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Can unit studies and unschooling work together?

2313 Views 9 Replies 10 Participants Last post by  cottonwood
We're just starting out and I've been reading about the different philosophies and methods. I know I don't want to do "school at home"-our family is pretty relaxed and my son and I like to get out and do things. But I'm concerned that it'd stress me out to not know if my son is learning "enough." If I don't have a curriculum or a scope and sequence to follow, how will I know? Also, how do unschoolers deal with skill based stuff like math and grammar?

I like the idea of unit studies. I naturally get fascinated with a topic and do my own research projects periodically and my son (who has a mild autism spectrum disorder) also periodically gets really interested in different things.

Is it possible to have a style that combines unit studies and unschooling? Or does unschooling by definition rule out other methods? What if I want to use a curriculum for math?

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You can have a curriculum for one area and then let the kids lead the way in others. No, that's not exactly unschooling but that doesn't matter. There are no homeschool police who make sure people follow the rules
What matters is what works for you and your family. If your kids enjoy the math curriculum then why not? If they are fighting with you every time you bring it out then you reconsider. Either switch to another one or ditch it altogether.

I love the idea of unit studies as laid out by the article Lillian linked to on the unit study thread (and as laid out by the Creative Homeschooling book which I really enjoyed!). I like what Creative Homeschooling says about how most kids do unit studies on their own, we just call them obessions

If I don't have a curriculum or a scope and sequence to follow, how will I know?
I know my kids are learning just by being with them, watching them, talking to them. What I don't know is how they compare to other kids in every single area. I get glimpses of course. Just from talking to other moms I get an idea of what their kids are doing or not doing. Kids learn at different rates though and not everyone excells in every area, so I don't worry that my kids hit some made up standard.
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I do think that there's a sense in which unschooling rules out other "methods". Unschooling is saying "I trust that, driven by your own interests, within a world of experiences and knowledge where things are indeed connected to each other in a variety of ways, you will learn well according to your needs, temperment and learning style, without structure imposed by others." Imposing structure through unit studies is like adding a negating "but" to that statement ... "But I think I don't actually trust your interest, your ability to learn or the interconnectedness of the body of knowledge in certain key areas, so I'm taking control there."

That being said, it is certainly possible to combine elements of an unschooling style with a unit study approach -- following children's interests, being flexible, putting children in charge of setting the pace and direction of much of their learning, etc..

Upon observing my kids' unschooled learning over the years, I'd have to say that on the surface it looks a lot like a unit-study approach. They tend to focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of others for a period of time, and then move on. But really, to me a unit study is a theme that unites a number of related areas of exploration, something that holds a position of central importance and defines areas of relevence in relation to it. With my kids' natural learning, I find that the centre wanders. For instance, rather than learning about ancient Egypt in a neatly circumscribed unit, their interest in ancient Egypt morphs into an interest in HTML with respect to ancient-Egypt-influenced fantasy play and written creativity, which morphs into an interest in 3D graphics technology and then an interest in animation in generation and stop-motion animation in general, and then into scripting for film and scripting for radio and theatre... and so it goes. From the outside and in retrospect I can look at what has occurred and draw lines around different areas and describe them as discrete areas of study, but my kids certainly do not circumscribe their learning in such ways, much to their greater benefit, I think. For them one thing flows into another, and the organizational principles of unit studies would I think hamper this flow by creating circumscribed expectations.

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is up to the children. For math and science we've been using these neat Harry Potter kits to make telescopes and secret messages and other fun stuff!

Don't worry about kids learning - schools decide what kids should learn and what not to teach them. The same goes for you! If your child hasn't learned it and needs to know it he'll learn it! For example my son hasn't done much math and he decided he wanted to know how to multiply and he has learned it from scratch in just a month what the goals are for his peers in public school from 1st-3rd grade!

