Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Encouraging T-shaped thinking in the counseling profession

By John McCarthy May 18, 2020

I thought it was a most ridiculous assignment. The instructor of my Introduction to Counseling course in 1988 asked us to write, of all things, a book report. “Make sure the book has nothing to do with counseling,” he directed.

I was incredulous. “My first class in counseling, and he’s asking us to do a fifth-grade assignment?” I wanted to learn everything I could about counseling, especially in an initial course, and a book report was not on my anticipated list of important things to do.

Years later, I realized that it was a brilliant stroke by the professor, and in 2020, I believe it could well be a portal to the future of the counseling profession. With a strong interest in creativity, I now realize the impetus of the assignment. The instructor wanted us novice students to know things outside of counseling. Go learn about Portuguese history, quilting or the evolution of vacuum cleaners.

The assignment concerned creativity and, in retrospect, was aimed at helping us counselors-in-training with our creative “shape.” Creativity involves being a “T-shaped” person, a term originating from a well-known design firm named IDEO. The T-shape idea entails a person knowing a great deal about a specific discipline and having a breadth of knowledge in other fields. It is not a matter of being an expert in only one area, represented by the vertical line in the T, but also being able to draw from other arenas, as represented by the horizonal line.

In her 2009 book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, Tina Seelig related the importance of developing T-shaped thinkers in directing the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. The aim was straightforward: Students would have an extensive knowledge base in one discipline, perhaps science or engineering, along with, in this case, innovation and entrepreneurship.

It is the combination skills that can be central to creativity. Incidentally, it is these skills that represent the C (combination) in the commonly cited SCAMPER acronym of creativity. Linking ideas from counseling with web design, political science or chemistry can lead to innovative solutions in any number of roles that counselors play, including as consultants, crisis responders or group facilitators.

In her book, Seelig also observed, “Life presents everyone with many opportunities to experiment and recombine our skills and passions in new and surprising ways.” T-shaped thinkers can draw from other parts of their knowledge base in that recombining process to formulate more creative solutions to challenges.

Radical collaboration

The T metaphor isn’t just about individual counselors though. It also concerns our counseling profession and, in my opinion, how it can be strengthened in the coming years. Yes, integrated care is critical to counseling, but I believe that interprofessional partnership extends beyond this model.

“We believe in radical collaboration.” The last two words caught my eye as I read the “We’re glad you’re here!” brochure during a recent visit to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Also known as the “d.school,” this internationally recognized institute offers students from an array of disciplines — including engineering, law, business and medicine — the opportunity to deepen their creative skills and gain design competencies toward solving complicated dilemmas.

The same brochure posed thought-provoking questions, one of which fits the notion of “radical collaboration” and the future of the counseling profession: Choose two diverse occupations and list ways that they could work together to answer a challenge in the real world. If counselors were chosen as one of the occupations, imagine the potential life-changing ideas that could be sparked in partnering with oceanographers, mathematicians or cybersecurity specialists. Imagine how social justice, advocacy and consultation could be integrated. Imagine how such an adventure could result in even more creative T-shaped counselors-in-training and professional counselors.

Work involving the search terms “interprofessional” and “counselor” would appear to be limited, although the topic has been discussed in the literature for at least 30 years. Elizabeth Mellin, Brandon Hunt and Lindsey Nichols conducted questionnaire-based research among counselors in 2011 that included a discussion on interprofessional collaboration. In a 2016 study, Christianne Fowler and Kaprea Hoquee (nee Johnson) described a one-day standardized patient experience among students in counseling, nursing and dental hygiene programs. In research published last year, Kaprea Johnson surveyed students in counseling, along with those in dental hygiene, nursing and physical therapy programs, and concluded that counseling students were as receptive as the students in health care programs regarding interprofessional training.

Examples of interprofessional interaction are seen in related mental health arenas. Last year, the American Psychological Association announced that it would be partnering with medicine, pharmacy, nursing and other areas to oversee organizational accreditation for interprofessional continuing education. According to the article announcing this recent development, the move was viewed as a benefit to the field, especially in relation to the amount and caliber of continuing education possibilities. A second instance is Robert Morris University’s Access to Interprofessional Mental Health Education program, which aims in part to train psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners to offer care as part of an interprofessional team.

Identity is central to our counseling profession, and T-encouraged initiatives with other domains can make us better as a whole, broadening our collaboration with — and increasing our visibility by — other fields. Continuing education regulations could be modified to include domains outside of counseling. Imagine counseling conferences with people from other areas such as pharmacy, dentistry, media relations, medicine, computer science and the design industry. Presentations by counselors in tandem with dietitians, architects and TV producers could deepen our knowledge bases and foster further cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Programmatic standards could be adjusted to encourage (or perhaps even require) counseling students to take at least one elective outside of the department. They could learn about the future of health care in a medical curriculum, about correctional reform in other countries in a criminology program, or about sustainability in an engineering course.

T-shaped efforts at the professional level would deepen our collective cultural competency and contribute to our collective mindfulness. Kio Stark devoted a 2016 book to talking with strangers, and her message aligns with the present-moment orientation that counseling espouses. “When you interact with a stranger,” she wrote, “you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive.”

Developing cross-disciplinary tentacles can aid our future. T-shaped counselors and a T-shaped profession can broaden our scope, charge innovative ideas, emphasize wellness and deepen counseling’s visibility.

Counseling is a holistic, collaborative approach. Let’s extend the letter T in encouraging creative counselors and, ultimately, an innovative counseling profession.

The letter of tomorrow is T. Now let’s all go read some books.

 

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John McCarthy is a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Contact him at jmccarth@iup.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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