Approaches to Homeschool: Unit Studies

Dear Reader,

I said I wasn’t going to cover things in this series that are more approach than philosophy and included unit studies in that category. But then I ran across two wonderful posts from The Common Room on unit studies (see here and here).

Over time as my kids have gotten older and I have tried to use more and more of Miss Mason’s approach in our school, we have done fewer and fewer projects related to our studies. The Common Room articles, which you really should read, tell why better than I could. They idea behind unit studies seems to be to make the material more interesting to children by tying the subject  matter to hands-on projects and by tying one topic to another. An example might be studying ducks while reading The Story of Ping. But Charlotte Mason would say that this is like pre-chewing your children’s food for them. The parent or teacher makes the connections and not the student. And this is detrimental to learning. We remember more when we make the connections ourselves and don’t have them pre-made for us. I would add that most unit studies I have seen involve reading the same thing multiple times which does not fit with the habit of perfect attention the first time that the Mason approach strives for.

But what I really want to discuss in this series, a topic which I think does not get enough attention, are the assumptions behind the educational philosophies. So while I am not sure the unit studies are really a whole philosophy, I do think there are some implicit assumptions.

The questions I had said I was going to address are:

— What do they assume about how learning works?

— How do they view children?

— How do they view human nature?

— What do they believe is the goal of education?

I am not sure that I can answer all of these completely for unit studies (and that is why I call it more of an approach or a method than a philosophy). But I do think unit studies say something about children and the process of learning.

To answer the first question, then, I would say the unit studies see learning as more passive than I would. They place the burden on the teacher to teach rather than on the student to learn and make their own connections. My view would be that you cannot force anyone to learn; you can only present material but it is up to the student to take it in or not. Unit studies lead one to believe that if you just package things right the material will be taken in.

This leads us into the second question. I would say that unit studies underestimate children. They place more of a burden on the teacher to make the material interesting or to make connections between different areas. And in the process, they take something away from the children. They do not allow the children to make their own connections and they assume that kids must be entertained to learn. But if the teacher is able to make these connections and the student is not, doesn’t that say that we view our children as less? We are assuming that their faculties are not fully developed. And beyond that, we are robbing them of something. The child’s own personality does not come into play. Imagine a unit study in a class in 20 students. The teacher has decided what topics will be covered, what tangents will be explored and what projects will be done. In this class each child is expected to receive the same education. If the unit study works, they will all get the same information and impressions out of it because it is the teacher’s view they are receiving. But in an approach (like Charlotte Mason’s) which relies upon the student to make their own connections, each child comes to their own conclusions. Each personality reacts on its own to the material and comes to different conclusions. Each child becomes over time more of an individual and not less.

So what do unit studies say about human nature? I don’t think there are any huge statements here about the goodness of badness of our souls. But there is a movement towards sameness and a valuing of the teacher’s opinions over those of the students. And as such I think there is a diminishing of the child’s humanity. Unit studies tend to even out the differences between us rather than to appreciate each one’s uniqueness.

The goals of unit studies can vary. Some curricula seem to be more about values, others about academic learning. Unit studies are adaptable in this way so that they can be used with a number of different goals in mind. But at the end of the day (or the month or however long one spends on a particular unit) the idea seems to be that the children will learn the information that the teacher has selected.  The over-arching subject of the unit may be a noble idea like courage. But in the end it is an idea pre-selected and fed to the child. Bells and whistles are added in the form of projects completed. All this is to make the idea more palatable, to try to get the child to ingest it. But in the end we cannot force anyone else to swallow our ideas. And the child’s personality is somewhat diminished by being fed in this way.

These issues were also present in Charlotte Mason’s day. She argued against the Herbartian view of education (named for its proponent Johann Herbart). I am much indebted to this article from Ambleside Online about the Herbartian approach. I am not completely clear on all the philosophy behind Herbart’s approach, but it seems to have led to something much like our present-day unit studies with the burden on the teacher and the material synthesized for the student.

So I started out saying unit studies had not much philosophy behind them. And I think often those who use them do not have much of a philosophy behind their choice of this method. But there is a lot underlying them that we should consider.


17 responses to this post.

  1. […] intro to the series is here. So far I have published posts on Unit Studies (and a follow-up), Unschooling, Classical Ed (and a follow-up) and a post on Charlotte Mason is […]


  2. […] different approaches to homeschool (see the intro here; so far I have done posts on unschooling, unit studies, and classical education; more are coming), I have been struck by how the different philosophies […]


  3. […] is part of my series on different homeschooling styles. Read about unit studies and unschooling. Still to come are classical education, Thomas Jefferson education, Montessori, […]


  4. […] continuing series on the philosophies behind different homeschooling methods (See the introduction, unit studies, unschooling, classical, and Charlotte Mason entries). I am starting to get further and further […]


  5. […] I am going on different homeschooling methods. Here are the previously published parts: Intro, Unit Studies, Unschooling, Classical, Charlotte Mason, and Thomas Jefferson […]


  6. […] post is part of my continuing series on different approaches to homeschool (see these posts on Unit Studies, Classical Ed, Christian classical ed, Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson Education, Unschooling, […]


  7. […] Unit Studies and additional thoughts […]


  8. […] other point that struck me relates to unit studies. I particularly liked this […]


  9. […] to make everything an entertainment for the children. I hear here particularly a condemnation of the unit studies approach which seeks to tie everything together and make connections for the kids. In Charlotte’s […]


  10. […] as homeschoolers, many of us are not much better in the quality of food we present to our children. Unit studies predigest the food for our children by making the connections they are supposed to find on their […]


  11. […] can read my thoughts in unit studies here and […]


  12. […] apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose […]


  13. […] began homeschooling, we tried unit studies. I have some problems with the idea of unit studies (see this post or this one) though Harris’ arguments make me more amenable to his approach that I would have […]


  14. […] Brussel sprouts, we try to sneak education into our children in various ways. Unit studies (see Unit Studies and additional thoughts), which relate different areas of learning to a common theme or topic, […]


  15. […] apply it to daily living. Herbartianism has been compared to the modern Unit Studies approach (see this post). In terms of goals the emphasis was on one’s social contribution and morality; true purpose is […]


  16. […] she rejects a school popular in her day, the Herbartian school, which was something akin to modern unit studies, because it  essentially predigests the child’s intellectual food for him, making […]


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