Learning Pathways: A Walkthrough

The digital age brings a seemingly endless number of options for today’s learners. But it’s also easy to get lost. Enter learning pathways.

The digital age brings a seemingly endless number of options for today’s learners. But it’s also easy to get lost. Enter learning pathways.

What are learning pathways?

Learning Pathways are the routes learners take to discover new ideas, pursue their interests, and develop their skills. These routes involve experiences in school, out of school, and online. School systems, for example, are pedagogical pathways that build on each prior stage of learning. Other pathways are less formal, and can be a road to discovery based on personal interests.

Previously on this site, we’ve dug into the concept of networks and the umbrella of learning innovation. In a sense, pathways are the intersection of these ideas. Access to a network of mentors and innovative education opportunities enables learners to follow a pathway of experiences, building on their interests and developing skills along the way.

Why pathways, why now?

Pathways are important now because the Internet, social networks, and our changing economy have unleashed a seemingly endless number of options for exploring and learning. But in that vastness lies the problem. It’s easy to get lost.

[pullquote]Learning pathways help students draw connections and adapt.[/pullquote]Pathways are the map on a road trip; they guide you from point A to B, but along the way they also reveal the side roads, historical sights, and other detours that add richness to the journey. Without the map, a traveler may have missed those opportunities, or worse, gotten completely lost.

The time to build deliberate pathways is now, says John Seely Brown and co-author Douglas Thomas in their book, “A New Culture of Learning.” In a rapidly changing world, adaptability and the ability to see connections are critical. Students must understand how skills and knowledge build on each other and how to find entry points to new opportunities. They must be able to steer a new course, adapt, and adjust. Learning pathways help imprint that understanding.

But the map alone is not enough.

A family can stop at the historical site on the map, but then what? They need a guide to make sense of what they’re seeing. It’s the park ranger or historical interpreter who adds new insights and maybe sparks a latent interest. In learning pathways, guides are posted along the way to help learners not only see how to get from home to their destination, but to see how the points along the way connect to make the journey more meaningful.

“When kids are pursuing their interests and going deeper into a topic, having a more advanced thinker help them scaffold that interest can be key to whether they go deeper into it or move away from it,” said psychologist Jean Rhodes on Connected Learning TV. Connected Learning, an emerging theory in education, posits that personal passions, strong mentorship, peer relationships, and technology are the key ingredients in a learning pathway.

Pathways help learners connect in- and out-of-school experiences and pursue their interests. Photo/Ben Filio

Where did the idea for pathways come from?

The idea of pathways has been around a long time. But it was in video games where some scholars had an aha moment.

In video games, players advance—level up—only when they master a level. The game is designed to urge the gamer on to the brink of frustration, but not so overwhelming that they give up.

“Good games offer players a set of challenging problems and then let them solve these problems …,” wrote learning scientist James Paul Gee. “Then the game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery. In turn, this new mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.”

Pathways work similarly. Pathways nudge learners to level up, but with more room for discovery and detours along the way.

“The game throws a new class of problem at the players, requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery.” – James Paul Gee

What’s an example of a pathway in action?

A California school district partners with an afterschool program and the state’s student poll worker program. Teenage participants take an online civics course that includes a unit on app development. After learning about electoral politics and history, they code and create a mobile app that lets their peers find their polling places and look up candidates’ positions on issues relevant to youth. Completion of this task unlocks the real opportunity to work at the polls on Election Day. The pathway leads students from interest and education in politics to practical skill development and real-world opportunities.[pullquote]Pathways can nudge learners to “level up.”[/pullquote]

The Aspen Institute on Learning and the Internet recommended pathways like these in its 2014 report analyzing the needs of 21st century students.

Are pathways linear only, from Point A to Point B?

Learning is not linear and nor are pathways. Becoming part of a robotics club might actually reveal to a young person that robotics is really not their thing. But while designing posters for robotics competitions, they might realize they are interested in graphic design.

As Kris D. Gutiérrez, professor of literacy and learning sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, cautioned in a webinar hosted by the Connected Learning Alliance, learning is rarely smooth and uncomplicated, and learning pathways should allow for “this wonderful messiness and complication with learning.”

Who is working on this idea around the country?

Some digital learning platforms are incorporating concepts similar to pathways into their systems so that learners can connect the dots between learning experiences. LRNG is one such platform that lets educators create learning “playlists” that lay out a specific sequence of activities that a teen can complete to develop their skills while exploring their interests. Activities on these playlists can be face-to-face or completed online.

[pullquote]Learning is not linear and neither are pathways.[/pullquote]Some organizations are applying playlists and pathways to out-of-school learning, guiding kids as they pursue their interests while accumulating expertise and experience. In Chicago, for example, the Cities of Learning program first engaged youth in learning pathways during their summer of 2013. An online platform created by the Digital Youth Network presented young people with 25 playlists and more than 1,000 summer learning opportunities—from scriptwriting to coding.

Once a participant completed an activity, he or she earned a digital badge, which celebrated and documented new skills (think digitized Boy Scout badge). Then that student could “level up” and unlock a more challenging opportunity in the same field. In one such sequence, the Lights! Camera! Action! Playlist, kids received instructions on how to conduct interviews, brainstorm stories, and shoot and edit videos. In some cases, young people can earn the chance for mentorship from a professional upon completion of a playlist.

What about in Pittsburgh? What else is next?

In Pittsburgh, we have been mapping what learning pathways look like across the city and working to define and develop them since 2014. Starting in the 2016-2017 school year, Remake Learning Network members will pilot six learning pathways that connect complementary programming across multiple organizations. These six pathways are built from programs and organizations in the city, but connecting them more intentionally helps young people follow their interests and hone their skills.

Among them is a “Young Conservationist” pathway run by a consortium of Pittsburgh ecology nonprofits including Student Conservation Association, GTECH Strategies, Venture Outdoors, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. High school-aged students participating in the pathway receive immersive education in ecological stewardship, with opportunities to learn online, do conservation work in their communities, and work as outdoor trip leaders. As they advance along the Pathway they encounter learning experiences that expose them to the variety of disciplines and job opportunities in urban ecology. Students who complete the most rigorous branch of the pathway will earn a Conservation Leader badge that unlocks the opportunity to participate on an SCA National Crew doing conservation work in a National Forest.

With funding support provided by The Sprout Fund, each pathway will provide hundreds of youth from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County with access to Connected Learning opportunities and chances to earn badges when they level up their skills.

Educators, technologists, and community leaders throughout the Pittsburgh area are constantly thinking about how to link up the countless local learning opportunities in order to connect kids to success in and out of school. Whether through networking at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit, aggregating opportunities on platforms like LRNG, or building bonds informally, the idea is to turn the city into a network of pathways for all the local learners.