Near completion, new system for instructing students with cognitive disabilities to ‘radically change education’

A project that is funded by one of the largest research grants in Kansas University history and aims to change education for students with severe cognitive disabilities is nearing completion.

“This is really the start of something that I expect is going to eventually radically change education,” said Neal Kingston, the man behind the project.

Since 2010, Kingston, a KU professor of psychology and education research, and his colleagues have been working to build a new system for state education departments for measuring the progress of students with cognitive disabilities.

The project is called Dynamic Learning Maps. It’s a computer program that essentially visualizes all the things a student should learn, in successive order, in English language arts and math.

And it orders it all like a massive road map, displaying different paths a student can take to learn a skill, such as understanding what an emotion is and building up to why a character in a text would feel a certain emotion.

If a student is having trouble learning a skill, the map allows teachers to track back and identify a gap in the student’s knowledge that blocks him or her from advancing.

“You need a road map,” Kingston said. “That’s what we’re about.”

Dynamic Learning Maps is fueled by a $22 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and a staff of about 60 people. It has been in field testing since spring 2014. Starting in March and continuing through the rest of the year, Kingston said, the system will go live in 19 states, including Kansas.

Kevin Harrell, the Lawrence school district’s director of student intervention services, said his staff is training to learn the new system.

The debut of the project has some in the education field buzzing. In November, Kingston participated in a webinar hosted by Education Week, a national publication covering K-12 education. Over 400 education professionals viewed the presentation from at least 17 states.

Colleen Riley, the director of early childhood special education for the Kansas State Department of Education, said she expects Dynamic Learning Maps to have a strong impact on instruction — and the collection of performance data — for cognitively disabled students.

“We think we’re going to eventually be able to help our teachers provide better instruction for students, and we will get a better sense of how these students are performing because of the computer-based enhancements in these assessments,” she said.

Kingston said he hopes Dynamic Learning Maps can one day expand to involve the main student population, not just those with cognitive disabilities.

But for now, his mission is to give students with cognitive disabilities a better chance at acquiring academic skills. He said it is too often thought that students of this kind should be mainly taught functional skills, like learning how to dress themselves.

“It starts with the improving of the lives of these children,” he said. “It starts by providing models for teachers — what can be done, how children can learn better and more.

“It starts by giving children control over their lives. Many of these children have no control over anything in their lives.”