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Bread & Butter

By Pam Maxey
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #42, 2001.

If unit studies are butter, what is the bread?

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Pam Maxey

Life is funny sometimes. Our best intentions can go awry. As I pondered this article, I was reminded of a humorous story our pastor's son shared about his first day on the job as a substitute teacher.

As it happened, his first day coincided with a partial solar eclipse. His scripted plans went by the wayside as the students bolted outside to join other classmates and watch this marvelous event. So he determined this would be a unique educational opportunity and allowed his students to join in the fun.

As it turned out, when it came time for the students to return to the classroom, he found only two of his admiring young students had returned! The rest had wondered off on other adventures - not to return that day.

Good intentions. Bad result.

It occurs to me that some home educators may be falling into similar traps with unit studies. Once we deviate from a sequential curriculum, our end goals can become muddied and we may wind up wandering off and not reaching our original destination. Remember Ecclesiastes? There is a time and a place for everything. There is a time for sequential learning and there is a time for exploration and exciting adventures. Let's look at how to use each of these tools properly.

Some Benefits of Unit Studies

Unit studies have become more popular of late for a variety of reasons.

  • For many parents, unit studies offer a chance to teach their children of different grade levels at the same time. This is a huge benefit to a parent educator.
  • You can also incorporate a variety of subject areas into a unit. For example, a unit study can easily incorporate literature and history activities.
  • Most of the time, children and parents alike consider unit studies fun activities to do together.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with fun learning in a homeschooler's day. There are many opportunities for creative activities that still teach valuable information. With unit studies, parents get a break from structured, workbook activities. This explains why the students enjoy them as well!

In addition to the material and the presentation of that material, there are other benefits for the parent. Unit studies offer more freedom and less structure than traditional curriculums. I talk to many parents who are ready for a break from a rigid schedule. For many of these parents, unit studies can provide a welcome relief that adds variety to their day.

These studies are typically offered at an affordable cost, but this is where parents can get into trouble. Some parents with whom I have spoken have decided to make an "either/or" decision and pick a unit study because it is the less expensive, more exciting alternative. This decision could cost you down the road if your child lacks the reading or mathematics skills he needs to excel in life.

Unit Studies Plus Sequential Studies

Unit studies and curriculums are like bread and butter - they each have a place at the table. I like my bread buttered! Bread, like curriculums can be a bit dry going down. Unit studies, like butter, are meant to supplement and enrich curriculum, not replace it.

There are some wonderful unit studies available to homeschoolers, but they do not totally take the place of a sequential curriculum in all subject areas. The KONOS curriculum, for example, states clearly that their unit studies are not a substitute for phonetic reading and math curriculum, so you need to buy separate curriculum in these areas as well.

Danger! Danger!

The danger in using unit studies with no reading and mathematics curriculum is that you have no set of sequential skills that you are teaching your child. As the name suggests, "sequential skills" are taught to build upon one another. Without this sequential system of learning, there is no logical means by which to reach the end. As you might imagine, this could lead to major problems down the road.

Unit studies may have reading and mathematics activities but still not cover all the skills needed in a specific grade level. Neither do they teach a parent how to teach a child to read or solve mathematics equations.

In my household, when that warm bread comes out of the oven, we reach for the butter. We wouldn't think of having one without the other. What are you doing at your house? Are you buttering your bread or are you trying to eat the butter without the bread?

There is a time and a place for everything. The best option is warm bread with butter. Similarly, the best teaching option is to use curriculums for the subject areas in which sequential instruction is necessary plus unit studies for those areas in which research and hands-on activities work best.

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