Much of my homeschooling success is due to the use of unit studies. When my kids are fascinated with a subject, we do a unit study on it, find university level textbooks, and a few videos. It is the chief way my children learn and has been a roaring success.
So what is a unit study? Simply put, it’s a series of lessons around one topic, say the Roman Empire. You incorporate elements of Math, Language Arts, History, Geography, Other Social Studies (like Government, Sociology, Economics, Religion, Philosophy, etc), Science, Life Skills, and Fine Arts around the topic of the unit study (in this case the Roman Empire).
An Example, The Roman Empire
- Religion: Catholicism (the Pope ruled Rome and commanded a great deal of power)
- Government: A Senate commanded by two consuls and then a dictatorship commanded by the emperor or Caesar
- Geography: The Roman Empire created a series of incredible roads that made communication and travel much easier. They also created an amazing series of aqueducts. Map the Roman Empire at its height (which included Egypt, most of Europe, and part of Asia).
- Math: Add up the number of miles of roads the Romans created. What was the square footage of the Roman Empire at the height of its power? What percentage of the entire populated world was that?
- Vocabulary: Aqueduct, pope, emperor, dictatorship, empire, etc.
- Science: How did the plague affect Rome and the Roman Empire? Why?
- Economics: Explain how money trickled from the Pope down through the Roman society.
- Life Skills: What occupations thrived in Roman society?
- Fine Arts: Gather pictures of fine art from the Roman period. What do they have in common?
These are just examples of questions to ask and topics to study in relation to the Roman Empire. We watched documentaries from the History Channel, basically everything they had on the Roman Empire, Barbarians, Vikings, and anyone else they dealt with. It took over a year but was well worth the effort.
Mary Pride’s Unit Study Pie
Mary Pride was a homeschooler who put together several books on homeschooling, among the best ever written on the subject, and devoted much time to explaining Unit Studies. She created a pie and made these subjects the pieces of the pie:
- Language Arts
- Other Social Studies
- Religion & Philosophy
- Sports & Fitness
- Practical Life Skills
- Fine Arts
I never used the pie, but I loved her examples, especially her Star Trek example of a unit study. 😉
Mary Pride’s Hypothetical Star Trek Unit Study
- Watch every episode
- Learn all about the actors
- Purchase reference works such as Scotty’s Guide to the Starship Enterprise, and memorize the blueprints
- Engage in online or in person discussion with other fans about the episodes, the ship design, the actors, the writers, etc.
- Make a costume
- Play games based on the show
- Attend conventions
- Collect action figures and other stuff related to the show
- Learn Klingon
She used this as an example because 50% of the American population considers themselves Star Trek fans. The others have at least heard of Star Trek or watched an episode or two. Everyone can relate and thus understand the example. It’s only a hypothetical example, but you get the idea of what a unit study is.
You can build unit studies around any topic you choose, something simple to something complicated.
- Character traits (honesty, perseverance, faithfulness, etc)
- Science topics
- Countries or places
- Historical figures and events
- Time periods (like the Roman Empire or the Dark Ages)
- Fun topics (how glue works and who discovered it)
Timeline for a Unit Study
There is no standard time frame for a unit study. You should, however, start with something that gains the children’s interest and finish with a big project that brings closure.
- Memorable beginning (video or dramatic reading)
- More videos, texts, internet articles, etc.
- Create timelines, flash cards, journals, portfolios, PowerPoint presentations, etc.
- Big finale (presentation, play, research paper, demonstration, quiz, etc.)
Whatever you choose to do a unit study on, write down your ideas and mind map them. That means draw circles as branches from your original idea and organize them. Find videos (documentaries), internet sources, and textbooks around your topic. Look for related field trips and people to talk to. Organize everything into a coherent unit and start. That’s all there is to it.