enquiry for the individual - where they can draw upon both specialist and generalist knowledge to help them make sense of a particular concept, paradigm, or knowledge sphere. For me, personally, I have long maintained that this ‘point’ consists of applied ethics within non-democracies - my generalist knowledge, of sociology, geopolitics, literature and beyond, equips me with the context to understand how societies broadly function in non-democratic states, whilst my philosophical training (qua specialist) has empowered me to dissect and sift through the variety of factors of potential moral salience. Through looking at both the narrowly defined ‘vertical’ strip and casting my ‘horizontal’ net far and wide - in embracing unorthodox or divergent accounts - I have thus come to develop, and promulgate, an account of ethics under authoritarian regimes.

A final point on ‘T’. There may be more than one ‘T’ for many of us. Indeed, individuals may opt to specialise in more than one field - Oppenheimer, for instance, was an expert in many, though never managed to see through most of his intellectual pursuits save from Project Manhattan. An architect could also be a spectacular Cantonese opera singer. Michelle Yeoh’s character in Everything, Everywhere All At Once was extremely close - in possible world terms - to a variety of other counterparts who were clear specialists in one field or another. Specialisation is a virtuous and important trait. Ts can exist in multitudes.

Learning is a continuous process - or rather, we are inclined to think in cliches. Much of the learning that individuals carry out throughout their lives may come in concentrated bursts, interpolated by long periods of pauses, interruptions, and even regression. The T-shaped paradigm hopefully can allow folks to learn in a more directed and pinpointed manner - whether it be horizontally, or vertically.

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Assistant Professor, HKU