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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2015 / Winter 2016)

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Promoting Progressive Science at the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning

By Audra Crist, New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning

The New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is an independent, non-profit organization. We empower teachers to lead change so that all children have access to a high quality education. We work with teachers to spread and improve successful programs so that all students benefit.

CTL believes the best way to improve education is to invest in teachers by creating changes that make their work less isolated, simpler, more effective, and less stressful. This belief has propelled CTL to an unparalleled track record in rapidly increasing the supply of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers and advancing student STEM attainment.

Figure 1:  Students at Trenton Central High School Performing a PSI Algebra-based Physics Experiment (photo by Audra Crist) 

What are PSI and PMI?

The Progressive Science Initiative® (PSI®) is a program designed to support high levels of student achievement in physics, chemistry, and biology, and mathematics. It was developed over 10 years by teachers. This program has led to high levels of Advanced Placement (AP) participation and passing rates.

The Progressive Mathematics Initiative® (PMI®) was developed by teachers to support all of K-12 mathematics. Developed first to support the teaching of Algebra, these courses now also lead to AP Calculus.

Each program consists of the same core philosophy, pedagogies, assessment strategies, and technology while each has its own set of free digital materials to support the teaching of more than 20 courses in mathematics and science. These materials are available in the free courseware section of our website including presentations, homework, and student assessments. Educators can register on the site to gain access to student assessments.

Each CTL program aligns with an End of Course (EOC) Test. PSI uses the Advanced Placement (AP) science exams for the alignment of each subject (physics, chemistry, biology) first and second year course. PMI, which spans K-12, aligns to Common Core standards, which assessments are now being designed to support. Other existing EOC tests such as PARCC and AP are also supported. Thus, digital content has been designed to align with these objectives.

Philosophy and Pedagogies

Figure 2:  Two Trenton Central High School Students Calculating the Answer to a Question in PSI Algebra-based Physics (photo by Audra Crist) 

PSI-PMI materials are designed to support a pedagogy that combines direct instruction with social constructivism. Both of these parts are used in conjunction and are tied together through the use of formative assessment.

The instruction allows the teacher to directly explain concepts, when required. However, the students must be engaged in problem solving, and instructional help must be at the appropriate level. The teacher assists through demonstrations, modeling, leading questions, and introducing initial, critical elements of a task. The learner transforms the help they receive and uses the same means to direct independent problem solving behaviors.

Social Constructivism allows the students to work together in small groups while the teacher acts as more of a facilitator. The discussions and lab activities embedded in the PSI-PMI lessons allow students to build mental models to solve increasingly complex problems.

Formative assessments provide active engagement for students, evidence of where students are in the learning progression and ungraded feedback that notifies the teacher when to move on or reteach and helps students find their own strengths and weaknesses during the lesson. The PSI-PMI lessons continuously use response questions in their lessons for formative assessment. When the students respond, they submit their answer individually and anonymously, remain engaged in the lesson, and constantly evaluate themselves on the skills that they are learning. 

Response questions allow the teachers to get feedback from the entire class at once, shift the class to student centered participation, and gather real-time data that informs the teacher of their teaching. The questions also get increasingly difficult so that students remain challenged, but can work with peers to "win". Based on the students' answers the teacher can reteach, review, or move on.

An additional feature of PSI-PMI is our own YouTube channel full of videos used for various aspects of the courses. For science courses, demonstrations, lab introductions, and video lessons are featured. For mathematics courses, videos feature Geometric constructions both with a compass and straightedge and Geometric Software, as well as introductory videos explaining the odds and ends of the online PARCC assessments.

Grading Philosophy 

Our grading philosophy emphasizes the work that shows the students' independent demonstration of their knowledge, application, and understanding of the content. Therefore, only summative assessment tasks are graded, which include quizzes, tests, labs, and quests/projects. Participation, classwork, homework, and attendance are not graded. Extra credit is also not offered. This creates an objective grade increasing the correlation between the student's grade with the End of Course Test. It also allows the grades of the students to be compared from teacher to teacher and from school to school.

Retakes of all assessments are provided for students to help improve their grades. They can be found on our website ( Students are allowed to retake all quizzes and tests as many times as necessary. However, most of the time, students only need one retake, and only one retake is posted on our website. The higher grade replaces the lower grade. They are not averaged together. Once they are graded, students are shown their grades, but they are not allowed to keep the assessments. Offering the retakes help to encourage persistence, keeps the students motivated to learn, and reflects the real-world view of failure as feedback to inform future decisions. If you are against retakes, consider the scenario: if your child doesn't know how to tie his shoe, are you going to give him extra credit, or tell him to continue to practice?

Teacher Training

CTL trains K-12 teachers to use its course materials. Teachers must teach in a new way to realize the full benefit of this new instructional and learning paradigm; they must deliver brief direct instruction (5 to 10 minutes), pose questions that drive collaborative student problem solving, provide feedback on classroom results and then set up the next problem. Instructors must inspire the continuous improvement of student understanding. To a great extent this involves teachers setting up the experience for students and then allowing students to take the lead.

Figure 3:  PSI Algebra-based Physics Class at Trenton Central High School (photo by Audra Crist) 

By June 30, 2015, more than 1,500 certified mathematics and science teachers were trained in PSI and PMI methods; 175 teachers completed a physics teacher endorsement; and 35 teachers completed a chemistry endorsement. CTL is "on the ground" in 218 schools in New Jersey, Colorado, Utah, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Argentina and The Gambia.

How can PSI-PMI be Added to My School?

If you are a teacher interested in using the materials on the site, you can begin by downloading and using some of the free materials that anyone could access: classwork-homework, labs, presentations and unit plans. If you would like to also use our summative assessments, you can sign up on the site for free.

If you are an administrator and would like to start using PSI-PMI in your district, ask a representative to come into your school for professional development workshops either after school or on full in-service days.

About the Author 

Audra Crist is a Program Manager at the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning. She may be reached at  One of her online presentations, "Stress-Free Approach to Science and Mathematics," is available through JCCC's ScholarSpace.  

Note:  The images were released for publication by the subjects in the photos.  

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