Many homeschoolers love unit studies because they seem to do such a good job at making education ‘inter-disciplinary,’ at forming connections between one topic and another. They had unit studies in Miss Mason’s day- it was called ‘the correlation of lessons,’ and correlation is the building of connections.
The person making those connections is the one who is doing the most learning. When Mom is the one creating lessons that build these connections, then Mom is the one who is doing the most learning. We often hear this from parents, don’t we? “I’m learning more than my kids!” Mom will say in excitement. Sometimes this is merely because we are older and wiser now and have learned better to appreciate things we did not before. But more often that is a clue that we are the one making the connections, and we need to step back and let our children deal with the material more directly themselves.
Consider what Miss has to say about the sorts of extraneous projects we find in many unit studies:
She [Miss Mason] believed that the ability to make intellectual connections was an inborn gift – something that “must emanate from the soul, or person,himself,” and that if ideas are presented to the person in a pre-digested, pre-connected form, “this tempting unity may result in the collection of a mass of heterogeneous and unassimilated information.” (paragraph extracted from a study by Lynn Bruce, more on the source below)
Read Miss Mason’s description of the earliest form of unit studies and see what her description reminds you of!
“A fascinating vista is open before us; education has all things made plain and easy for her use; she has nothing to do but to select her ideas and turn out a man to her mind. Here is a tempting scheme of unity and continuity! One might occupy all the classes in a school for a whole month upon all the ideas that combine in one ‘apperception mass’ with the idea ‘book.’ We might have object- lessons on the colours, shapes, and sizes of books; more advanced object-lessons on paper-making and book-binding; practical lessons in book-sewing and book-binding; lessons, according to the class, on the contents of books, from A B C and little Bo-Peep to philosophy and poetry. A month! why, a whole school education might be arranged in groups of ideas which should combine into one vast ‘apperception mass,’ all clustering about ‘book.’ The sort of thing was done publicly some time ago, in London, being the idea round which the ‘apperception mass’ gathered.
Charlotte describes this lesson scheme in some detail in Volume 2, pages 255-6, then comments:
“Everybody said, ‘How pretty, how ingenious, what a good idea!’ and went away with the notion that here, at last, was education. But ask ‘What was the informing idea?’ The external shape, the internal contents of an apple,– matters with which the children were already exceedingly well acquainted. What mental habitudes were gained by this week’s work? They certainly learned to look at the apple, but think how many things they might have got familiar acquaintance with in the time. Probably the children were not consciously bored because the impulse of the teachers’ enthusiasm carried them on… This ‘apple’ course is most instructive to us as emphasising the tendency in the human mind to accept and rejoice in any neat system which will produce immediate results, rather than to bring every such little course to the test of whether it does or does not further either or both of our great educational principles.”
See also Volume 6, pages 115-16, where Miss Mason discusses a similar course of study applied to Robinson Crusoe:
“The whole thing must be highly amusing to the teacher, as ingenious amplifications self-produced always are: that the children too were entertained, one does not doubt. The teacher was probably at her best in getting by sheer force much out of little: she was, in fact, acting a part and the children were entertained as at a show, cinema or other; but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for ‘Robinson Crusoe’ but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures.”
But, many parents might say, the children are having so much fun with these unit studies. That is probably true. My own children fondly remember our medieval dinner and the drawbridge we made from a cardboard box for a mattress and the costume party. They don’t actually remember very many facts from those days. That the children are having fun
“…does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them; yet there is a serious attempt in certain schools to supply the intellectual, moral, and religious needs of children by appropriate ‘sweetmeats.’
As I have said elsewhere, the ideas required for the sustenance of children are to be found mainly in books of literary quality; given these the mind does for itself the sorting, arranging, selecting, rejecting, classifying, which Herbart leaves to the struggle of the promiscuous ideas which manage to cross the threshold.” (Mason, Volume 6, p. 117)
And one of my favorite CM paragraphs illustrating the importance of natural connections as opposed to artificial, contrived connections:
“Another point, the coordination of studies is carefully regulated without any reference to the clash of ideas on the threshold or their combination into apperception masses; but solely with reference to the natural and inevitable coordination of certain subjects. Thus, in readings on the period of the Armada, we should not devote the contemporary arithmetic lessons to calculations as to the amount of food necessary to sustain the Spanish fleet, because this is an arbitrary and not an inherent connection; but we should read such history, travels, and literature as would make the Spanish Armada live in the mind.” (Volume 3, page 231)
It’s not that you cannot help your children with this. You can be their tour guide. Occasionally you can give your children a hint about where to make some connections, and certainly if you think of one and are excited about it, share it with your children. It’s okay to tell them, ‘While this was happening in Greenland, this is what was happening across the world in India,’ or “I just noticed that….”Just don’t stress about it, and do give the children time and freedom to make their own connections.=) Sometimes they will surprise you.
Once upon a time I was reading King Lear with a child who was then 8 when we had a experience with this connection making. I wrote about it to others:
“My 8 y.o. does not give very good narrations of King Lear. I break it down in small bits and help her over the difficult passages, but still, I’ve been thinking that maybe we should skip this and do another play with her (I’m still not sure about the tragedy element for her). I haven’t been at all sure she really was following the plot. However, today we happened to read the story of Cap O’ Rushes from Jacob’s English Fairy Tales. In this story a king asks his daughter how much she loves him. When she says as much as meat loves its salt, he throws her out, thinking she loves him not at all. Immediately, my daughter sat up and said, “Hey, we read that somewhere else!” A little further discussion helped her reach the point where she remembered it was King Lear. Incidentally, she also recognized the similarities to Cinderella in the latter half of Cap O’ Rushes.”
This connection of her own was more valuable and memorable to my child than a month’s worth of Unit Studies.
If you are interested in reading further about these ideas and principles, I cannot recommend a better source than CM herself. If you want a shortcut look at these ideas, try the study of Miss Mason’s tenth Principle, by Lynn Bruce, available here.
I really don’t think you need a study guide or text book for books like Paddle to the Sea or most other books. Read the chapter, trace the journey on a map, ask for a short narration if your child is old enough. That seems too simple and easy. It’s so simple, that I suspect many of us subconsciously feel that we’re cheating, but it’s really a very meaty, idea-filled study.
Sometimes we add so many extra, unrelated projects- and it’s a bit like adding a bicycle wheel to your 8 cylinder Corvette- quite superfluous, and a rather clunky detraction. in the years before switching completely to CM I went to a lot of work planning our studies so that everything coincided. I did this to avoid confusion (mixing up learning from one subject with another) and because I thought the children needed me to put together these ‘units’ so that they would connect their subjects together better.
Cm said that children make their own connections and form their own relationships- and she was right! They do! They are not as easily confused as I imagined (especially when you follow CM’s advice to break up similar subjects with very dissimilar activities and use a century book or timeline and a map).
I am continuously astonished by the connections between one topic and another that we discover, connections that I never would have thought have making (I was astonished when I found on my own that one of Wordsworth’s poems is ‘Surprised by Joy,’ which is where C.S. Lewis got the title for one of his books, and both concern the death of a loved one). We also delighted when we accidentally stumbled upon another connection when we read another poem by Wordsworth about an event my then 11 y.o. had read about in another book (the selling of the English, Angles, boys on the Roman slave market and Pope Gregory seeing them and saying they were more like Angels, and consequently sending evangelists to the British Isles).
The connections in life are far more far reaching than the ones I made in my unit studies..