I had a few more thoughts on the topic of unit studies that didn’t fit in my previous post.
The first is that the main argument I have heard for unit studies is that the kids and moms love them. There are a few unit study based curricula with very ardent followings. And while we all would like to see our kids enthusiastic about their schoolwork, I am not sure that this alone is a reason to follow this method. Enthusiasm and even interest do not equal learning.
Charlotte Mason dealt with similar issue in debating the educational approach that dominated in her era, the Herbartian method. From an article by Lynn Bruce at Ambleside Online we find:
“Because lifelong interest is the Herbartian goal, taking precedence over what he learns, and thus he must learn in a way that creates interest.”
But she goes on to argue that interest is not the same as the life-long relationships that Charlotte Mason sought to produce in the child. In fact, Lynn Bruce says that an approach like Herbart’s is “stunting” for the children. The teacher is stretched (or the curriculum writer perhaps) but the child is not. In her words,
“But a clever teacher does not necessarily produce a clever student.”
“How do I get my child enthusiastic about school?” is actually something I hear moms ask pretty frequently. The caution here is that enthusiasm alone is not learning.
The second issue I wanted to touch on is what is called in The Parents’ Review the correlation of lessons (read the article from 1899 here on Ambleside Online). Unit studies take correlation to an extreme, making every subject fit the theme for weeks at a time. The opposite extreme would be to jump around from subject to subject with no unifying principles at work, perhaps even taking history in non-sequential chunks. This other extreme can leave the child unable to see how things relate at all. The question is where in the middle we want to be. So I think it is not wrong to study a scientist or an artist from the time period you are studying in history. But it is also good to throw in one or two things at least that have nothing to do with the subject at hand (so to speak). Not only does it give the brain new tracks to run on, it allows connections that might otherwise never be found. To my mind, planning all subjects along a common theme is like telling a child they can only play with one kind of toy at a time. So much more imagination comes forward when the barbies are allowed to be combined with the wooden blocks or the little people and duplo sets are thrown together. So it can be with school subjects.