The unit studies we do just guide us; we don't follow them strictly! We usuallly branch off on our own once we get into the theme.
In a more-or-less agreement with Miranda, and speaking as a kidless person who did open-ed and child-directed-learning in a classroom situation, unschooling will naturally turn into/look like unit studies. My own unschooling sure does! Of course, now that I'm an adult and have chosen a profession, it's a bit more focused, but it's natural to focus on one subject and look at it in a bunch of different ways, and even within my subject (midwifery), I find myself clumping topics/readings/obsessions together (breech, postpartum, lactation, etc).

That said, if you wanted to try a combined approach, you could have the unit study materials available, and let your child pursue them, or not, as they choose, and when and how they choose. Give them the material to learn from if you feel you can trust it better than the chaos of life, but let them lead, and trust them to learn what they need.
It depends how you define unit studies

I am not an unschooler per se, but I do limit the amount of *required* school with my older DD so she can pursue her own interests and I let my youngest do pretty much what he wants right now.

I do worry about *what* my kids are learning and if it's *enough* soooooo....I'll periodically assess what all they've been doing and organize it into unit studies after the fact.


DD is obsessed with Harry Potter so I put everything down in a Harry Potter unit.

Math-arithmetic; figuring birth numbers and destiny numbers

Science-herbs; healing properties of various herbs and methods of growth and preservation
-cryptobiology; big foot, dragons, Nessie
-construction of bat house and study of bats

Art-construction of fairy house, 3-D dragon and several wands

Geography/history-Magical places; Easter Island, Stonehenge, etc

LA-reading books 1-6 as well as several companion books (Secret world of Harry Potter, Quidditch through the Ages, Wizardology Etc)
-writing movie reviews
-Reading several versions of Arthurian legend and compare/contrasting with each other and HP.

PE-development of land based *Quidditch* game.

There's more but you get the idea. None of this is stuff I assigned her (well, I did suggest the movie review but she was excited to do it) although I did find her resources. She is now very into medieval history, alchemy and has requested to study chemistry and astronomy.

I've done the same thing using my DS's love of dinosaurs and other subjects. Maybe not *real* unschooling, but definitly interest led IMO.
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I think unschooling and unit studies can go together quite easily, but not in a mandated, required sort of way.

Today my kids and I went to a Froebel Blocks workshop at our library. Afterwards we went and looked at books, where I found some Frank Lloyd Wright books for kids. We checked them out, among other things, and while driving my daughter was excited to see a picture she had recognized from the workshop. Soon, we'll be going on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour geared for children. My kids will love it and will understand so much of it because of the Froebel Blocks, and the books.

Last year, we went up to the top of the Sears Tower and learned that Frank Lloyd Wright's son created lincoln logs; a toy that my kids play with all of the time.

Tomorrow we're going to a nature area with lots of prairie plants to see how to make maple syrup, then it's off to a restaurant for pancakes with maple syrup. The prairie will have the same flattened lines and earthy colors that is indicative of Praire Style, which we learned about at the Froebel workshop...

Was the Froebel workshop merely a blocks unit study? Are these activites soley about architecture, nature, history?

The things the kids learn about one thing supports their learning of other things and so on. And they tend to want to see things from many different sides and in many different ways.

It all tends to end up being interrelated.
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I think it depends how you're doing it--if you're requiring them to do assignments and things, that wouldn't be compatible with unschooling, but if it's something they're choosing to do, and you're just suggesting, helping, or encouraging, I don't think there's anything incompatible about unschooling and unit studies or curriculum.

Originally Posted by momofcutie
Is it possible to have a style that combines unit studies and unschooling? Or does unschooling by definition rule out other methods? What if I want to use a curriculum for math?
Y'know what? I just want to say that it's possible to do any darned thing you want. You don't need to pick a "style." You don't need to pick a "method." You don't need to label what you do. I think it's really unfortunate that so many new homeschoolers these days get told "The first thing you need to do is decide what style you're going to be"
. There are as many styles and methods of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers.

This article describes the most "unschoolish" approach I've seen expressed in an article about unit studies - although I much prefer Miranda's more organic take.

