January 29, 2015

Learning Pathways: Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Categories: Edtech, Educational Practice
animation of black blots connected by intricate web of line pathways

A few months ago, in a post entitled Scaffolding Web Literacy Through Learning Pathways, I differentiated between training pathways (“a series of steps that lead to the individual being able to reproduce knowledge or action”) and learning pathways (“experiences lead[ing] to the re-shaping of… future behaviour”).


In this post, I want to dive deeper into learning pathways, dividing these types of pathways into broadly two groups. There are those kinds of pathways that are descriptive and those that are prescriptive. Neither of these labels is pejorative, as each could be appropriate given a particular context. This way of looking at learning pathways has often come up in conversations around Open Badges:

Descriptive pathways approaches seek to acknowledge the ways that people willfully choose to earn badges. This technique may feel more natural to the badge earner since they’re defining their own paths. In this manner, the badge earner makes use of personal agency. Prescriptive approaches seek to declare one standard or recommended badge earning path over another. It can feel more limiting and formal. The badge earner is compelled to follow the proposed pathway or drop out of the pathway. Each approach has its own pluses and minuses. (Carla Casilli)

Given the “pluses and minuses” of each, it’s worth exploring how a combination of these approaches could work in practice. After all, prescriptive pathways tend to score higher on traditional conceptions of ‘rigour’ (more on that here) while descriptive pathways provide opportunities for interest-based, just-in-time learning. One reason I was drawn to the badges work while still working in formal education was that it allows for prescriptive pathways to be augmented with evidence from descriptive pathways. These descriptive pathways could have already have taken place, be currently in progress, or constitute what Rafi Santo calls ‘desire paths’ — to be explored in the future. This is closely linked to ‘interest powered’ part of the Connected Learning principles.


As human beings we are constantly re-evaluating our place in the world. This involves making sense of our relationships to each other, to things, and to places — but also to past versions of ourselves. What’s the story I can tell others about how I got from the 16-year-old version of me standing before you? Prescriptive pathways can help with this in terms of bona fides but descriptive pathways, particularly if they contain “milestone markers” are also useful. They provide qualitative data to help round out and make sense of the quantitative data emitted by formal credentials. 

Sense-making often occurs after an experience: that doesn’t render the process any less meaningful, even if that process has seemed peculiarly arbitrary and idiosyncratic. (Carla Casilli) 

Combining both prescriptive and descriptive pathways allows, I would suggest, for a number of benefits that may not be immediately apparent:

● Improved learner motivation — if learners can choose pathways that make sense to them, then they are likely to be more motivated to continue learning.

● More inclusive curricula — instead of learners being taken through a curriculum in lockstep, they can proceed at their own pace and delve deeper into particular interests.

● Increased flexibility — a more modular structure allows for different ways to achieve the same ends (which can be captured by badges, certificates, endorsements, recommendations, e-portfolios, etc.)


Learning pathways are a powerful way of thinking about the educational experiences we offer in both formal and informal settings. Combining both prescriptive and descriptive approaches can allow for external perceptions of ‘rigour’ while allowing for increased motivation, inclusivity and flexibility.

Karen Smith (University of Toronto / Hive Learning Networks) and I are currently writing a Mozilla whitepaper about learning pathways. We’d very much like to hear from those doing innovative work in blending prescriptive and descriptive pathways for the benefit of learners. Please do add any links to examples you have in the comments below!

Banner image credit: Jared Tarbell