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.
She begins to make her conclusions here. Don’t miss this:
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.
Many of the activities in unit studies are forced and contrived. They don’t really fit, but are stuck in there anyway just to fit the theme. And many of the hands-on projects are unnecessary.
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.
Hmmm, very interesting and thought provoking post Jimmie.
I’d say “yes” and “no” to the question “do I agree?”. Now, that makes sense, right?! Let me try to explain.
Yes, because I do think if we stay exclusively to one unit topic, so much so that we are missing all the wonderful opporutnities to teach when they come up, we’ve done wrong. In our homeschool when we do a theme/unit we are following it loosely, never hesistating to jump topics if a opportunity knocks.
Also, there’s a problem if we try to stay on that theme too long. When I plan for a theme, I think of it for a month, but many times if interest is wavering we end up on the topic for a much shorter time. And I never get elaborate with planning a theme, I keep it very simple, looking for resources that will save me time. That way if we end up having to ditch the topic earlier, it’s ok, maybe we’ll come back to it some other day.
So, no, I don’t fully agree with Miss Mason’s views on this one for two reasons. If you are following the guidelines mentioned above, I think units/themes are fine, in fact they are great because they give you a launching point and some needed structure. I’ve found when we don’t at least have a launching point, sometimes our studies can be a bit chaotic/all over the place. Again, the key is being able to be flexible with the topic, I think.
One thing I’d like to find out more of is what Miss Mason says about teaching the various personality/learning styles in children. While I LOVE great literature, I personally have found that it is not the answer to rich learning for all children. One of my children, for instance, absolutely loathes anything to do with longer books, really books in general have to be pushed. And I have read-out great books to my children since the beginning of homeschooling, but it hasn’t mattered for this child, in fact at times it’s been sheer torture. This child needs tangible adventure, getting their hands on it and in it, experiencing it with their whole body (multi-sensory) not just their mind.
So, before I write a book, bottom line, I believe listening to your children’s interest has to be a priority over the teachers completion of the unit. But units/themes can be a wonderful tool, IF used correctly.
Thanks for this post Jimmie!
.-= Melissa´s last blog ..Breathtaking Behemoth Cloud =-.
Ruby in Montreal says
A wonderful post, Jimmie! I just Tweeted it in hopes that others will read what you (& CM!) have to say on this subject 🙂
I must say I immediately related to the quote of the mother who felt sometimes she was still on a topic, while her kids were ready to move on. I have caught myself doing just that, a few times!
Must agree with CM that it’s important for the student to make the connections himself. I did a lot of that as a child, and I think that’s one of the things that has always made learning such a joy for me.
I love her lollipop analogy too! Of course, children will sometimes choose food and activities that contain little intrinsic value. Whether unit studies is the lollipop of academics, I am not so sure. I think that teaching on a theme (i.e. unit studies) can work just as well as teaching chronologically, as long as we don’t try to pre-digest too much for our children or end up over-teaching a subject.
Is there anything inherent in either approach that necessarily makes one better than the other? I don’t think so. It’s all in how we go about selecting and using materials or activities. We’ve found that starting at the beginning & working our way through history wasn’t possible with our older daughter, as she’d been to PS and was all out of sequence. Trying to catch up with the history was nuts, but unit studies did help us to round things out 🙂
Thanks for this discussion. I look forward to reading the related material.
.-= Ruby in Montreal´s last blog ..Enrichment Two Ways =-.
