Unit Studies: Flexible Learning Tools

– by Amanda Bennett

I am often asked to explain just exactly what a unit study is, usually by newcomers to homeschooling or by frustrated, textbook-dependent parents. A good unit study involves learning about one topic in an interesting and engaging way that will captivate students and make them want to learn more and continue to think about the things that they are learning. A good unit study does not involve dry reading or memorization, busy work, endless worksheet completion, and bored children. From cell phones to Ethiopia to catapults and elephants, unit studies can open up the world to your children 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, children who are eager to learn view the world as a whole, not as segmented bits and parts. When they see the vast ocean, they see it as teeming with whales and dolphins, full of sunken pirate ships and octopi and seashells, covered with rolling waves. A unit study works from this viewpoint, taking one topic at a time and explaining to children how all of these components work together as a whole to children―who already see it as a whole. They don’t see the ocean as the separate subjects of history, geography, marine biology, etc.

Take a minute to compare textbooks with unit studies. Textbooks are written from the perspective that everything in the world fits neatly into one of several categories, such as 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 students become very well trained at memorizing information, but unfamiliar with how all of this memorized information applies to the world around them. By coming from a different perspective and teaching children about a complete topic, unit studies offer the advantage of helping children grasp the big picture and then apply what they have learned to other areas and other topics as their education continues.

A frequently asked question about unit studies is whether there will be holes in a child’s education using unit studies. We all have huge holes in our own education. How many textbooks did YOU finish in your own education? Most of us never finished a single one. Realize that it will be impossible to teach your children everything that is now known, no matter how you do it.

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 (adults, too) do not 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 our children everything, we can certainly provide a strong foundation and knowledge base for the future.

After writing unit studies for nineteen years, I have been blessed to be able to see firsthand some of the advantages of this curriculum choice. The use of unit studies can help your students develop into self-motivated learners, eager to see what the world has to offer. Unit studies are flexible, and can be adjusted to fit each child, instead of vice versa.

With unit studies, children learn 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, lakes, streams, and oceans of the world, they learn about these things just as they were created—as one part of an amazing world!

Amanda Bennett is a best-selling author and homeschool speaker. She has three children, is an avid photographer, wannabe quilter, and voracious reader, as well as a forgetful cook with a top-of-the-line smoke detector. Most of all, Amanda is a follower of Jesus Christ. Learn more at www.UnitStudy.com