Interview conducted by Michelle Nelson
Throughout her career as a preschool and elementary teacher, school principal and administrator, university professor, instructional designer, and educational consultant, Dr. Twyman has been an avid proponent of teaching and learning technologies that produce individual and system change. She is sought after speaker nationally and internationally, presenting on education, technology, and behavior analysis, including speaking about new technologies for diverse learners and settings at the United Nations. She has served on the boards of numerous organizations including the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (chairing the Education Group) and PEER International (assisting township schools in Port Elizabeth, South Africa). In 2007-08 she served as President of the Association for Behavior Analysis International and in 2014 was named an ABAI Fellow. Formerly the Vice President of Instructional Development, Research, & Implementation at Headsprout, currently Dr. Twyman serves as the Director of Innovation & Technology for the U.S. Dept. of Education funded Center on Innovations in Learning and is the founder and Chief Learning Scientist at blast: A Learning Sciences Company. She also holds a faculty appointment as Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She has published and presented widely on instructional design, evidence-based innovations in education, and systems that produce meaningful differences in learners’ lives. For her distinguished contributions to educational research and practice she has received the 2015 Wing Award for Evidence-Based Education and the 2017 American Psychological Association Division 25 Fred S. Keller Behavioral Education Award.
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I grew up in Kentucky, which is horse country, but surprisingly that is not where I started riding. My husband and I love horses (and all animals) and we started horseback riding during our vacations throughout the southwest. We soon realized that level of riding “nose to tail.” The horses were on autopilot; it didn’t matter if we were “riding’ or not. We then decided to take lessons, (a little over 10 years ago) and started learning to ride in Queens, NY—believe it or not there are still a few stables left in NYC. We were schooled to ride English, but ride Western whenever we’re at our home in AZ. In late 2016 we adopted 2 young, wild mustangs and have been using behavior analytic procedures (clicker training, shaping, etc.) to train them almost everything: to accept a human touch, lots of other desensitization, to follow voice and gesture commands, and accept a saddle and ultimately a rider. We have fun just learning things too, for instance I’m now teaching them shape discrimination and turn taking. They’re super interested, learn very quickly, and it turns out grapes make perfect reinforcers!
Since you have had a career assisting schools to make changes, is there any parallel to the old notion of “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink”?
Well of course as behavior analysts we don’t really believe in this notion; although there are some behaviors that take much more analytical and training/teaching expertise than others. For anything new I teach my mustangs I first have to think about whether or not they can physically do it, or how to break it down so that they can do it. Then I work on ensuring they want to do it (what’s in it for them), and doing it when I want them to (under good stimulus control, including environmental stimuli not occasioned by my behavior). And we practice enough and make it fun so that the behavior becomes “automatic.” I try to do all of this without being coercive.
In education there’s still the idea that any change is the “latest fad;” there’s a level of resistance if the thought if the expectations for change won’t last. So, yes I do think there are parallels to education, both in the classroom or school and in big systems in education. Yet my approach is the same: make sure the behavior is doable; ensure there’s motivation and environmental support; reduce or eliminate coercion; always look to the contingencies.
How do you collaborate with people in education that may not buy into a behavior analytic approach?
Having worked with public schools since the beginning of my career, I’ve learned over the years that the critical focus isn’t to have buy-in for behavior analysis, but to put their effort and enthusiasm (buy-in) behind what works (which is often—always—a behavior analytic approach). Most education people I work with likely don’t know that I am a behaviorist, per se. They do know that I am pragmatic and data oriented. My primary role with state education departments is as a consultant on a particular topic. They are not as concerned about my philosophical orientation; they want me to help solve their problem–in a way that makes sense and works for them. Credibility and trust come from those positive outcomes.
Do you think people are skeptical at first and become more receptive once they see results? Do you try to “speak their language” at first and interpret it behaviorally?
At the Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL)[i](we are funded by the US Department of Education to work with State Education Departments across the country), none of my co-workers have formal behavioral training, yet we do great work together because we have a shared premise: focus on what we can observe and change, use what has been known to work, measure the effects, and revise based on what we see and can document. While my CIL colleagues and our school system clients don’t call it such, we approach change from a contingency analytic view, not attending solely to the form or topography of their verbal behavior, but also the function—what is actually going on that may not represented in the words being said? We try to pinpoint the things that they want to change (what the issues and goals are) and identify the contingencies that prevent achieving them and would need to be in place to meet them. Goldiamond’s framework of non-linear contingencies is often very helpful here. It’s important to not only consider the contingencies around the desired behavior, but also around the current behavior: What’s happening instead? Why? What makes that behavior more likely, instead of the one we want?