I like unit studies for littlies. I use the Before five in a row series with my littlies in preschool age and then we move to other more CM learning as they get older. I found that it was a nice literature rich way to start them off in learning and it is quite loosely laid out unlike the following levels which were far more prescriptive in lay out. I like what you wrote here though and do agree with it mainly. – Deedee
Good thoughts. I’ve been struggling with these issues for a few months. We did unit studies last year for kindergarten, which I think was very appropriate for her age. This year we made the jump to Charlotte Mason, but I didn’t want to let go of unit studies. As I’ve been planning I see that it’s not so different after all. When we were doing unit studies we used separate math and phonics curricula, and the themes seemed to be either primarily science-based (insects, weather) or social studies-based (Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln), with some crossover, but not always much. With Charlotte Mason we’re reading literature based on the history or science that we’re studying. Very similar. The connections made in unit studies are often incomplete or contrived. (I spent much time searching for Bible lessons to go with themes like gingerbread and tidepools!) With the Charlotte Mason method you can acknowledge legitimate connections, but leave it at that.
I think it is important for children, especially as they get older to make the connections themselves, and be allowed to dig deeper into certain topics as suits their interests.
(Now I REALLY need to get the original Charlotte Mason books that have been on my wish list for a long time!)
.-= Beth´s last blog ..Happy September! =-.
Very interesting! We really haven’t done many unit studies (if any) in our home. Mainly because I don’t quite get them. I think I’m just too sequential of a thinker. We do use Tapestry of Grace which combines history, geography, and literature together in a chronological manner, but that makes sense to ME. I have definitely seen some unit studies that seem to be too contrived with all the subjects not fitting together at all. I thought it was just me and I couldn’t get them. Maybe I’m more Charlotte Mason than I thought. LOL
.-= Kristen´s last blog ..Friend Makin Mondays =-.
Hmmmm…. You’ve definitely got me thinking. I have three children (one’s in preschool, so no comment on him) and while I think that CM’s words would probably work perfectly my second child, because his favorite part of life is listening to me read and he remembers it all, my oldest is a different story. The “unnecessaries” are what make her excited about school. She has a very hard time concentrating on even living books. She’s working on it, because she knows she’s expected to narrate afterwards, but I like for part of the learning to be something that she really enjoys and for her that means it needs to be hands on. She loves to show her friends and relatives something she has made and then she likes to tell the stories we’ve read using the things she’s made. Then she’ll narrate freely. Okay, I’m not an educational philosopher, I’m just sharing my own experience with my own children. With all that said, I have discovered that I have to time things right so that we are moving along and not spending too long in one time period of history or one area of science. The kids get bored.
Another subject that I believe can (and should) be tied into every subject is one’s religion. Mine is Christianity. When it comes to science and nature study, frequent references to the Creator and His relationship to the laws of nature, make especially children appreciate Him more. As for history, there are many religious questions that I think are worthy for even children to contemplate: can you see God’s hand in this story? What would have happened if people had obeyed or disobeyed God? etc.
So while, I think that some of the unit studies are overkill with, especially trying to tie math into the program, I do think that tying things into either science or history that fit naturally and are enjoyable for the children is a good idea and for the more kinesthetic learners, may help them to remember longer.
.-= Rhonda´s last blog ..What Am I Doing Anyway? =-.
Julie Moses says
I have to agree with CM that it should be the job of the student to find the connections. Finding the connections creates an incomparable excitement over a subject!(I know, from finding connections between the Old and New Testament always thrills me!) However like many other things, how can we expect our learners to just simply figure out how to do that on their own.
(Ever asked your son to clean his room or do the dishes without showing him how a few times? How did that turn out?) Some students probably will, just like some children need little training in art or music and just seemed to have been born with natural gifts. That is not to say that art and music are not skills that ANYONE can learn if they set their minds on it. Of course there will be some who need to be reminded often to set their minds upon a task such as that. So finding connections is a skill as well and as teachers and parents I believe it is our job to “facilitate” learning those skills until they are firmly established and come automatically. So this may be where those “unnecessary activities” come in. They are simply training tools if used correctly and who says training can’t be fun, engaging, and resulting in a love of the process of learning?
.-= Julie Moses´s last blog ..The Gallery- Blog Carnival of Art Projects for Kids Issue #1 =-.
