Here’s a shocker: Charlotte Mason did not approve of unit studies. Now, I know most of us are eclectic homeschoolers, and we pick and choose from Miss Mason’s philosophical plate. But let’s hear why this wise woman didn’t like unit studies and see if there are pitfalls we can avoid even if we do make the choice to continue using unit studies.
Lynn from A Mother’s Journal has been thinking about this very issue. She puts it very well,
I am finding that Charlotte Mason did not care for unit study where connections were made for the child ad nauseam. I must admit that there have been times when we’ve been on rabbit trails before and my children had stopped running long before I had. They were ready for a new idea. I’ll need to be careful of this! . . . . What I am saying is that I need to make the distinction between doing something because I’m enjoying it and doing something because it is benefiting Michaela.
Ambleside says that the Charlotte Mason philosophy is “not a unit study method, although history and literature studies are combined.”
But you’ve got curriculum providers claiming to provide “Charlotte Mason Unit Studies.” It can be a bit confusing. The best thing to do is to read Miss Mason’s own words. So, I’ve pulled out the meatiest bits that address the unit study issue.
Charlotte Mason first describes an in depth unit study based on the classic novel Robinson Crusoe. It includes creative writing, hands-on projects, math, reading, geography, wildlife, and more. Then she comments,
The whole thing must be fascinating for the teacher. Ingenious plans to amplify a thing are always interesting when you’re the one putting the time and work into it. And no doubt the children were thoroughly entertained. The teacher was probably at her best developing as much as she could from a little bit by her own sheer force. She was like an actress putting on a show and the children were spectators, as they would be at a puppet show or a movie. But one thing we can be sure of. The children developed a loathing forever afterwards, not just for Robinson Crusoe, but for every other subject dragged in to illustrate his adventure.
She goes on to say,
The well-intentioned, clever, hard-working teachers who create these concentrated studies have no idea that each lesson is an offense to young minds. Children are eager and capable of a wide range of knowledge and literary expression. But these kinds of lessons reduce their learning to senseless trivia and insipid, pointless drivel. They develop apathy that stays with them, and the mere mention of learning makes them anticipate boredom. Thus their minds wilt and deteriorate long before their school career ends.
I’ve spent so much time on this subject because I, too, believe that ideas are the only proper diet to grow children’s minds. . . . . Just like the physical body, the mind needs regular and adequate nourishment. This nourishment comes from ideas that are assimilated when the mental diet is enthusiastically devoured, and growth and development are the result under this kind of diet. The fact that children like lame, uninspired talk and insubstantial, insipid storybooks doesn’t prove that it’s good for them. They like lollipops, too, but they can’t live on them. Yet some schools are making a concerted effort to meet the intellectual, moral and spiritual needs of children with mental candy.
And in case you didn’t get it the first time, she reiterates,
Like I said before, the kinds of ideas that children need to nourish their minds are mostly found in books with literary quality. If children are provided with these kinds of books, then their minds will do the work themselves to sort, arrange, select, choose, reject, and group the ideas together.
Miss Mason doesn’t dislike connections being made among subjects. On the contrary, she encouraged matching history, literature, and geography studies together chronologically. She dislikes that the teacher is doing all the connecting while the students sit back and enjoy the entertainment. The responsibility should be shifted to the children to ferret out the deep meanings and conclusions as they interact with texts through reading and narrating.
Consider this question. If your child just read a book about the Hopi Indians and has a thorough understanding of their pueblos, their culture and customs, is it really necessary to build a 3D village diorama?
No. It’s not necessary.
[My regular readers know that we DO a lot of these unnecessary activities. And I'll be posting another entry about CM with crafts & hands-on projects next week where I delve into this more deeply, sharing my own reasoning.]
And finally, a unit study can draw things out into such minute detail that the child is left with no where for his own imagination or curiosity to flow. As the preparer of the unit study, I am proud of myself for chiseling out every tiny bit of learning from our topic and following every bunny trail, but my child is simply ready to move on.
If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to read Charlotte Mason Method vs. Unit Studies at Simply Charlotte Mason.
So what do you think? Does Miss Mason have some valid points? Do you agree with her perceived dangers of unit studies? How do you prevent those pitfalls in your own homeschool? I’d love to have some dialogue here.
As I’ve said before, I have no problem with disagreeing with Miss Mason. But I do think that it’s good to have a reasoned explanation for why we teach the way we do.