Cow Paths of Learning

Why are the sidewalks on college campuses placed the way they are? 

Walk around a campus and you’ll see paths in the grass that have been created by people with the clear intent of avoiding the sidewalks.   Most likely, the sidewalks should have been placed where the paths are.   Users know best, right?

Sidewalks are prescribed pathways for people that define where they should walk.  They represent a part of the campus master plan that provides a system for getting around campus.  They are designed for efficiency and organizational functionality.  In the eyes of the master planner, all of that makes perfect sense.  It’s a good thing. 

For the user, someone else has decided for you how you will get from Point A to B.   That may not be the most efficient, the fastest, or preferable.  It may be not your way.

So you have two choices, take their path or make yours.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to design cow paths instead of sidewalks from the very beginning?   What would be required to do that?  Would that be better? 

Of course, the whole concept of “sidewalks/cowpaths” provides an interesting metaphor for looking at curriculum, instruction and learning in schools.

In a typical school, the curriculum and the instruction are the “sidewalks” of learning.  Prescribed.  Organizational.  Defined.  Predictable.  They represent a methodology for getting from Point A to B.  Unit A transitions to Unit B, and so on.  Take the test, what’s next down the path?  And so on.

What would it take to add learner-defined pathways through curriculum?  That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  What would it take to shift instruction (a teacher action) to learning (a student action)?  How could you provide options, encourage learner choice, and have students create individualized pathways that might be unpredictable?  How could kids create their own cow paths?

More questions.

  • How could you, as a teacher, or as a school, work towards understanding where learners want to go and help them create their own path? 
  • How could you, as a teacher, or as a school, provide the elements of the pathway and allow learners to create their own trajectory?
  • How could you, as a teacher, or as a school, provide the guidance required to shape a pathway, knowing that this process would most likely be an emergent skill of your learners and that they’ll need help? 

Understand where they want to go.  Give them the tools and resources.  Give them support and guidance.  Help them make learning and the pathway for it their own.

Create cowpaths and not sidewalks. 


David Jakes is a recognized leader in the educational technology field, focusing on using the design process to support the organizational growth, development and change required to create relevant and meaningful conditions for student learning in schools.  David’s thought leadership includes addressing the increased need to develop agile, connected, and personalized learning environments that support a contemporary education, and how the use of technology can be re-imagined to create boundless opportunities for learning.  Before his current position as an independent consultant and as the Director of Learning Spaces with the EdTechTeam, David spent almost three decades in education as a teacher, technologist, and administrator. David's design experience includes working as a Digital Designer and Strategist for CannonDesign and The Third Teacher+, a leading architecture firm and learning space consultancy.   David is a frequent presenter at national and international educational conferences where he speaks about the power and promise of a new expedition for learning, and the roles that all educators have in shaping that journey. 

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