How to Mesh Unit Studies With Classical Education

Love the idea of unit studies? Fascinated by classical education? Think the two are mutually exclusive? I’d like to propose that they are compatible. Let’s just briefly review classical education and unit studies to make sure that we’re on the same page as far as basic definitions go. 
“Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium” (Susan Wise Bauer, www.TheWellTrainedMind.com).
Unit studies take one topic and study it intensely and almost exclusively for a period. They encompass social studies, science, and perhaps English (in the form of compositions), although skills such as math and grammar need to be studied separately and incrementally. The danger of completing unit studies without a plan is that there will be gaps in your children’s education. It’s like going to Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet and loading your plate with macaroni and cheese, pizza, and garlic bread, with no vegetables or protein. Once in a while is fine, but a steady diet of only carbohydrates will ruin your figure and your energy levels. But, there are so many valuable, fun unit studies available that it seems a shame to bypass them.
So, how do we mesh the two? Well, since classical education studies history chronologically, we can build unit studies around specific historical periods. We can read living books, make timelines, study science, write essays, and complete other projects that go along with it.
For instance, say we’re studying 1900­–1920. We can check out a plethora of books at the library based on our children’s reading levels and interests. That covers literature and history. We can study the science of flying with a unit study on the Wright brothers. We can listen to jazz for music studies and check out Expressionism, Fauvism, or cubism for art studies. Of course, World War I falls during that time as well and can be studied with as much depth as you wish. That would be an appropriate place to bring in international studies and perhaps even international politics for older students.
Of course, for math we’ve got to pretty much stick with whatever curriculum is currently working for our children. The same thing with grammar, but for writing, we can have our children choose topics based on what they’ve been reading in their living books, or studying in history, or science. No need to make up artificial, boring writing prompts.
Here’s what a typical four-year cycle would look like:
Year / Subject
Historical Period
Music and Art
Year One
Pre-Baroque and Baroque
Year Two
Year Three
Early Modern
Year Four
(Credit goes to Susan Wise Bauer for the basic idea above, although I’ve tweaked it some.)
These science, music and art studies roughly correlate with what the scientists of the day were studying and discovering. After cycling through each of the time periods, we would simply start over again, adjusting the level of reading and studying for each child’s education level and interests.
Many, many unit studies are available that can be worked into this scheme. By the time you cycle through a particular period again, your children’s interests and educational levels will have advanced to different topics for unit studies. Enjoy!
The Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer http://www.thewelltrainedmind.com, Teaching the Trivium by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn https://www.triviumpursuit.com/, Memoria Press http://www.memoriapress.com, Veritas Press http://www.veritaspress.com, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Douglas Wilson, The Core by Leigh A. Bortins, Download-n-Go Unit Studies from The Old Schoolhouse Store http://www.theoldschoolhousestore.com, Amanda Bennett’s unit study information http://www.unitstudy.com/.

This article is posted over at Heart of the Matter Online today.

8 thoughts on “How to Mesh Unit Studies With Classical Education”

  1. I teach my four the biblical classical model (see http://www.triviumpursuit.com for more info), and always dismissed the unit study approach until recently. Now, we do one-day units every couple of weeks and find they greatly compliment the children's thirst for knowledge in general.We can always learn a little from every educational model, no?Lea Ann Garfiaswww.whateverstate.wordpress.comfacebook.com/HomeEducation


  2. This is essentially what I have done over the past twelve years; how nice to see it laid out in writing. I think the most important thing to remember is that using real books and unit study methods (notebookings, timelines, hands-on projects, etc.) does not equate to having no structure or road map.Lorettahttp://homeschoolblogger.com/amnbooks


  3. I thought it was timely that I read your post today – I am just wondering how to combine history for my first and fourth grader – I think I'm making it too hard. If I adopted a model like this we could do things together more. Right now I am doubling timing it to do 2 history programs and it's very tough! Thanks fo your advice – I'm so glad I follow your blog.


  4. Great Post. I came across your blog from the Hip Homeschool Hop today and I am so glad I decided to join in. I absolutely believe these can mesh together based on the interests of the child. I even did this myself in junior high. Obviously I had a traditional education being in public school. But I also had a history teacher that was a Civil War buff- so we spent an entire semester focused on that. His ability to make it interesting sucked us all in and we loved that class. Kids were on a waiting list to get into that class- quite amazing in junior high school for a subject like the Civil War! It had such an impact on me that I have held on to all my notes from that class and plan on implementing them into my kids homeschool curriculum.


  5. Bethany, long time no chat! I really thought I was already following your blog, but I wasn't :0 I am now! Glad you linked up at Hip Homeschool Hop!~Jodiwww.magicalmouseschoolhouse.com, where Disney IS school!


  6. I have been trying to do this essentially too. Combine classical education with a sprinkling of unit studies as a certain topic sparks their interests.


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