PUM and Modeling Instruction, compared to traditional instruction such as PSI


A post to the AAPT Physics First listserv in March 2013.



    Below is an open letter to Bob Goodman, New Jersey founder of PSI, from Eugenia Etkina at Rutgers University. Eugenia does physics education research (PER), and she directs the physics teacher education program at Rutgers. She developed ISLE with Alan Van Heuvelen, and PUM.

    We think highly of ISLE (http://www.islephysics.net/), which is college-level and super-compatible with Modeling Instruction. ASU Professor David Hestenes, co-founder of Modeling Instruction, lauds PUM (http://pum.rutgers.edu/)  as very well thought out.  PUM is a physics/physical science curriculum that strongly links middle school and high school. We recommend Eugenia's PER group as the best group nationwide for modelers who want to earn a Ph.D.

  -- Jane Jackson, Co-Director, Modeling Instruction Program,

      Department of Physics, Arizona State University, Tempe. http://modeling.asu.edu

      Life member, American Modeling Teachers Assn: http://modelinginstruction.org



[March 28, 2013]

Hello everyone,

I am not part of this list but Jane Jackson and Joe Kremer sometimes forward me posts from the list. I think it is time for me to contribute to the PSI discussion.


Yes, I was Bob Goodman's dissertation advisor. And yes, at the time I thought his ideas were very progressive. But a lot changed since Bob got his EdD degree from Rutgers. And as Joe put it correctly, we do not see eye to eye anymore. Here is why.


When Bob came up with the idea of using 9th grade physics to help students learn math, he was teaching physics himself. Bob knows physics very well, he basically “feels” is with his skin. He knew why certain math equations are the way they are, where they came from and when they can be applied and when they cannot. The other teacher using his approach in the same school and helping develop the materials is also very good in physics. Although even then I wished there were more experiments involved in constructing the concepts, and I saw that real inquiry was not present, there were strong points in the approach that I thought compensated for this lack of experimental physics. 


My disagreements with Bob started when PSI began to be promoted as a way for teachers to get certified to teach physics without having physics background. And when PSI turned into a prescribed set of activities or lesson plans that teachers can follow directly.


I did not express my opinion publicly (although I told Bob about my views of training teachers through PSI) as I thought that NGSS and reforms in AP Physics curriculum would take care of the issue. Both require teachers to have very deep knowledge of physics and both promote inquiry as a way of learning and thinking. But the discussion on your listserv made me write this note.


I understand that there are many ways to teach physics; some teachers prefer more traditional approaches, some prefer more inquiry-oriented. But whatever approach one takes, a teacher should know more physics than the physics her/his students will learn. And the teacher should have a physics-like mind-set. Both require years to develop.


Some curricula take care of the physics-like mind-set naturally (Modeling Instruction is one of them, another one is ISLE or PUM - see http://pum.rutgers.edu if you are not familiar with it). PSI does not do it, as there knowledge appears as given. The same is true for mathematics. Although PSI helps students develop basic math skills, those are developed as skills  -- to be remembered, not deeply conceptualized.


Physics way of thinking -- a physics mind-set -- is experiment-based and inherently challenge-oriented. (Physicists naturally question any human authority and the ultimate authority are the experiment and the internal coherence of models and explanations). Experiments in physics serve as a source and a test of knowledge -- not just application. And when students do not see them this way they are deprived of the essence of physics. Those of you who use modeling or ISLE (PUM) know how those curricula start with evidence and help students test their ideas against evidence. They teach students how to think like physicists, critically and creatively, constantly reflecting on HOW THEY KNOW WHAT THEY KNOW. PSI does not do it.


Finally, one more thought. If you agree that the purpose of physics (as any other science subject) is to prepare our students for life in the 21st century, then we need to consider how this century is different from the one before. We live in the times when those who can create, innovate, question authority, test their ideas and develop new approaches to problems will succeed. We have curricula that teach students to do these exact things very well. You are familiar with Modeling instruction, and at Rutgers we have been developing ISLE  as a philosophy of learning and teaching and PUM as a set of ISLE-based curriculum units. Both Modeling and PUM have the above goals as central - they are at the very heart of the learning process. As a byproduct the students will do well on the new AP physics exams, as those will assess exactly these skills.


In summary I suggest that if you feel the need to question/improve/revise/change the way you teach, talk to me about recent developments of the learning theories and their connections to the Next Generation Science Standards, new science framework, revised AP Physics courses, etc.  Study the NRC “Framework for K-12 Science Education” and implement the 8 scientific practices.  PUM and Modeling Instruction are aligned with all eight of them. In short, inquiry is defined well by eight scientific practices in the National Research Council's “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” Models and theories are the purpose and the outcomes of scientific practices. They are the tools for engineering design and problem solving. As such, modeling guides all other practices. PUM (ISLE) and Modeling Instruction have models, modeling cycles, and model-centered argumentation as central components. You should, too.