What Are Flexible Pathways for Learning?


Flexible pathways

For decades, high schools have offered students more or less the same traditional selection of choices: this class or that class, a higher-level course or a lower-level course, an academic program or a technical program. All of these learning choices combine to become a particular student’s pathway to a high school diploma.

Yet because high schools tend to offer only a narrow range of potential pathways, student learning has largely been limited to the handful of educational options provided by the school. But should learning be limited to a small selection of predetermined options or a ninety-minute class? Or should learning be customized to individual needs, interests, and aspirations of students?

Personalized learning pathways empower students to pursue their passions while encouraging them to take more responsibility for their education. Students work with their teachers to blend a variety of educational experiences that satisfy graduation competencies and meet state-required standards, such as career-and-technical, college-level, and online courses, in addition to internships, apprenticeships, and volunteer opportunities that are intentionally designed to integrate with a student’s academic learning. 

How Flexible Pathways for Learning Work

The community becomes a classroom

For more than a century, the traditional classroom has been seen as the only place where students learn. But a room with a chalkboard is not always the best setting for learning about marine life, business, or history, for example, when real oceans, companies, museums, or archeological sites may be located right down the street. When schools embrace the idea that learning can happen beyond the school walls, the entire community becomes a classroom.

Learning can take place any time

Why should learning be limited to the handful of hours students spend in class every week? New online education programs, for example, allow students to catch up with their peers if they fall behind or tackle challenging lessons whenever their schedule allows, while learning internships can give students opportunities to earn academic credit on weekends or during school breaks. The school’s structure and schedule no longer need to be an obstacle to learning.

Students can design their own education

Each student is unique. Some are more interested in science, others in math. Some excel at multiple-choice tests, while others are better at writing essays. Some love to read, while others prefer hands-on learning. Some “get it” right away, while others need more time or encouragement. Instead of forcing every student to learn in the same way, personalized pathways are customized to the needs, interests, and aspirations of individual students.

Learning is integrated, not disconnected

In many schools, students have to choose between a traditional academic program, for example, and a technical program. But why not blend these and other options? Students could take an engineering or robotics course at their regional technical center, English and math at their high school, a science course at the local community college, and an online course that isn’t offered by their school. If all students are held to the same learning expectations, but are allowed to achieve those high standards in more creative and personally meaningful ways, every student can design a personalized pathway to graduation that prepares them for life.

Flexible Learning Pathways Design Guide

Are the pathways at our school open and accessible to all students?
Weaker Pathways

The use of pathways is the exception. Students usually access pathways through advocacy or referral. Students must “earn” access to pathways.

Stronger Pathways

Pathways are known and accessible to all students. Participation in pathways is consistent across all demographic groups. Prerequisites are not barriers to access.

Are pathways integrated into our school program and culture?
Weaker Pathways

Pathways are individually designed. Pathways function as an add-on. Community knowledge and support is inconsistent. School structures can be obstacles to implementation. Pathways operate for a limited group or carry a stigma.

Stronger Pathways

Pathways are coordinated and resources are dedicated to supporting them. Flexible school structures support implementation. Pathways connect the school and community. Pathways are integrated into the school fully and learning in varied ways is celebrated

Are the pathways we offer flexible and varied?
Weaker Pathways

The range of pathways available for students is limited. Pathways are used as distinct and rigid courses of study or programs

Stronger Pathways

A range of pathways exist in classrooms, in co-curricular activities and outside of school. Pathways vary in length of time, learning environment (i.e.,: school-based, community-based, blended, on-line) and depth of study. Students have many opportunities to move among pathways.

Are there opportunities for students to personalize their experiences?
Weaker Pathways

Student choice is primarily limited to the selection of a pathway, course of study, or learning experience. Within these, students experience little opportunity to direct their learning.

Stronger Pathways

Students exercise choice where appropriate in content, process, and demonstration of learning. Teachers and mentors guide student decisions.

Do pathways result inequitable outcomes?Are all pathways vehicles for rigorous, complex learning?
Weaker Pathways

Data on pathway outcomes is not complete or comprehensive. There are discrepancies in the levels of complex thinking or rigor of different pathways. Not all pathways result in student preparation for college, careers, and/or citizenship.

Stronger Pathways

A range of data—both qualitative and quantitative—are used to assess pathway outcomes. All pathways prepare students for success in college, careers, and/or citizenship. Educators and community members collaborate to ensure that student work is assessed according to common high standards.

Do all pathways align to graduation competencies and requirements?
Weaker Pathways

Alignment to graduation competencies varies among pathways

Stronger Pathways

All pathways/courses allow students to demonstrate proficiency on graduation competencies or meet graduation requirements.