When used in the singular, learning pathway refers to the specific courses, academic programs, and learning experiences that individual students complete as they progress in their education toward graduation. In its plural form, the term learning pathways—or any of its common synonyms, such as multiple pathways or personalized pathways—typically refers to the various courses, programs, and learning opportunities offered by schools, community organizations, or local businesses that allow students to earn academic credit and satisfy graduation requirements.
The “learning pathway” concept nearly always implies an expansion of educational options beyond the course sequences historically offered to students. The concept is most commonly applied to educational experiences, usually at the high-school level, that occur outside of traditional classroom settings or school buildings, such as internships, apprenticeships, independent research projects, online classes, travel, community-service projects, or dual-enrollment experiences, for example. While many schools are either creating and incorporating alternative learning options for students, academic courses remain the foundational learning experiences offered by most schools; therefore, they would still be considered one of the “learning pathways” available to students.
While a learning pathway may encompass a wide variety of educational experiences in diverse settings, these experiences are typically connected to school courses and programs (i.e., what students are learning in school), while also allowing students to satisfy graduation requirements (at least in the sense in which the term is predominately used in the education community). Students typically earn grades, credit, or other forms of academic recognition for completing a learning-pathway experience. If a learning experience is entirely disconnected from school programs, it may or may not to be considered a learning pathway.
In many cases, learning pathways allow students to meet state learning standards, and teachers or other school personnel will be involved in designing, overseeing, or evaluating student performance in a learning-pathway experience—although volunteers, mentors, and experts from outside a school may also be involved. A working professional mentoring a student during an internship at a local company would be one representative example. In this case, the business professional might work collaboratively with a teacher to create an internship program that not only provides workplace training and job experience to participating students, but that is also connected to what is being taught in an academic course. Again, if an internship is entirely disconnected from a school curriculum or state learning standards, it may or may not be considered a “learning pathway” by educators (even if those same educators still recognize the intrinsic value of an internship experience for the student).
Historically, high schools have offered learning pathways in the form of predetermined course sequences, or “academic tracks,” such as college-prep, honors, or career and technical education, each of which would reflect different learning objectives and requirements. In most cases, these tracks consist largely of courses taught by teachers in classrooms, labs, workshops, and other school-based settings. Learning pathways intersect with strategies such as authentic learning, personalized learning, and student-centered learning, among others, which generally seek to expand or change the instructional approaches schools use to educate students.
As a reform strategy, learning pathways are premised on the idea that the education of students does not have to be delivered exclusively by teachers or confined to traditional classrooms; learning can occur at different times and in different places. Students can learn in their community, in a workplace, or by observing natural habitats, for example, and they can learn under the guidance and tutelage of business professionals, tradespeople, scientists, and community leaders in addition to teachers. By formalizing “multiple pathways” or “personalized pathways” as viable educational options for students, schools can create alternative learning experiences that may be better suited to some students while also expanding the number and type of learning options they make available to students.
Learning pathways are also premised on the idea that learning accomplishments should be recognized, rewarded, or valued consistently and equally regardless of whether students learn in a school, outside a school, or online. If one student learns a concept through reading and researching, for example, while another student learns the same concept through a volunteer experience or internship, schools can assign the same “value”—in the form of grades, credit, or academic recognition—to both “pathways.” In this way, learning pathways are related to proficiency-based learning, which places greater emphasis on the products of a learning experience (what knowledge and skills students actually acquire) than on the process (how or where students learn the skills and knowledge they are expected to learn). If schools explicitly measure the knowledge and skills students acquire when pursuing a learning pathway, and they base their assessments on consistently applied learning standards, they may refer to learning pathways as competency-based pathways or proficiency-based pathways, among other terms.
Another important distinction is the difference between pathways that are offered and those that are created. Historically, schools have offered a selection of courses and programs, and students selected the options that seemed best suited to their learning needs, interests, or aspirations. In many schools, learning pathways are similarly designed—schools are just expanding the number and types of educational options available to students.
In other schools, however, students and teachers may be given greater flexibility to design more customized learning experiences that are based on specific student learning needs or interests. For example, a school may not be able to offer courses in Japanese (perhaps because it is too small and cannot afford a Japanese teacher), but it may allow a student to take a Japanese course at a local university and receive high school credit for completing the class. In this case, the college-level Japanese class might be considered equivalent to a world-language elective. The school might also allow a student to pursue an independent-study project in Japanese history and culture under the guidance of an academic affiliated with a local Japanese cultural organization, or the school may award some form of academic recognition or credit to a student who traveled to Japan, documented the trip in photographs, and wrote about the experience. In all of these cases, the grades, credit, and other forms of academic recognition awarded to students would be based on some form of predetermined academic expectations or standards, and learning achievement would be evaluated by educators in the school. Related strategies include capstone projects, demonstrations of learning, personal learning plans, and portfolios.
Those who advocate for the expansion of learning pathways in schools tend to argue that such alternative educational experiences offer students more rewarding, inspiring, or valuable learning opportunities that can engage their personal interests, passions, learning styles, or career aspirations better than more traditional academic options. They may also contend that such outside-of-school educational experiences can better prepare students for college or careers, since they can equip students with a variety of practical skills that will have direct application after they graduate. In other words, actually taking a course at a community college or learning about workplace expectations through an internship will better prepare students for college-level learning and career success.
Critics of learning pathways as an explicit school-reform strategy may argue that the concept, while potentially compelling in theory, can be extremely challenging or overly complicated when put into practice. For example: How will students be transported from the high school to a local college or business during the school day? Who will pay the associated transportation costs? Who’s responsible for the students when they are traveling between the school and an internship site? What are the liability issues if an accident occurs? How much time will it take to move students from place to place, and will that time disrupt the rest of the student’s course schedule? If students are learning under the guidance of an adult who is not a certified teacher, how can the school ensure that students are receiving a high-quality educational experience or meeting expected learning standards? In a word, how can schools reasonably control educational quality, personal safety, and other critical factors if students are not in school or being taught by trained teaching professionals?
While logistical complications present many challenges to schools offering learning pathways, the more significant concerns for educators tend to be related to potential variability in academic value. Since school administrators and teachers must necessarily give up some degree of oversight when students pursue an outside-of-school learning pathway, it can be more challenging to maintain academic quality, ensure that students are meeting expected learning standards, and evaluate what students have or have not learned. Advocates, however, might counter-argue that a thoughtfully designed learning-pathways program, scaled to the fit a school’s capacity and resources, can address logistical complications and ensure a quality learning experience that enables students to meet expected learning standards.