Agreeing with Miss Mason on this as well. It is wonderful for the student to find connections, but does a diservice to make many connections for them. It is quite possible that unit studies can be done in a manner that doesn’t spoon feed connections though.
Personally, like Kristen above, I’ve never really done true unit studies, although (Again, like Kristen) I really do like Tapestry of Grace, and it makes sense to my own thinking. One thing I love about it is exactly what Charlotte Mason is saying in the quotes you cited–it relies on rich living books and the child is allowed to interact with them himself, making his own connections between disciplines.
.-= Dell´s last blog ..Daybook: Monday August 31, 2009 =-.
Great things to think about. I don’t have much to say on this yet as I’m just learning here, but I appreciate you bringing the topic up for discussion.
I’d more likely agree than disagree, although for some students doing those ‘extra’ unneccessary activities is often the time when connections are made. It’s during these times when discussion is free flowing and thoughts are rolling around inside ones head…..well in our house anyway, I have witnessed that on a few occasions.
.-= Kylie´s last blog ..Spring Fever! =-.
Penney Douglas says
I call what I do unit studies, but they’re not really what others might consider unit studies. I never try to tie math in to what we’re studying. Our main areas of study are Bible and History – they definitely tie together.
I let the Holy Spirit lead me in my planning, and He gives me the topic we’re supposed to study, or time in history. Then He leads me to great books to read about that era. I read them aloud to my oldest 6 kids. My oldest son is a philosopher. He almost always brings up a discussion later of what we read about during the day or from a particular book. Sometimes he tells my husband what we read about; other times he reasons out loud about what we’ve been reading. The other kids hear what we say and sometimes add their thoughts. Sometimes the Lord will give me ideas for notebooking, drawing maps, adding figures to a timeline, etc. But for the most part the reading and discussing are the main things we do. And I call it a unit study because we usually read several different books about the topic.
By doing our unit studies this way, I think we avoid the pitfalls that Charlotte Mason pointed out. I definitely don’t go overboard in planning. When I try to do that, it all seems so contrived, and it makes me go bonkers trying to make the kids do things whether they want to or not. My kids make their own connections, and I find out what they’re thinking through questions they ask me and things they come and tell me. Learning is very natural around here.
.-= Penney Douglas´s last blog ..The House with the Lower Rent Wins!!! =-.
sarah in the woods says
I haven’t done unit studies, but I do like to embellish a topic with hands-on activities. My daughter, 7, is not yet a fluent reader, and she is not an auditory learner. I read to her from a real book on a certain topic, and she cannot tell me much of anything about it afterwards. This could be just that she has difficulty with the narration part – expressing with words what she has in her brain. But if we also do a fun relevant project, she seems to understand and remember better. On the other hand, my son, 5, narrates from books with ease. I do agree that the teacher must be aware of what is truly beneficial and fun for the child and not carry on with one subject forever. The key is to be aware of your child, rather than every wonderful thing you could possibly do, your own teaching abilities, or whether you’re following a certain method exactly the “right” way. One child may want to live and breathe dinosaurs for six months, while another may like to have a couple books and move on. Of course, that’s one of the beauties of homeschooling – the teacher can be in tune with her child’s needs and desires in learning and provide what is best.
.-= sarah in the woods´s last blog ..Nature Printing =-.
Kyle Suzanne says
I would consider us a CM Unit Study Homeschool, we do not use a unit study that claims to be CM but instead we use Christian Cottage Unit study which connects …History, geography, science, Literature, Writing (which I noramally do orally), Home Ec., Music & Art. The units move chronologically through history and are broad (Natural North America: Indians, Volcanoes, Eskimos, animals , plants….). Accordingly, subjects are not forced into a spot but fall into place naturally. I can skip CCU lessons and just read if that’s how we are going to cover the subject. There are projects available if I want to do them. I guess in CM language I would call CC my spine with projects.I like unit studies because it keeps me focused and moving through history in an orderly fashion. I also enjoy the hands on projects & science experiements. Right now the kids are outside making the volcano we just studied in our natural north america unit.
