(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)
A unit study is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. It starts with a topic and explores the depth and breadth of that subject. The key is that in a unit study, all of the traditional subject areas (language arts, social studies, science, math, home economics, physical education, art, and music) filter through the topic of choice.
I favor a unit studies approach in all levels of my teaching (from preschool-at-home to my college classroom) for several reasons:
- A Whole Picture: academic disciplines naturally overlap anyway because they are artificially-created. Unit studies offer a holistic approach that makes time and study both more fluid and less burdened by unnecessary interruptions for switching subjects.
- Context is King: a unit study contextualizes information, making it both more meaningful and more memorable. Seeing the same topic from multiple perspectives engages our critical faculties and allows us to think through different lens for interpreting the world.
- Loving Learning: unit studies draw on the interests of the teachers and learners, mirroring the natural learning process that we engage in when we pursue what we love; this, too, makes learning more enjoyable, meaningful, and memorable.
With enough thought, flexibility, creativity, and resourcefulness (thanks, in large part, to a good public library), it is easy to create a unit study out of any topic. The key here is not to crush that love of learning by forcing a unit study (or any other kind of learning). For small children, follow their interests and keep it fun and low-key. The older learners get, the more they should be actively directing the content of the unit study; we have to own it to really learn it.
Below, I provide a sample pre-school unity study that my elder daughter and I are currently doing. The concepts and materials reflect her level, but the process remains the same even as the learner develops. On a practical level, at home, this looks like a huge stack of books and materials that my daughter can access. We integrate them into our day as we desire, which sometimes means an entire day of play devoted to the unit study, sometimes a few stories at bedtime, and sometimes nothing at all. This pattern fits my larger belief that we are always learning something, and that children (like other humans) learn best through curiosity—not compulsion.