A unit study is an approach that focuses on a main theme or topic, incorporating as many aspects and subject areas as possible. I’ve heard it referred to as a ‘whole language’ approach, but I feel it is more a ‘whole child’ approach. The actual unit study may last anywhere from one day to three months or even longer.
What topics can unit studies cover?
One of the great things about unit studies is the flexibility. You can cover anything at all.
Some ideas are:
Events: First Moon Walk, Revolutionary War, Holidays
People: Artists, Mathematicians, Presidents, Authors
Books: Any Book, Story, Poetry
Places: History of your State, a Country, a Monument
Things: How Computers were Invented, the First Toothbrush, A Song
Topics are only limited to your imagination and resources.
How does it work?
Let’s say we are going to make a unit study on Ancient Egypt. The first area we would study is the history of the time period. Since Ancient Egypt is considered to have been for about 3000 years, we may want to narrow it down. For the sake of this example, we are focusing on the 4th Dynasty when the pyramids of Giza were built. We would discuss how the people of that time lived, their culture, speech, writings, food, homes and work. We look into more than just what they did and try to figure out why.
To tie it into science we might go into what metals, plants and other materials were available to them. We learn that Egyptians probably invented chemistry. The name chemistry is derived from the ancient name for Egypt, Alchemy. We also learn why flooding was so important to the people and the land.
From here we discuss papyrus and make our own homemade paper. We discover how the Egyptians wrote. We can play with hieroglyphics and make our own cartouches. Maybe we could make a model pyramid and decorate the tombs. We would even read a few books, maybe about King Kufu.
We picked up some great vocabulary words, like cartouche, pyramid, papyrus, pharaoh, mummify and hieroglyphics. For geography we learn about the land, the Nile River and the desert. We made our own map of the area and placed images of key places on it. Then we would find Egypt on the globe.
After a hard day working on the pyramids, the Egyptians were bound to be hungry. So we would make some unleavened bread just as they would have eaten. Of course, they cooked their food in holes in rocks. We will have to settle for a cooking stone in the barbecue grill. We also learn about how the average home was run, that woman could hold jobs, people kept their food in holes in the ground and that most of the time, they slept on their roofs. This would help us cover health studies.
We discover how many tons the pyramids weigh and how many buses that would equal. We also learn about the use of decimals since the Egyptians used special symbols for numbers and decimals. So we would practice what we learn by playing a hieroglyphic math game. The Egyptians also used Pi but their value was 3.16.
For fun one night, we will play Mancala since we know the Egyptians invented it. We will also play some Egyptian music and learned some dances and explain the religious significance it had to them.
When it is all done, we might write a story about what it might have been like to live back then.
There are many other concepts we could add in depending upon the age and ability of the student. This is just a basic idea so you get the feel for unit based studies.
While you may choose to use unit studies to cover one or two subject areas, it can also used to cover as many subject areas as you desire to. Other materials can easily be substituted for whatever you feel is lacking.
What are the disadvantages to using unit studies?
The biggest criticism of unit studies is that it may not offer enough concrete skills in the basic 3R’s. (reading, writing and arithmetic). If you find this to be the case, these skills can easily be enhanced with additions to your lessons.
Another disadvantage is that it can be time consuming to create and plan the lessons. You will also need to track down resources such as books. However, many companies now sell pre-made unit studies. All you need to do is to borrow books from your library.
What are the advantages to using unit studies?
The greatest advantage is the ability to tailor the lessons to your child (ren). Because of the nature of the unit study, you can also teach the same concepts to a variety of ages and simply offer different assignments based upon age and/or ability. Subjects can be added to meet your needs as well. For example, my son loves woodworking. We can add a project which reflects our theme. Another child may play the piano and learn how to play a song.
You also have the ability to make your lessons based upon any criteria you choose. There may be a relative visiting who is a photographer. Your children can study all about the history of photography in time to hold their own in a conversation. Or maybe you passed by a local festival and your child wants to learn more.
Another bonus is that because unit studies attempt to totally encompass your child, he is more likely to retain what he has learned.
Still not sure?
If you are not sure this is the right method for your family, you might try making a mini unit study which only lasts a few days. Try a simple topic you know well. Maybe a small story could be your basis.
Unit studies can also be use s part of a combination of teaching methods. These could be by subject area or just for certain themes. Don’t feel limited by a method. Expand and create something that works for your family.