Now that said, I specificially do not make the connections for the kids. I just announce the name of the new unit study and we dive into it. The unit studies is not my master. We rely on great books, great books and great books. My kids love to read and we love to read to them. They often connect the book back to what they are studying and take ownership of knowledge. I love CM and we are incorporating more of her methods into our homeschool.
The other day my 1st grader was playing connect 4 and said Mom this reminds me of God. The red is like the blood Jesus shed on the cross and the black is like our sin. That’s ownership of knowledge (and sending your mom into shock).
Thanks for making me think!
.-= Kyle Suzanne´s last blog ..Come on by… =-.
Wonderful post. I tend to agree with Miss Mason; it doesn’t HAVE to turn out that the teacher is the one making all the connections, but there’s a good likelihood that it will. I always have a plan, but find that there’s more involvement from my children when I don’t have TOO detailed an agenda/set of expectations.
.-= Janet´s last blog ..Charlotte Mason Carnival =-.
This is the text of my blog post I created in response to your thought-provoking entry:
Let me first define “unit studies” as the integration of multiple school subjects, such as literature, history, math, and science, based on a single unifying theme. Entire curricula are designed in this manner, the most well-known being the excellent program, KONOS. Yet even KONOS has parents supply their own separate grammar and math programs, and the science portion is weak in several units.
It is one thing to integrate topics that naturally flow together, for example drawing from your literature to create copywork, or reading historical fiction and period literature along with your history studies, or assigning writing topics based on your subject of study. Trying to make other subjects integrate, however, is like putting square pegs into round holes, and those other subjects suffer because of it.
Math and science are two subjects likely to be short-changed; this is because these are rarely the central theme of a study. Activities that integrate these subjects usually are contrived as Miss Mason observed. Creating word problems based on historical subjects does nothing to increase a child’s mastery of mathematics. Science involves reading biographies or science history rather than learning scientific principles.
Today I see a different notion of “unit studies” in homeschooling circles, something that is more properly called “thematic units.” We are studying Westward Expansion this year, so I have collected a variety of resources–books, movies, games, web links, lesson plans–relating to this theme. I do not try to integrate grammar, math, science, art, or any other subject into this theme. I do, however, provide a variety of approaches, including hands-0n activities, for kids to learn from, though our homeschool is child-driven in this narrow area. I give the kids an activity book and they pick out the project they want to do, or something else of their choosing, so they make their own connections rather than me giving them mine.
This goes back to my own philosophy about phantom “holes” I used to worry so much about. We are learning about vast subjects, like history and science, of which we could never master all there is to learn. The notion of “core knowledge” is an illusion when we consider all that we leave out of curriculum standards. And when we forget more than we learn of trivial facts, then what our children retain through the relationships they form with a topic is as worthy as what anyone else has formed. Our task as teachers is to provide the framework that reflects our world view and the resources that instill our moral values; our children will then forge their own knowledge relationships.
This reminds me of a G. K. Chesterton quote (who married a woman that worked for the P.N.E.U. by the way) that is at the bottom of my left sidebar:
“The present collapse of this country began when education was regarded as a substitute for culture, or rather when instruction was regarded as a substitute for education, or rather when getting facts by teaching was regarded as a substitute for getting truth by tradition.”
That is where KONOS has it right–by centering their themes around Christian virtues. In that sense, our entire homeschool is one continuous unit study centered on the Truth of Jesus Christ.
.-= *Kris*´s last blog ..Response to "Unit Studies and Charlotte Mason" =-.
Oh wow! Kris, that is an EXCELLENT discussion of unit studies and thematic units. I love what you’ve written. Thanks for posting it here on my blog!!
