These 5 principles can help you empower students with learning paths

You don’t know what you don’t know. Isn’t that the truth!

When I first began teaching, I knew how to make large, challenging learning goals (such as content standards) and purposes clear for students. But while I knew how to clarify learning goals for students, I had a lot to learn about how to do so with students. It took practice and support, but I made small, incremental changes that eventually put my learners on productive, engaging learning paths to success.

What’s a learning path, anyway?

If you’re wondering what I mean by “learning path,” let’s first look at what you already know and do. I bet you already use clarifying learning practices such as sharing learning goals with students (often expressed in the form of learning targets) and success criteria (often expressed in the form of rubrics). And I’m sure most of you have also figured out how to articulate the reasons behind these learning goals in a way that’s meaningful to students.

A learning path is simply a way to put these actions together to empower learners and learning—especially for large, challenging goals such as content standards. Learning paths outline criteria for success in a way that illustrates the learning journey: how students will develop their knowledge, content, and skills to approach, meet, and extend past their large, challenging goals. So that there are no surprises along the journey, learning paths also include formative and summative processes and tools that support each stage.

Learning paths outline criteria for success in a way that illustrates the learning journey: how students will develop their knowledge, content, and skills to approach, meet, and extend past their large, challenging goals.

Learning paths also include learning variability and barrier considerations. This allows for differentiated actions that give equal access and opportunity to all students as they work toward their learning goals. Finally, the learning path is a tool you can use directly with students before, during, and after teaching and learning processes to clarify goals, connect to interests and aspirations, monitor students’ progress, respond to concerns and needs, and celebrate successes.

Inside a learning path

Let’s break down what a simple learning path can look like for a large learning goal. In this example, we’ll look at an eighth grade social studies content standard: “Explain specific roles and responsibilities of citizens.” First, I’ll lay out the three major components of the learning path, including supporting practices that can be categorized as either formative or summative. Then I’ll explain how I went about putting it all together.

1. Approaching

As learners approach this learning goal, they can identify—verbally or in writing—the roles and responsibilities of citizens. The learners can accurately answer or create questions on citizen roles and responsibilities in Kahoot! games, discussion, and practice questions (formative).

2. Meeting

Learners who are meeting this learning goal can explain—verbally or in writing—the specific roles and responsibilities of citizens. The learners can work with partners or small groups to specifically and accurately explain these roles and responsibilities in practice scenarios (formative), and they can work independently to do this in a new scenario (summative).

3. Extending

As learners extend beyond this learning goal, they can connect—verbally or in writing—their explanation of citizen roles and responsibilities to a current event. They can work with partners or small groups to explain how citizen roles and responsibilities are illustrated in practice current events (formative), and they can work independently to do this in a new current event (summative).

How it all fits together

To make this learning path, I started with reviewing my learners’ context so that my thinking and decisions were informed by their strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs. For more about learner context, see my previous articles “How to get to know your students” and “Begin your assessment empowerment journey.” This is how I knew my students would be interested in using scenarios and connections to current events.

Next, I examined the large learning goal (the social studies content standard) to understand the intended rigor, complexity, and progression of the goal’s knowledge, content, and skills. There are different approaches to examining goals. I like to identify the actions (verbs) and content or knowledge (nouns), which keeps my focus on the learning intentions.

Monitor, celebrate, and take next steps in the learning journey.

With the actions, content, and knowledge in mind, I turned to complexity tools for further guidance. Tools for examining large learning goals vary from one content area to the next, and they can often be found on the websites of state education departments or educational organizations. (For example, here’s a set of ELA standards from Nebraska, and here’s a math framework from Achieve.)

For our social studies example, I used a simple, general tool for categorizing knowledge, content, and skill, which you can find in my blog post “How to pick the right digital tool: Start with your learning goal.” If you’re not sure which examining tools to use, consider asking an instructional leader at your school or district.

After identifying what approaching, meeting, and extending looked like for this large learning goal, I listed some formative and summative assessment processes that matched the complexity of the goal. You can see these processes identified in the example above. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list; we need to leave room for in-the-moment responses and “moves.” It is also important to identify matching assessment processes and even check them for quality ahead of time. Otherwise, we can inadvertently create issues of mismatch, unfairness, or bias.

Finally, I included a note about differentiation, allowing for some flexibility (i.e., verbally or in writing) in how learners express what they know. This particular large goal does not specify that the learning must be demonstrated in a particular mode, so there is an opportunity for student voice and choice. This helps to normalize learning differences and ensure that students can make their own choices throughout their learning journey.

