Keeping Unit Studies Simple

I often talk with homeschooling families struggling with their transition from a packaged textbook program to a unit study approach. Although their kids are enthusiastic, the moms complain about the extensive planning. Exhausted, they are looking for help. What should they do? It doesn’t take long to learn that a few wrong notions have led to their planning nightmares. Being used to covering each subject every day, they have not only been trying to continue that practice, but to also find a way to make every single subject fit into the chosen unit study. That would exhaust anyone! It’s not necessary. Unit studies fit easily into an eclectic approach toward education. So, instead of asking, “How can I make this fit?” I tell them to ask, “What’s my objective and how can I accomplish it in an interesting and meaningful way?” Some things will connect, others won’t. Whatever doesn’t fit can simply be presented using resources or activities suited to the student’s personality and learning style.

For example, if my objective were to study earthquakes (science), I would find a video and directions for a hands-on illustration to make it more real and understandable than text and pictures alone. To make it meaningful, I would connect the study to geography by having students locate areas of earthquake activity on maps and then include history by studying cultures in those regions (Japan, California, etc.). Students would be using reading comprehension skills as they gathered and processed information. A follow up activity to help them retain their experiences would probably incorporate composition skills as they wrote or planned a presentation.

Boundaries between subjects have now been blurred while students build skills by using them in a meaningful way—the advantage of a unit study approach. But research, experiments, projects, and compositions also require lots of time. So what about all the other subjects? Prioritize. Some skills, like typing, phonics, spelling, or math facts, may need to be practiced each day for the student to progress, or at least not lose ground. Any targeted weak area should continue as part of daily studies. Then an area of strength or interest should be included. Sometimes this becomes part of the unit study, but more often it’s a separate activity—creating art or stories, playing an instrument, practicing a sport, building something, doing experiments, researching a specific topic, reading for pleasure, and so on. This is the area that keeps the student motivated, that fuels him and finally ignites him with a passion for learning and doing.

Over time, rather than every day, all subjects can be taught—alone or as part of a unit study. Software, videos, games, self-correcting materials, and workbooks can all be used by students for brief periods of independent work—you don’t have to do it all. Make planning easier by choosing from activities in Guides to History Plus. Refer to its lists of games, software, and fiction and nonfiction videos for independent work that also connects to history. If you need help learning how to plan—choosing objectives and resources, teaching various ages together, understanding learning styles, and so on—take a look at Teaching Tips & Techniques. Try The Maya, a ready-made unit study that can also be used as a model. (All books are available at How we teach makes all the difference. If we want our children to remember and apply what they learn, then we must not give up because of burnout. So use unit studies, but keep it simple.