Interesting post, I’ve wondered about Unit studies and whether they contradict or mesh with CM’s philosophy. I believe CM thought educators should integrate a curriculum along the lines of history that would enable students to make their own connections instead of compartmentalizing. Childlight has an interesting article on sequencing and ordering the curriculum in the Winter 2007 edition of The Review which mentions unit studies. You may find more information in it to help you discern what is right for your family, as we all must ultimately do.
Mary Ann says
So grateful to have stumbled across this blog post. I have been trying to figure out how to do unit studies AND CM, and I feel FREE now to just follow CM philosophy (as much as I can, as I’m just learning). I’ve always equated unit studies with lots of work for ME, and wasn’t particularly looking forward to using them, but I knew I needed a change from the past textbook/workbook, extremely structured style, for my daughter’s sake. I am hopeful that by switching to the CM method, her love of learning will be nourished and not squashed!
Thinking about the hands-on aspect, that can actually be considered narration IF it is designed by the student. If he is free to create something to “show” what he learned. It brings some variety to “just narration”. This next year we are planning on using a unit study program (Weaver) and I will be planning my living books based upon the units because *I* need something that keeps me on track and know where I’m going with our lessons.
I agree that trying to incorporate every subject into a unit is wrong. I can’t imagine trying to learn Math in a unit study way. It should definitely be taught systematically.
Heather Marie says
I have enjoyed reading Charlotte Mason’s views on educating children, but I am somewhat put off at her strong opinions that her ways are the only ways that suit all children in all cultures across time. I have been homeschooling five children for the last twelve years. I am an extremely motivated learner myself and so ready-made curriculum has never worked for me. I even told my husband he is free to tie me up if I even consider buying anyone else’s unit studies. But not everyone is like me. I have always followed a chronological study of history with my children and read and read and read great works of literature to them. I write up a paper with about a dozen choices of how they might want to show what they learned. Art, oral reports, drama, service projects, written responses…and the choice is theirs. That way they “own” the project. This method has never failed with any of my very different children. Be in prayer about every method. I adopted narration as a method one year and one of my boys failed so miserably at it that I despaired of his entire future. (I’m sorry to admit this) I am sure I made him feel stupid because he could not remember the main idea or even characters of an Aesop’s Fable. But this same boy when presented with many choices of response would often respond: “Choose only one? Can’t I do more?” Some children really do need more help. Merely laying every great idea before them and hoping they find the inner resources to pull it all together is not going to work for all children. That is why teaching is listed as a gift. Learning is a shared responsibility between the disciple and the master. I measure growth in my homeschooling by how much more of the learning the children take on each year, by their growing ability to make connections from what was previously studied and if they are growing in their character and ability to wisely use what they have learned. I ask them periodically about their interests and let them choose as much subjects as possible to study so they own more and more of their learning in hope that they enjoy learning and want to continue for life. The most important lesson I have learned is: God’s Word trumps the words of men and women every time. Pray as a family often about growing in wisdom and knowledge. He will not fail us.
I’m in the yes and no camp as well. Until my young children can make those connections for themselves I may prompt it with questions, seeing where they take it. If I see a connection between say an historical event and weather, why not ask a basic question- “what role do you think the weather plays/played?” See where it goes in their mind. Maybe no where. Maybe a thousand places. Create a discussion. I was not allowed to think like this as a child, most of us weren’t. So I find myself going on rabbit holes in areas that I find fascinating. I can get lost for hours, days, reading and searching. Where as certain tie-ins don’t really call to me. That will be the case for children. So I’s rather prompt a question or three and see where it goes. If it’s exciting to them and an area of interest, they’ll let us know. Otherwise, much won’t be expanded on. This for me, is were CM ties into Unschooling for us as a family.
I have a question, how can you not make connections for them? What part of the units is making connections for them? I am doing units but it’s more topic based learning than it is me trying to pull all subjects into a topic. Like for instance we are learning about Washington for presidents day, I am not trying to pull science into the unit even though we could trail off and learn about Apple trees or something like that for science. Either way it is not clear to me how to do units without making connections for them.