You also asked

But I'm concerned that it'd stress me out to not know if my son is learning "enough." If I don't have a curriculum or a scope and sequence to follow, how will I know? Also, how do unschoolers deal with skill based stuff like math and grammar?
It's hard to convince people that this isn't as much of a problem as it quite understandably seems as if it could be, but it isn't
... You'll see your son learning a lot more than many of his schooled peers. They might be going through the motions of studying more - but that doesn't mean they'll be learning more. A curriculum would guarantee nothing. You could occasionally - like every few years - take a look at something like the Typical Course of Study that World Book Encyclopedia provides in their website - but it would be unfortunate to take it too seriously, because trying to maintain the same schedule as kids in school isn't going to serve your son in the big picture.

Re math and grammar, those things get used a lot in the course of life, and can be learned naturally up to a point where kids will want to study something like algebra or whatever. My son wasn't interested in studying algebra until he wanted to get brushed up on math for his SAT test in order to apply to colleges; and it was very easy at that point to learn what he needed. Here's a fascinating article by David Albert describing how incredibly FAST math basics can be learned under the right conditions: Just Do the Math!

Math is different for everyone - some people love to talk and think about math as it comes up in daily life - and that's very effective. Others, like me - find it more interesting in itself. Here's an article about some fun ways to explore it: exploring math.

As for grammar, if you're reading a lot of wonderful books to your child, and having lots of good conversation - both things you'll be doing - grammar comes quite naturally. And if your child is inspired to love books and reading from enjoying all the things you read to him when he's growing up, his own reading will inform him even more. My son didn't study grammar, and he fit right in when he began English classes at the community college in his teens - he even excelled right from the beginning of them, because he'd read so much.

I'm sure you're planning on providing a rich learning environment, so you'll really find that things will tend to work themselves out. Just take one day at a time, and plan on having periodic anxiety attacks of varying degrees - but they'll pass.
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But I'm concerned that it'd stress me out to not know if my son is learning "enough." If I don't have a curriculum or a scope and sequence to follow, how will I know?
But how will you really know with those things? Simply sitting someone down in front of a book that someone else (not even you!) has chosen, then testing them later on it for a satisfactory score doesn't mean that much learning, if at all, has really taken place, that it is relevant to the individual's life, that it will be beneficial to him somehow, that it will stick.

In school I read the books. I did fine on the tests. But I remember very little of it because I didn't care. (Nevermind that 95% of it didn't put anything toward my becoming a skilled, critically-thinking person.) That experience is not unusual. It is just what happens when the learning is not organic and the person does not choose to do it out of interest.

Now, your son may love having the structure of a curriculum. He may even love the exact things the curriculum has in it and would do it on his own even if he weren't asked to (if so, that is unschooling.) Great! But you'll know that learning is happening because he loves it and has an inner drive to learn it, not because it is a curriculum per se.

In unschooling, a curriculum only works as a resource, with the understanding that the people that put it together are not more authoritative on what any individual should learn than that individual himself. Actually, put more accurately, the curriculum manufacturers have no natural authority, only what we give them.

This, in my mind, is one of the biggest harms of schooling (in an institution or at home): for a child to internalize the belief that what he feels to be important to him is actually valueless because authority figures are insisting he spend his time and energy on other things.

Also, how do unschoolers deal with skill based stuff like math and grammar?
The understanding of grammar comes from reading and discourse. Beyond the names of basic types of words -- noun, verb, adjective -- I honestly can't tell you anything about the rules of grammar (despite having it drilled into me for years.) Yet I write and speak well enough. What is it that you think your son needs that he won't pick up naturally?

Children need certain math skills because they come up in real life, and because they come up in real life they learn them. For instance, my son likes cooking, and for some things recipes are very useful. So he asks questions about what the terms mean, and I explain them to him. He knows that money is valuable because you can get things with it. So naturally he wants to know how it works. From these things arise all the concepts of basic arithmetic.
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