It’s not Just About Multiple Pathways

In a discussion about personalized learning recently, a colleague (who is a high school principal) said, “personalized learning is not just about multiple pathways”. And she’s right!

However, offering multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency is one critical feature of a personalized learning environment. As student populations shrink in many areas, the prospect of losing students to college courses or internships has some administrators concerned about how multiple pathways might lead to the need to cut valued faculty positions. Here are some thoughts on this:

  • Offering multiple pathways is a student centered decision and (at least in Vermont) the law since the enactment of Act 77 in June of 2013. We know allowing students different learning environments can help prepare them for both college and the workplace. We also know that when offering choice, students are more invested. It is much easier for Bobby to say, “Senior math sucks!” when he feels he’s forced to take it. When he makes a choice to take a course, he is less likely to berate the experience as something forced on him. In fact, if he’s using trigonometry for construction or science for a lab internship at a hospital, he is going to be much more interested because it will be more relevant.
  • Disenchanted students are more likely to stay in school if they know they can look forward to learning in a different way in their junior and senior years. If a student dislikes school within the four walls, attending for four years can seem like an eternity to adolescent. But with the promise of taking courses at the tech center, at a college, online, or as an internship, the four-year drudgery becomes two years with a big incentive when you arrive at junior year. Personally, I have had advisees that were convinced they were only going to stay in school until they were sixteen, but they stayed in school and graduated because they were able to try learning in a different way.
  • Participating in multiple pathways may or may not mean you are taking fewer courses at your host high school. I’ve had students that wanted to stay in Advanced Spanish, Bio-Chem, Calculus II, Honors English and electives. But they also chose to take physiology online or a world geography course through virtual high school so they could maintain their “senior experience” while also preparing for their goal of pre-med or attending a competitive college.
  • Offering multiple pathways alone isn’t personalized learning. If you are just offering random “other opportunities to learn”, you are missing the point of a personalized learning environment. This is not just about choice, but also about a student looking at what their future goals are, and thinking about how they do their best learning, and developing a path for them that will maximize their potential. This kind of reflection, goal setting, guidance and proficiency-based learning does not just happen because you allow students to take college courses or participate in internships.

So true, if your school’s vision for personalized learning stops with multiple pathways, there is little fidelity in delivering a truly personalized learning experience. However, if you combine multiple pathways with a clear articulation of graduate expectations, a personalized learning plan that focuses on goal setting, reflection and long-term planning (that is created with fidelity between the student, parent and advisor) and you allow students to learn and demonstrate their learning in ways that best meet their needs, then yes, you will have a personalized learning environment.