Putting a learning path into practice

Once I’ve outlined the learning path behind the scenes, I can use it to inform my responsive unit and lesson plans. I can also use it with students throughout the learning journey in the form of handouts, posters, PowerPoint slides, or other interactive media. Here are a few ways that a learning path can be used with students (or their adult supports):

  • Once students are knowledgeable about one possible path drafted by the educator, team, or professional learning community, they can help propose or craft alternate paths, if appropriate. Collaborating in this way can help lighten some of the hard work currently resting on educators’ shoulders.
  • When paired with self-assessment or peer feedback prompts and student work examples, the path becomes like the directions you find in a GPS tool like Google Maps. You’ve got a starting point and a destination, and you generally know what to expect along the way in terms of detours, rest stops, and other responsive moves. This information empowers learners to be copilots rather than passengers, making high-impact responsive decisions and actions throughout their learning journey.
  • When the path for a large learning goal is illustrated, students can be prompted to express, in their own words, the purpose for the goal and how their personal interests and aspirations fit into the bigger picture. (For more, check out “Read the latest in student goal setting guidance.”)
  • With examples and practice, you can use the path with students to co-construct what success looks like on specific assignments. Look again at our example of a social studies learning goal. With the learning path information in mind, what would “approaching” look like when students are explaining scenarios? What about “meeting” and “extending”? Prompting students to help define these terms is a powerful way to demystify what success looks like.

What sets learning paths apart from other tools

Now you might be wondering, “How is a learning path different from a rubric, a proficiency scale, or other similar tools?”

Optimize unit and lesson plans by ‘baking in’ what is inspiring, motivating, and interesting to learners.

At least in my experience, a rubric is often assignment-specific. That is, the rubric has descriptors for a specific work sample, product, or performance that students create or complete. In contrast, a learning path makes sure the focus of the learning journey stays on the intended complexity expectations of the learning goals, which can help minimize instances of mismatched assessment processes or diluted rigor. Also, notice that the learning path language is stated in terms of what students can or will be able to do along every part of the learning journey. Too often, rubrics include language—especially at the approaching developing level—that overemphasize what may be missing or wrong, which can shut down learning.

As for proficiency scales, these tools can be useful for expressing success criteria and articulating what progress toward a standard can look like. However, they can also become oversimplified, mechanical, exclusive (e.g., “the student demonstrates applications that go beyond what was taught in class”), and score-oriented, which undermines the mindset, structures, and practices of assessment empowerment.

5 planning keys that can help you

We’ve covered a lot of information here! To help break it all down into manageable steps, my colleagues and I created five planning keys. These are specific actions that set up educators and students for success with responsive learning cycle practices. Our goal with this guidance is to help you unlock learning success, well-being, and agency for all students.

  1. Start with and return to “who”: who your learners are.
  2. Examine large goals to make learning paths.
  3. Anticipate variability and barriers.
  4. Check assessment processes for quality.
  5. Empower learners as partners.

To apply the keys to your unit or lesson plans, here are some steps to take:

  • Explore this worksheet to get a sense of the path-making process.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate what you already do!
  • Consider trying out the worksheet with one large, challenging learning goal that you will use for an extended period, whether it’s several weeks, a quarter, or a semester. Focusing on one goal will help you and your students notice valuable information that you can apply to other large learning goals.
  • After practice, apply the guidance to more than one goal at a time, which will support you and your students to plan for and make increasingly agile responsive moves.

Power of the path: Benefits you can expect

When you’ve created clear, visible learning paths, you’ll notice it will become easier to collaborate with learners (and their caregivers) on a number of critical actions:

  • Optimize unit and lesson plans by “baking in” what is inspiring, motivating, and interesting to learners.
  • Find authentic understanding and purpose for the learning goals.
  • Make connections between the large learning goal and smaller goals, such as lesson objectives, whole-class goals, interim assessment goals, and student-made goals. (For more on goal-setting activities with learners, check out “Read the latest in student goal setting guidance,” “2 types of student goal setting that empower early learners,” and “Goal-setting foundations for pre-K–2 teachers.”)
  • Anticipate learning variability, options, and supports ahead of time, reducing the time and energy spent on remediation and intervention.
  • Monitor, celebrate, and take next steps in the learning journey.
  • Mend issues of accessibility, inclusivity, and bias in assessment processes before use with students.
  • Engage learners (and their adult supports) with crafting alternate paths, when appropriate.

And here’s an added bonus: When learners are true partners in learning processes, they are less likely to act out. Over time, using learning paths with students can increase their engagement and ownership, thus reducing “problem” behaviors such as disruptions, reluctance, or absence.

Empowering students through partnership

When I began teaching, I thought I knew what I was supposed to do to make learning goals clear. Now, looking back, I recognize that I was clarifying goals for students instead of clarifying goals and empowering learning with students.

As I learned how to authentically partner with students by using learning paths, I saw inspiring gains in students’ success, well-being, and self-efficacy, while my frustration and workload decreased. It does take time and practice to make this shift, but the investment is well worth it. I encourage you to try out our planning keys with a colleague or mentor and celebrate what the process reveals.

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