Unit studies are popular among homeschoolers and also at the elementary school level in the public schools. The idea is that you choose a topic and surround your curriculum for a period of several weeks with that topic. For example you might choose bicycles. You could learn about the physics of bicycles: gears, levers and wheels, the history of the bicycle, have spelling words related to bicycles, make a map showing where in the world people use bicycles as a primary means of transport, use bicycle riding for physical education, take a field trip to a bicycle repair shop, read a novel or story where bicycles are an important element, and so on. You can see another example of a bird unit study in the picture. All these topics would be delved into with a great deal of detail and would certainly be memorable to the students. Your core topic could be anything in the history, science, geography, or even character topics. You could do a unit study around the topic of honesty as well as one around the topic of the Pyramids of Egypt.
If you are working with students of more than one age group you simply have everyone do the same study and adjust the difficulty and amount of work for the specific abilities of the students. And while grammar, writing, and math topics are hit upon while using this method, these topics need separate systematic courses for mastery. So the three “R’s” are learned using separate curriculum choices. The specific topics you chose depend on educational goals for your children and the children’s interest.
Even those who aren’t interested in this method as an overall approach to education often pick up a short unit study as a break from their regular school work or do unit studies over the summer. Summer time unit studies also appeal to parents of traditionally schooled children who want to improve or enhance their children’s regular studies.
An obvious downside to this method is the amount of time it would take to research and develop the curricula for each topic for each level of child. So there are several entrepreneurs who have developed grab and go unit studies on a myriad of topics. Here are a few:
- Unit Studies by Amanda : Written by a Christian author, you choose the topic and purchase unit studies individually
- KONOS : Christian focus, bases studies around character traits rather than academic topics
- Five in a Row: Based around children’s literature, different levels for different age groups of children; the basic curriculum is non-religious, but they offer a Christian Bible supplement.
- Greenleaf Press: Chronological history based unit studies, strong Christian focus.
- Trisms: Based on history and literature, taught in sequential order, it leaves faith based teaching up to the parents. Academically rigorous.
- You can also just do an internet search for the unit study topic of choice, including the key words “unit study” and you’ll get lots of basic ideas.
Another downside is that since unit studies can be somewhat haphazard in coverage of topics; some topics might be hit multiple times while others are never covered at all. And if topics are covered in random order the student fails to see connections, such as the connection between the Phoenicians and Rome or the development of scientific principles as a unified whole. The teacher ends up scrambling around trying to cover the United States Constitution and swinging back to the ancient Greeks, then remembering that they never hit the study of insects and so on. That doesn’t mean unit studies aren’t a great way to learn, it just means you need a plan and some organization.
Some families find that unit studies leave them worried about meeting state requirements and college entrance when it comes to high school and so revert back to a more traditional high school experience. That’s a fine way to deal with those concerns, but if you have a plan you can keep on with your unit studies clear through high school.
The Layers of Learning method borrows from unit studies the idea of relating different subjects to one another using themes. These are the ADDITIONAL LAYERS you find at the bottom of most of our posts. It’s great to learn about trees, but if you can add in literature and a writing assignment and art and the history of some famous trees then you’ve made your biology study that much more interesting.
We’ve provided a printable document that gives ideas for several popular approaches to organizing unit studies as well as a Unit Study planning sheet for the teacher to fill out.