Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2007 Newsletter



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Insights: An Elementary Hands-On Inquiry Science Curriculum

Karen Worth


Insights: An Elementary Hands-On Inquiry Science Curriculum is a comprehensive science program designed to meet the needs of all children, while especially addressing those of urban students. It entered the market in 1994 as one of several inquiry-based curricula that resulted from a renewed focus on curriculum development by the National Science Foundation. In 2003, Kendall Hunt Publishing Company released a second edition of Insights that reflected the growing awareness of the importance of literacy in science and the need to provide even greater clarity for teachers about the conceptual structure of a unit. The Insights curriculum has been translated into French and Spanish and is used in France , Colombia , and a number of other countries. It has also been adopted in states and districts across the United States as a full K-6 program or as part of a unit-based program.

Development Process

The Insights curriculum drew from the growing body of research on research on teaching and learning. It built directly on the work in science education of the 1960s, in particular the Elementary Science Study (ESS) developed at the Education Development Center, Inc (EDC) under the leadership of MIT physicists Gerald Zacharias, Philip Morrison and Kenneth Friedman and in collaboration with educators and other scientists. The curriculum also reflects careful attention to the teaching of science in urban settings where many students are English language learners and many are from poor and minority homes. Responding to the research on specific instructional strategies that increase the success of these students, the Insights curriculum includes: direct exploratory and problem solving experiences with materials; an emphasis on relevance to the lives of students; extensive use of oral language; cooperative and team learning; and the inclusion of role models reflective of the racial, gender, and cultural make-up of the student body.

Insights was developed by a team of science educators at EDC in collaboration with teams of 10-12 teachers from four urban and one suburban school district. The teachers in these teams shared their classroom knowledge and experience at every stage of the development, from initial brainstorming to piloting to field-testing. The curriculum also benefited from the guidance and expertise of a distinguished panel of scientists, science educators, teachers, cognitive psychologists, and school administrators.

Critical to the development process was the work of the Center for the Study of Testing,

Evaluation, and Educational Policy (CSTEEP) of Boston College . As evaluators of the project, members of CSTEEP worked alongside the development team, assessing the modules in terms of student outcomes and teacher usability and satisfaction. The assessments designed to measure student growth in the pilot- and field-testing were ultimately adapted as assessments for the modules themselves and are included in the Teacher's Guides.

Goals and Philosophy

The philosophy and goals of the Insights curriculum are based on the most current cognitive research on how children develop understanding of the world around them; the knowledge and experience of master teachers in creating environments for successful learning; and the consensus across the country, as expressed in the National Science Education Standards , of what science is important for elementary students to know and to understand. The program reflects a belief that children construct their knowledge by building on or modifying the understandings they already have in place. It recognizes that children come to school with a lifetime of experience, knowledge, understandings, interests, and questions and that they must have learning experiences that are intrinsically interesting, relevant to their lives, and appropriate to their age level. The goals and philosophy support a view of teaching and learning as interactive processes with balances between: teacher-initiated and child-initiated activity; concrete explorations and the making of meaning through reflection, discourse and writing; and group and individual work. The philosophy and goals also are based on a view of science as a process of in-depth exploration of phenomena of the natural world and the development of meaning based in evidence.

The Modules

The 21 modules of the Insights curriculum are grouped into four levels, three of which span two grades: K-1, 2-3, 4-5, and 6. Each module is a six- to eight-week (if science is taught two to three times a week), in-depth study of one topic and a small number of concepts. Used together, the modules form a core curriculum for the elementary grades. Within each grade span, they may be arranged in a variety of ways to meet specific district or state guidelines. Common threads provide conceptual continuity and a gradual development of ideas and inquiry skills. Chart 1 shows all of the Insights modules.

Chart 1: The Insights Curriculum Modules






Life Science

Myself and Others

The Senses

Living Things

Growing Things

Bones and Skeletons

Human Body Systems

Earth and Space Science

The Weather


Earth Materials

Reading the Environment

The Earth, The Sun,

and the Moon


There Is No Away

Physical Science

Balls and Ramps

Lifting Heavy Things



Changes of State

The Mysterious


Circuits and



Music to My Ears

Each module consists of a Teacher's Guide, and a kit of materials with student notebooks and selections of trade books available. There are no student texts. The module Overview is the starting place and provides an introduction to the unit. Included are the specific goals, and summary of learning experiences, the alignment with the National Science Education Standards , the curriculum frameworks (see below), a number of specific instructional strategies (e.g. working in groups, using notebooks, addressing diverse student needs; and basic management strategies.) This is followed by detailed guidelines for each of the 12-20 learning experiences in a module that provide an overview of the experience, specific conceptual and inquiry skill goals and assessment strategies, suggested time frame, list of materials needed, science terms, and advance preparation. Each learning experience also includes Home-School work suggestions. In contrast to traditional homework, these assignments are to be done by the child and an adult thus "bringing the science home" and they focus around questions and investigations that can be done in the home and community.

