A Unit Study takes a theme or topic (a unit of study) and delves into it deeply over a period of time, integrating language arts, science, social studies, math, and fine arts as they apply. Instead of studying eight or ten separate, unrelated subjects, all subjects are blended together and studied around a common theme or project.
For example, a unit study on birds could include reading and writing about birds and about famous ornithologists (language arts), studying the parts, functions, and life cycles of birds and perhaps even the aerodynamics of flight (science and math), determining the migration paths, habitats, and ecological/sociological impact of birds (social studies), sketching familiar birds (art), building bird houses or feeders (“hands on” activities) and so forth.
Several fine prepared unit study curricula are available, but it is easy to prepare your own unit studies around areas of interest. History is the logical core curriculum to build ongoing unit studies around. History provides a framework for all the other subjects because it follows a progression and covers every other subject (except possibly math), like art, music, science, literature, etc.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before trying unit studies with your children:
1. Am I a creative person?
2. Do I like trying to make everything interesting and fun?
3. Do my children have a variety of interests and learning styles?
4. Can I live with the fact that there may be “gaps” in my children’s education?
5. Do I have the time and energy to be the driving, creative force behind the development of units?
Strengths of the Unit Study Approach:
All ages can learn together
Children can delve as deeply or as lightly into a subject as they like
The family’s interests can be pursued
Students get the whole picture
Curiosity and independent thinking are generated
Intense study of one topic is the more natural way to learn
Knowledge is interrelated so is learned easily and remembered longer
Unit studies are fairly easy to create
Weaknesses of the Unit Study Approach:
It is easy to leave educational “gaps”
Hard to assess the level of learning occurring
Record keeping may be difficult
Prepared unit study curricula are expensive
Do-it-yourself unit studies require planning
Too many activity-oriented unit studies may cause burn-out of teacher and student
Subjects that are hard to integrate into the unit may be neglected
Resources for the Unit Study Approach
Unit Studies Made Easy by Valerie Bendt shares how anyone can develop unit studies. Cathy Duffy says, “If you have been avoiding unit studies because the work involved sounds overwhelming, this book is for you. This is a do-it-yourself guide for putting together your own unit studies based upon your family’s goals and interests.” Many of Valerie’s unit studies books are out of print but well worth getting your hands on because she is the best there is at explaining how to create unit studies for your children.
Design-A-Study Guides to History Plus by Kathryn Stout. History is the logical framework to built ongoing unit studies around. This is a complete guide to developing history unit studies for all ages integrating composition, spelling, vocabulary, math, science, music and art.