Shriver Center education expert leading instructional reform to allow students to learn at their own pace

June 03, 2015

An expert in instructional design at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center is working to improve education in public schools by helping make it possible for all students to learn at their own pace.

Education in kindergarten through Grade 12 traditionally has been centered on units of time, such as a year per grade level, or when a subject such as algebra was taught for the entire school year. Time has been held constant, even though student learning varied. Under competency-based learning, all students work toward becoming proficient in a subject, regardless of the time, method, or pace needed to learn, said Janet S. Twyman, PhD, BCBA, NYSLBA, an associate professor of pediatrics at UMass Medical School and a researcher at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, a unit within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division.

Twyman is leading learning reform as director of innovation and technology for the Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL), which is based at Temple University College of Education.

“It’s really refocused how we look at education, and how we get to ‘all kids learning’ is based on what individual kids need,” said Twyman, an expert in the field of innovative instructional practices for students with and without disabilities. Through competency-based education, for example, the amount of time a subject is taught varies, depending on the student’s learning needs. Some students demonstrate new knowledge or skills in just a few weeks or months, where others may need more time. The important aspect is to give each learner both the right support and level of challenge that he or she needs, so that all students meet their learning goals.

While mastery learning for individual learners is a recognized strategy, “competency-based education as a policy and model schoolwide is just being tested,” said Twyman, who has worked in special education and early childhood education. 

CIL is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Comprehensive Center Network, which was formed to help state education agencies work with districts and schools to meet student achievement goals. CIL is one of seven national content centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education to work with 15 regional comprehensive centers and state agencies in implementing innovations in learning.

The center provides resources to improve learning through the research and analysis of policies and practices for competency-based education, and the development of web-based systems and tools. CIL focuses on innovations for personalized learning, learning technology, learning in and out of school, and students with disabilities.

“I love knowing that I’m doing something that improves education for all kids,” Twyman said.

CIL cites the importance of four personal competencies that affect learning: social-emotional – resilience or grit, the ability to move forward; cognitive – how students think about learning; metacognitive – critical thinking, analytic problem-solving; and motivational – how well engaged the student is in learning and life after school. States and schools are considering different models of competency, including those that would emphasize graduating students who are ready for college and careers.

Education today can be a hybrid, with some online instruction or mentors to help a student learn. Evidence-based education and educational technology is used to improve personalized learning and improve outcomes.

 “There is a heavy incorporation of digital technology in reaching the learning goals. Not just using technology for technology’s sake, but using it to really facilitate reaching and improving the outcomes we’re looking for,” said Twyman, who works on the development of CIL’s web-based systems and tools.  She also is a co-editor of “Handbook on Innovations in Learning” and wrote three of the chapters.

CIL’s funding began in October 2012 with a five-year grant. Temple University allocates $1.5 million for each year of the grant.

Twyman is a former vice president of instructional development, research and implementation for Headsprout, where she led the design, development and dissemination of its Internet-based reading programs. Her experience in designing instructional developmental software for the learning sciences prepared her for her role at CIL.

“The work helped tremendously in what I’m doing now both in understanding what the best practices are and in digital technology, and also in the needs of schools,” Twyman said.

Twyman was awarded the 2015 Ernie Wing Award for Excellence in Evidence-based Education from the Wing Institute for her work in education over the decades.