Science notebooks play a significant role in the Insights curriculum as records of student investigation and ideas. For teachers and students beginning to do inquiry based science there are structured student notebook pages and group recording sheets which are gathered together along with blank pages in a student science notebook, which can be purchased along with the materials. For teachers, there are guidelines and suggestions for how to encourage student writing about their work. Experienced teachers have found these structures to be stepping stones toward the ultimate goal of having students construct their own notebooks.

Curriculum as Professional Development

Professional development for teachers in teaching inquiry based science is absolutely critical. Curriculum by itself cannot substitute for long term effective professional development. However, curriculum can play an important role by providing teachers with guidance in its use and by making the design of the modules transparent. The Insights curriculum was intentionally designed to assist teachers as much as possible. The teacher's guide and the accompanying materials provide all that is necessary to implement the modules. Extensive guidance is included for preparation, structuring, and moving through each learning experience. But the modules also are designed to help teachers understand and feel more comfortable teaching science through inquiry in general and to develop their understanding of science curriculum design by laying bare the structures of the module and the thinking behind its development.

A Science Background section is especially useful to teachers with little background in science of the particular topic. It is a clear and easy to read overview and gives teachers some of the necessary science to teach each module. Each module also includes a resource section with books and other resources for students and the teacher.

Structural Elements

The conceptual storyline is one of the most important elements of the Insights Teacher's Guide. It provides teachers with a clear understanding of the sequence of concepts and how the student experiences build on one another. An example from the module Circuits and Pathways is reproduced here.


Copyright © Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company

Guiding the structure of the module as a whole and the individual learning experiences are two basic frameworks: one for teaching and learning and the other for scientific inquiry. They are reproduced here.

Copyright © Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company


Finally, the Insights assessment framework deserves special mention. Hands-on inquiry teaching is a constant interplay between providing students with opportunities to learn and assessing their growing understanding and skills. Each Insights module begins with an Introductory Assessment of open-ended questions that allows teachers to assess the knowledge the students bring to the topic and gives students the opportunity to share what they know. There is at least one formal embedded assessment in each module. It is designed as a learning experience where the teacher takes on the role of observer, circulating among the groups, observing which skills the students have mastered and which skills need further work.


At the end of the module, a Final Assessment measures students' growth and change over the course of the module. It consists of two-parts: the Performance Assessment and the Final Written Assessment. The Performance Assessment consists of a pre-planned, hands-on task or tasks. Students demonstrate their development of abilities and understandings necessary to do scientific inquiry and their understanding of concepts by applying these skills and knowledge to a problem and explaining what they did and why. This type of performance assessment probes students' depth of understanding and demonstrates their ability to apply their learning. The Final Written Assessment often includes questions from the Introductory Assessment for comparison purposes.

Ongoing observation is critical for providing the teacher with information on student progress so that daily adjustments are possible. Assessment questions in each learning experience, as well as guidance in looking at student work provide continuous data to aid teachers in finding out how students are making sense of their science experiences and their growth in the use of inquiry skills. Each learning experience includes two to three of these assessments, set off with checks. Every module has charts on which to record assessment information and build a cumulative picture of student growth in concepts and skills.


Copyright © Education Development Center, Inc.

Closing Thoughts

Inquiry based curricula such as Insights are not in use in the majority of elementary classrooms across the country. There are many reasons for this including the impact of testing and the current extraordinary emphasis on literacy and mathematics at the expense of all other subjects. But another important reason, more within the control of educators at all levels, is the lack of public understanding of science and the process of scientific inquiry. All the lay constituencies of public education - parents, state and national policy makers, school board members, members of the general public- have little understanding of the nature of science and scientific inquiry and thus either place little emphasis on science education or, more problematically, demand outcomes that are heavily focused on facts and information. In addition, elementary teachers who tend not to have strong science backgrounds themselves do not resist a marginalization of science or science teaching based in text. While not uniformly true, it is certainly fair to say that the experiences people have with science in high school and college- lectures and formulaic labs -is a significant part of this problem. If all students in secondary and higher education experienced inquiry based science learning as are children who experience Insights , teachers, school system administrators, parents, and policy makers, and the general public might have a different view of what science teaching and learning should be at the elementary level. The higher education community and, in particular, those who teach science courses, need to take on this challenge.

For further information see: www. kendallhunt .com and or contact

Karen Worth is a Senior Scientist at the Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, MA. She was the principal developer of the Insights program.

It is interesting to note that this curriculum was written prior to the National Standards. No revision of content was necessary to align the curriculum with the Standards. However, because of its commitment to developing conceptual understanding of significant concepts, the Insights program does not attempt to cover all of the standards. To do so would sacrifice depth to coverage.



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