So yes, in order to make behavior science approachable and useable, often we have to do a lot of simultaneous translation. For instance, educators are currently talking about things like an academic mindset, grit, deeper learning, personalized learning…. These are terms that could cause difficulty for behavior analysts, if we don’t operationalize and translate them. Grit, or deeper learning, or personalized learning are tacts. What behaviors, what relationships, what contingencies they are actually tacting? When you can peel back the layers figure out what these things would actually look like in the classroom, what we want kids, teachers, administrators, or parents, to actually do, you can find common ground and specific behaviors to work with. People are typically receptive to figuring out what we really mean and expect to see. People working in education genuinely do want kids to do well, and do want the system to work. Approaching an issue from a shared goal, coming together about what we want to see, and then working together towards creating those changes isn’t always overly challenging. There are and likely always will be constraints that we can’t change, but overall I am an optimist about education in general and the improvement that can happen.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in pursing a career using behavior science in education and working with typical children?
One of the issues I see firsthand the great need in K-12 education and the shortage of people trained in behavior analysis that could help address those needs, at the classroom, school, or local, state, or national level, both instruction and in policy. Within the field of ABA, we are not training enough people to public, large-scale contingency-analytic work. We’ve gotten better and broader with systems level work though OBM and behavior safety, but in my opinion we don’t adequately address educational systems and how we can assist and approve those systems. We know we don’t have enough people with behavior analytic expertise in the classrooms and schools, but also we have almost no one with a behavioral framework in decision- and policy-making positions at the national level. We have some graduate programs producing school psychologists or behavioral educators with teacher or administrator certification, but not enough. While I hope there are some out there, I don’t know of any behavior analytic programs preparing graduates to have a role in policy, or leadership in the large-scale educational changes happening now and in the near future. This is also where the world needs us.
I’d like to see our behavior analytic programs do a better job training our graduates how to navigate these types of environments, informing them of opportunities in education outside the classroom (such as curriculum specialists, content area chairs, professional development leaders, district and state department chairs, coordinators of state and national initiatives, and policy advisors or implementers). Those interested in behavior analysis in education should be fluent and articulate not talking not only to parents, teachers, and administrators but district and state officials; they should know how to communicate with and influence their local school board or how to go to Capital Hill, lobby legislators, and weigh in on policy arguments. In fact, one grassroots thing we could do across the nation that would have a positive effect is have more behavior analysts on school boards, so consider running in your local district, or support someone who is.
Are there any aspects of the application of behavioral science in the work that you do that you would like to Cambridge Center to highlight (or better highlight)?
I’m extremely fortunate that I get to do so many things that I’m deeply interested in. First of course is education. Behavior analysis is integral to the work I’m doing with schools and school systems. For example, in U.S. Virgin Islands (still recovering from the destructive forces of Maria and Imra), we’re working with the superintendents and their staff to teach all educators how to write good lesson objectives (specifying the learner and observable behaviors, the condition, and a measureable criteria for mastery) to be included in all lesson plans. We’re teaching them evidence-based instructional strategies, by some time next year every teacher across the islands will learn and use active student response strategies within their teaching and incorporate a method to measure and demonstrate student learning. In four states we’re working hand in hand with the state education department to support competency-based education (CBE), a system where students advance based on mastery of content, regardless of the time it takes to achieve that mastery. With a goal of ultimately going state-wide, states are supporting CBE pilots: sites are defining observable, measurable student competencies, creating flexible conduits for learner progression, and varying the time, place, path, pace, practice, and trace of learning for all students.
Another aspect of my work is still in instructional design and product development, a passion sparked when we created Headsprout (Early Reading and Reading Comprehension). Since then I’ve been fortunate to lead the development of a number of instructional programs and apps outside the traditional realm of behavior analysis. Our app teaching first responders how to rescue people with disabilities during an emergency should be released this summer by the largest provider of CEUs for first responders. With others, I’m currently working on a tool to help health care professionals (OB/GYN, MFM, LN) understand how to recognize and treat pre and perinatal depression, and will soon begin work on a program related to reducing obesity in intellectually and developmentally disabled persons. Hopefully mentioning these will help others realize there is so much we can do with our knowledge of instructional design and how to change behavior.
I would love to see more behavior analysts designing instruction as a career. Behavior analysis has a rich history in instructional design, from some initial basic work in stimulus control (priming, shaping, fading, transfer of control), to applications in the form of Skinner’s teaching machine, Keller’s PSI, programmed instruction. We have a treasure trove of insight and techniques created shared with us from such giants as Susan Meyer Markle, Phil Tiemann, Jim Holland, Don Tosti, Joe Layng, Kent Johnson, Joanne Robbins, and others. With the arrival of digital technologies, wearable devices, augmented and virtual reality, elearning, interest in gamification, more efficient ways to measure learning/behavior, analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more, there are rapidly increasing opportunities for behavior analysts to work in instructional design and product design, development, and testing. I hope we’re preparing out future generations to help create, engage in, and shape those opportunities.