Hacking Your Learning Path

Do you feel like ushering in a revolution? It’s that revolution that’s going to transform education. You might be tired of waiting for it, and you’re ready to take things into your own hands. If ushering in an entire revolution is too much at this time, there is a way to give the revolution a foothold in your organization. You can let students “hack” their learning path. You can do this by carving out school time that allows students to pursue their own learning on any topic. During this time, teachers function as guides and mentors, and they help students rediscover that inquisitive nature that is coded into their DNA (watch Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sir Ken Robinson). Our factory model of education extinguishes that, but personalized learning paths can flip that on its head.

Many districts already have “schools within a school,” which work like academies or charter schools.They usually have directors or principals who may or may not report to the building principal. This hacking revolution can work in a similar fashion. Your traditional education can reign for 85% of the school day, but for 15% of the day, let there be total anarchy. Let students pursue their own learning goals and actually identify their dreams and make progress toward them. If this can’t be achieved during school hours, no problem. Open up school resources after hours. Find teacher who are willing to be mentors for 45 minutes a few days a week.
Parents, follow along. If the revolution does not arrive to your children’s school, you can lead it at home. Sometimes complicated bus schedules can prevent revolutions, but that doesn’t mean that your child can’t ride the wave.
To help students hack their learning paths, we will need to help them build a learning infrastructure and teach them how to manage their own learning. Teachers will function as Socratic flash mobs. We will be there to help, seemingly out of nowhere. As students pursue their goals in art or finance or writing or programming, we will be available for authentic pieces of learning.
Here are the steps to rolling out this hacking revolution:

Identify What You Want to Learn

If it’s a skill that students want to learn, have them break the skill down into sub-skills. They might not even know what those sub-skills are to begin with. Have them update their learning goal as they go. If it’s a topic or concept that they want to learn, the process is the same. Identify categories and sub-categories.

This is an exploratory stage for students. Here are some tools that they can work with:

InstaGrok: This site lets users research a topic with an interactive map that helps students visualize data. Students can search for facts, links, and videos. instaGrok is really great at visualizing the connection between topics, connections that students may never have realized existed.

StumbleUpon:  This site is an easiest way to find interesting new websites, videos, photos and images from a user’s favorite topic or category.

What Do You Love: This little-known Google search feature lets users find more of what they love by searching across numerous Google products with one click.

From Google's WDYL search feature.
From Google’s WDYL search feature.

Build Your Infrastructure

This is the fun part. In Hollywood, this beginning of Act 2 where the hero assembles his or her allies and gathers the necessary supplies.

After students have an idea of what their goals are, have them build their own infrastructure for learning. If they are working outside of class, they will need to identify the time, place, and tools they will need. Help students identify what obstacles they have in their way for learning, and help them overcome those obstacles.

Obstacles Slow You Down

Assemble Your Personal Learning Team

Help students assemble a personal learning team. They, themselves, may be part of someone else’s team. Here’s who they need:

Mentor –  This person serves as an overall guide. This person shows students “the way” along the learning path. The term mentor comes from the Odyssey. Mentor was a character (the goddess Athena in disguise) who guided Telemachus on his “hero’s journey.” Not a bad job. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identified this mentors as “The Wise Old Man” or “The Wise Old Woman.” For our purposes, let’s stick with “mentor.” Yes, definitely mentor. Mentors don’t teach the content on this learning path (not necessarily anyhow). They teach the student how to navigate the path.

Coach – This person helps the student with accountability. Are students meeting their goals? Are they following the path? Are they working toward a finish? Do they have work they can showcase? The mentor or peer can fill this role.

Learning Network – Help students establish a network with both like-minded cohorts and area experts from across the web. Twitter’s not just for fun now. Teach students how to reach out to the stars in their chosen field.

Create A Curated Learning List

Students have the opportunity here to find content that matches their learning style. They will continue to explore here, but now they are looking for specific learning content. They will create a curated learning list that will continue to update itself. Go to sleep at night. Wake up to new content. Here’s what they will need:

Aggregated Learning

Quora: Quora is about questions and answers, which is the basic DNA of the Internet. Quality answers that are curated.

YouTube: Find experts on YouTube and subscribe to their channel. Many experts update regularly.

TedTalks: Have students follow their topic on TedTalks.

Twitter Hashtags: Have students follow goal-related hashtags on Twitter. They will find new content each day.

Reading Lists – Have students create both a pulp and digital reading list.

Humans – Big step here. Help students arrange actual conversations with experts in their chosen pursuits and endeavors. It might be a teacher in your school. It might be an expert in the community.

MOOC-List: This site offers a complete list of free massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are offered by universities and other organizations.

Courses, Tutoring & Coaching

Udemy – Learn virtually anything at Udemy. Study web development, entrepreneurship, yoga, photography, etc.

SkillShare: Skillshare is a global community where you can learn real-world skills from incredible teachers.

iTunes U: On iTune U, students can study a new language. Shakespeare, astronomy, and so on. There are over 500,000 free lectures, videos, books, and other resources on thousands of subjects.

Coursera: Coursera partners with universities and organizations to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.

CoachUp: The nation’s leader in private sports coaching, with thousands of coaches on their site in every sport and in every state across the U.S.


Josh Kaufman tells us in his book The First Twenty Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast that learners can see noticeable progress in their goals in just twenty hours. World class athletes or top experts in a field may spend 10,000+ hours perfecting their skills, but the average person can make tremendous strides in just 20 hours. After students build their learning infrastructure, have them to commit to that twenty hours of compressed practice and learning to begin with.

“Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”  –Teller ( of Penn & Teller)

These first twenty hours should include quality, deep learning. Help them identify and remove distractions during this time.

Curating Resources

Students should curate the resources that they use and track their work. Here are some good tools for doing that:

Scoop.it: Scoop.it lets you curate web content with your own notes and put into a magazine layout.

Delicious: This is another site that lets users keep, share, and discover some of the best content on the web. Scoop.it and Delicious are great for digital resources.

Trello: This site lets uses keep track of anything and manage big and small projects.

Check out Karen Cheng’s (the girl you learned to dance in a year) Life board on Trello:



Journal – Students can also use a traditional journal to record their studies. Here’s one my son (12 yrs) uses for his personal learning:

Arjay JO2

For my kids, the revolution is at home. Our expectation is to carve out time every single day for personal growth. They have a lot of choices, and the variety is good for them. The journals keep them honest, and once they have a long streak of practice going, they don’t want to break the streak.  Every week we review the journals and have adult conversations on what they’re doing and where they want to go. We actually put personal learning in front of homework now on the nightly schedule. We’ve found that we will stay up late for homework, but maybe not to code or play guitar. So to not “cheat” themselves out of a personal learning experience . . . we do that first.


Students should try to spend time each day managing their learning. Successful learners and leaders both do this. They should reflect on where they’ve been so they can chart a better path on where they want to go. They should list or curate the content they are studying. They need to ask themselves what they are getting good at and what they need to work on.

Continuous Improvement

Students should continue to curate their learning pathways and learning lists. They should have honest self- assessments and give their accountability coaches access to what they are doing. They should look to showcase their skills and knowledge. And then continue to follow this process:

Practice. Reflect. Repeat.

Further Reading

Host a BYOOER Party! (15 Steps for an OER Launch)

Start a Life Hacker Club at Your School

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Janet Brown

This article is absolutely wonderful! I have already bookmarked everything! My son and I are already talking about how he and I can use the this process. We are both very excited about it! You get five stars for this!

Adam Renfro

Great, Janet! Let us know how it goes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.