"'Education is the Science of Relations'; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––
'Those first-born affinities,
That fit our new existence to existing things.'"

Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education
with a quote from The Prelude by William Wordsworth

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Response to "Unit Studies and Charlotte Mason"

Jimmie's Collage has a blog entry in the current Charlotte Mason blog carnival encouraging a discussion about Miss Mason's opinion about unit studies. Here is the quote Jimmie refers to:

"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."

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.

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