February 9, 2015
By Amanda Bennett
I am often asked to explain just exactly what a unit study is, usually by newcomers to homeschooling or frustrated textbook parents. Well, first let me tell you what it is not. A good unit study does not involve dry reading or memorization, busy work, endless worksheet completion, and bored children. A good unit study involves learning about one topic in an interesting and engaging way that will captivate the student and make them want to learn more and continue to think about the things that they are learning. From cell phones to Ethiopia to catapults and elephants, unit studies can open up the world to your child, one topic at a time.
As the process of “education” has developed through the ages, people have slowly but surely categorized and compartmentalized almost everything in our world into specific areas of learning. These include science, history, geography, art, and many others. However, to a child that is eager to learn, the world is viewed as whole pieces, not segmented bits and parts. When they see the vast ocean, they see it as teeming with whales and dolphin, full of sunken pirate ships and octopus and seashells, covered with rolling waves. A unit study tries to work from this viewpoint, taking one topic at a time and explaining the way that it works as a whole to the child that already sees it as a whole. They don’t see the ocean as history, geography, marine biology, etc.
A unit study works by capturing their attention and helping them understand the pieces of the whole as they fit together. When they learn about the oceans with a unit study, they learn about whales and dolphin, how the oceans flow, how explorers traveled the oceans with currents and wind, and how big and wide and deep the oceans are and how all of these components work together.
Take a minute to compare textbooks with unit studies. Textbooks are one form of curriculum used for education, and most of us were educated using textbooks. They are written from the perspective that everything in the world fits neatly into one of several categories, like science and geography. Textbooks include a collection of information that is to be read, memorized, and repeated for a test or exam. The main problem with textbook learning is that the student becomes very well trained at memorizing information, but unfamiliar with how all of this memorized information applies to the world around him. By coming from a different perspective and teaching the child about a complete topic, unit studies offer the advantage of helping the child grasp the big picture and then apply what they have learned to other areas and other topics as his or her education continues.
A frequently asked question about unit studies is if there will be holes in a child’s education using unit studies. How many textbooks did YOU finish in your own education? Most of us never finished a single textbook. We have huge holes in our own education. Also, realize that it will be impossible to teach your child everything that is now known. It is vitally important that we provide an excellent basic education and teach these bright young minds how to think and find answers.
In this day and age of information explosion, textbook publishers rush to keep adding new information to textbooks, further abridging, condensing and modifying or deleting what they deem less important or not politically correct. Many textbooks now read like encyclopedias, with little interesting reading included, just facts, figures and condensed material. Most children OR adults rush to pick up a textbook these days for a “good read.” Why would they get excited or eager to learn from a textbook?
If we can teach our children with interesting materials, challenging them to think, reason, analyze and dig deeper for further information, we will find them to be well-educated and ready to move on to a lifetime of challenge and questions and adventure. While we will never be able to teach a child everything, we can certainly teach them these things, providing a strong foundation and knowledge base for the future.
After writing unit studies for more than 20 years, I have been blessed to be able to see some of the advantages offered with this curriculum choice, firsthand. Our three children are either in or through college. One has a doctorate in veterinary medicine, another has a degree in business, and the youngest is graduating with honors in computer science. This approach to learning helped them learn to love learning – mission accomplished.
Unit studies can help your student develop into a self-motivated learner, eager to see what the world has to offer. Unit studies are flexible, and can be adjusted to fit the child, instead of vice versa. While our studies include science, geography, history, and other academic areas of learning, we do suggest that you include both math and language arts programs with these studies.
With unit studies, the child learns to think and reason and understand the deeper connections that God created in this world and how so much of His creation fits together according to His plan. Instead of learning about clouds and water vapor and the water cycle separately from the study of the rivers and lakes and streams and oceans of the world, they learn about these things just as they were created – as one part of an amazing world!