We talk a lot about learning networks and pathways on this blog. But we often get asked, “What does a network actually look like? Is it a concrete thing or just an abstract idea?”

In a nutshell, it’s both.

As we approach the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit on November 21, we thought it might be a good time to answer these questions, and describe what we mean by “learning pathway.” A learning pathway is indeed a real thing, but it’s also an idea that guides our work here at Remake Learning. So what does a pathway really look like for a Pittsburgh kid?

Let’s imagine there’s a high school student, and let’s call her Maria. Maria is really into taking pictures and videos on Instagram, so her teacher recommends she check out the YMCA Lighthouse Program. She gets her first exposure to media production, photo editing, and lends a hand on a short film.

Now that she’s got the basic technical know-how down, she decides to work on some of her own footage at The Labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She starts going to open lab hours but ends up sitting in on workshops where she learns about green screens and Adobe After Effects.

At The Labs, Maria discovers Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Youth Media Program. She and a group of other students work with Super 8 cameras to make a film they feel pretty good about, so they enter it in the Take a Shot film festival from Steeltown Entertainment.

Up until this point, Maria’s films and photos have all been funny narratives. But she’s interested in using film and storytelling for documentaries, which she’s recently begun watching on YouTube. She wonders if there’s a program where she could try that out—and finds just what she’s looking for at Pittsburgh Youth Media.

By this point, Maria’s schoolwork is starting to reflect these new summer and afterschool opportunities. In school she’s connecting coursework to things she’s learned out of school, and she’s even documented some of her new skills with badges. Plus, she’s way into film.

Maria is not alone in finding these connections and outlets. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening in Pittsburgh to make Maria’s hypothetical pathway a reality. Though it might seem as if she happened upon all these media production opportunities by happenstance, a pathway like this actually takes quite a bit of coordination and work on the part of educators in Pittsburgh, both in and outside of school.

At the Kids+Creativity Network we’re working hard to bring together educators and topic area experts across our region to map out these pathways.

How? Seven working groups have mapped out sets of competencies teens need to know in order to advance in robotics or design, for example. And they’re considering which pathways kids could take to gain those skills. For example, the coding and gaming working group considers which specific skills a young person needs to go from a beginning to an advanced level in game design. The group examines which programs are already in place and asks what’s missing.

Ideally, badges will be little breadcrumbs along these learning pathways. Badges are digital credentials that let kids document the skills they’ve learned. Maria’s already completed the camera fundamentals badge at Steeltown Entertainment. Next step could be digital storytelling at Heinz History Center.

“The approach we’re taking is not to churn out a bunch of badges and hope they connect,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, the nonprofit that’s leading this community effort. “Instead, we’re trying work with potential badge issuers to understand how badges will work within a continuum of in-school and out-of-school learning experiences.”

Every major city has creative afterschool or summer activities. And the idea of connected learning ecosystems, or basically turning cities into big campuses, went national last summer with Cities of Learning in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

In Pittsburgh, we’re building on this momentum by helping connect participating organizations so that they’re familiar with the other opportunities out there. That way, program staff can help young people figure out where they can head next to level up their competencies in gaming, media production, robotics, and more.

To us, these pathways are serious business. An education that prepares kids for the ever-changing future should be multi-faceted, full of chances to explore interests and make mistakes. Schools shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for this education, and we envision these pathways running parallel to that experience, each one enriching the other.

“If we’re talking about learning pathways, we’re having a conversation about how learning is a journey, not a destination,” said Anna Smith, a doctoral candidate who researches learning pathways, in a Connected Learning webinar last year. “And I think we’re hyper-focused in education right now on those destination markers. Our curriculum, our standards, our assessments —what counts as learning is being confined by that.”

Sometimes it’s tricky to visualize what all this work with learning pathways looks like on a large scale—thus hypothetical Maria. But it won’t be hard to see the real results from the new pathways kids in Pittsburgh are trailblazing right now.

We’ll have more to report after workshopping these ideas with more than 400 teachers, students, mentors, and others at the Pittsburgh Learning Pathways Summit this Friday. Follow along on Twitter with #LearningPathways for live updates throughout the day.