Teaching With Unit Studies

This article originally published in The Homeschool Link magazine.

If you have been around homeschooling for some time, then you probably already know what a unit study is and how you would incorporate it into your home school.  But if you are new to homeschooling, or looking for a different approach to your curriculum, or maybe just looking for a break from your normal classroom routine, you should hear about unit studies and how they can help with your schooling.

What is a Unit Study?
A unit study is a topical study that encompasses a wide range of disciplines.  Unit study is sometimes called a thematic, integrated, or cross-curriculum approach to learning.  The idea is to take a topic and study it in depth, covering every element of the topic as it relates to science, mathematics, literature, history, geography, and other disciplines that may be more individually tailored to the unit being studied.

This style of learning has been around a long time- can we even quantify how long?  Did Adam and Eve ever teach their sons and daughters about the world around them?  Think about when you or your children have been very interested in a topic and have dived into it to learn everything possible about that topic.  That’s a unit study!  But lets see if we can spell it out in greater detail with an example.

An Example of Unit Study.
Your ten year old has gone on a fishing trip with Daddy and is suddenly fascinated with everything involving fishing!  “Ah,..”  you think, “I just read an article on this, this would be the perfect opportunity for a unit study!”  What can an in-depth study of fishing uncover and how is it educational?  Let’s look.

Science (biology, botany, life science, etymology, ecology)

  • In what habitat does a fish live?  How do humans interact with and affect that habitat?  Sketch your local fishing hole in terms of an ecological habitat.
  • What are the different types of fish?  What is the largest fish?  The smallest?  What types of fish do you have locally?  Identify them with a wildlife guide.
  • What are the parts of a fish? For what purpose was each part designed?
  • What do fish eat?   Where do they fit in the food chain? (What is a food chain?)
  • Do fish eat different things seasonally?  Do different types of fish eat different things?  Why do fly fishermen like to fish during “the hatch”?
  • How do fish reproduce?  Draw the life cycle of a fish.

History/Geography

  • Historically, why have we humans fished at all?
  • Which countries or regions would you expect to consume the most fish and why?
  • Describe historical fishing methods (boat, spear, nets, hands, fishing rod) and when/ where they were used.

Literature/ English

  • Read Moby Dick
  • Read The Old Man and the Sea
  • Read a book on the history of fly fishing, or an anthology of fishing stories.
  • Write book reports on the books you have read.  Discuss them in class.
  • Write your own short story about fishing.

Physical Education

  • Go on a field trip.  Fish!  Did you have to hike to the fishing spot?  That was PE.
  • How many calories does one consume while fishing?  Does it depend on the style of fishing you are doing?
  • Learn and try some different types of fishing.  Pole fishing, wading, floating, fly fishing…

Socio-Political Studies

  • What controversies are involved in fishing today?
  • Explain the principles of catch-and-release.  Why and when is this practice employed?
  • Get a fishing license; review and discuss the rules and regulations.

How to Incorporate Unit Studies Into Your Homeschool.
Ok, so you just read the above example and it looks like a lot of work to put together something like that.  It certainly can be a lot of work.  But there are many resources available to help you wade the waters of a unit study.  Think first about how you want to use unit studies within your home school.

One way to employ the unit study approach is by throwing out the textbooks and diving into unit studies completely to learn all your core curriculum requirements.  This approach works best when homeschooling highly energetic children who need lots of hands-on practical application to stay engaged and to learn most effectively.  One could argue that we all learn this way best!  Remember, though, past about the junior high school level, if your goal is college prep for your children, there should be more rigorous coursework involved that will not be attainable through unit studies alone.  If you are using unit studies exclusively, you will want to do some research into your topic areas and tailor it to your home school.  Choose among available commercial products wisely to ensure you are hitting all the important subject areas for your children, and not simply having a great time… fishing, for instance.

Another way you can use unit studies is as a supplement to your normal coursework.  This is a perfect way to engage and round out a student who has a definite interest in one area.  Use your own activities and topic areas or purchase a unit study guide that addresses the area of interest.  If your child is old enough, let them proceed at their own pace and dig deeper into areas where they want to focus.  Make sure you incorporate some field trips and plenty of hands-on activities.  Have fun with it- this flexibility is one reason you are homeschooling, right?  Encourage your student.  Remember, career aspirations start this way.

A third way to incorporate the unit study in your homeschool is to take a break from your normal routine.  Take a few days, a week, or a month off of your typical class schedule to study one topic.  Then, at the end of the study, resume your normal classwork refreshed and energized.  You can choose a topic of interest to your student(s) or one that anticipates an upcoming event such as a family vacation.  You might have done this before without realizing it.  Did you ever incorporate some “school” into a family vacation?  Every vacation I can think of (although a theme park vacation might be a stretch) has some educational opportunities built in.  Gettysburg, Washington D.C., the Rocky Mountains, the Louis and Clark Trail, scuba diving in Cancun!  Take the week prior to the vacation and study up!  Incorporate science, math, history, literature, etc.

Benefits of using unit studies
Why would you use a unit study to teach your children?  There are several benefits to employing this approach.

First, choosing a subject that is interesting to your students means that they stay engaged and eager to learn.  When a unit study captures your child’s interest, they will want to dive in to all aspects of the topic.  Your job becomes easy- they will absorb anything you can teach them.

Second, the unit study can be used for your entire homeschooling age range at the same time.  By choosing age-appropriate activities for each child, you will allow each one to study the topic of interest at their own level.  Once again, your task is made simpler with fewer subject areas to address for the duration of your unit study.

Third, the unit study is by nature practical application oriented.  For your hands-on learners, a thematic study lends itself perfectly to maximize learning opportunities.  By providing a mix of different applications in the different disciplines, the unit study helps to combat disinterest!

These are some of the benefits of the unit study in your homeschool.  Whether you use it as a year-long approach or just to take a break from your usual routine, the unit study is a helpful tool for you to employ.

A Final Word
Whether you use a purchased unit study or one you have designed, have a plan in mind.  Write it down.  Tailor it to each of your children, if you are involving your entire home school class.  If you are engaging in haphazard hands-on learning, you are still learning, but it is best to have a concrete knowledge of your objectives and whether or not you met them.  Have fun!

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