My title is a trick. Yes, I’m going to talk about Charlotte Mason and unit studies, and try to figure out what exactly she wanted us to avoid. But Charlotte Mason didn’t actually use the term “unit studies,” unless in some document that I haven’t yet seen (and there are many of those!) But I think that the actual term is relatively new, and in Towards a Philosophy of Education, she referred to a ‘concentration series’ when describing what not to do.
I’ve written about Charlotte Mason and unit studies before, but I’m back-tracking a bit here. It occurred to me that Charlotte Mason moms might not all be on the same page when it comes to what actually qualifies as a unit study. When we want to avoid making connections for our children, how far do we go? If doing a series of crafts and activities centered around one topic is a unit study, is visiting a farm when reading Charlotte’s Web also a unit study? If it’s Christmastime and we read a book about Christmas, does doing Christmas crafts make it a unit study? If we present several books around the same topic, is that a unit study?
(If you aren’t quite sure why Charlotte Mason thought unit studies weren’t valuable for children, check out my earlier post, or read Parents and Children, pages 255-256)
What Qualifies as a Unit Study in the Charlotte Mason Philosophy?
So, are we to avoid silly, unrelated crafts, or do we go all the way to the end of the spectrum and avoid any books, any materials that are related by a time-period or topic?
There seems to be some disagreement in what qualifies as a unit study. But thankfully, Charlotte Mason gives us a little blurb that clarifies.
If one is to find the principles of unity and continuity in the ideas presented to the soul, this is all good and well. But if we believe that this unity and continuity should originate from the soul, or the person himself, this tempting unity may result in the collection of heterogeneous and unassimilated information.” School Education, page 60
Let’s unpack this a little. This little sentence is tucked away in School Education, where Charlotte Mason is talking about current thought in educational theories. like the Herbartian model, where information is presented to the child in a way which interests them. She calls the creation of lessons around a central topic, “…a tempting scheme of unity and continuity.” Here, she described a study of books–not the living ideas inside the books, but the physical attributes of books through object lessons, crafts like book-binding, and, maybe, briefly touching on the contents of the books. Children spent an entire month exploring the one concept of books, and, in her scenario, every single class was taken up by the study of books. Not the study of actual, living books, but the study of the physical concept of books. Imagine what the rest of the day would look like. Math worksheets with little pictures of books on them. Science lessons where books were weighed and measured. The history of the Gutenberg press.
After giving all of these examples, she gives the passage I mentioned above. To paraphrase, “If we find the united principles in the ideas presented to the soul, that’s fine.” Here, we are presenting ideas to our children, and the ideas may be united by principles. Charlotte Mason said that this is acceptable, that it respects a child as a fully capable learner. What she cautioned to avoid is stated in the second half of the phrase, which I paraphrase as, “But if we think the ability to unite and connect ideas comes from another soul, this tempting presentation of information relies on an external source and does not become a part of the soul.” The second part of this passage is missing something. It’s missing ideas. Topics are connected, not ideas, by the efforts of a teacher, not the child. I imagine others will interpret this phrase differently. You can read Ambleside Online’s interpretation of that passage here.
Avoiding Connections, and the Holy Spirit
My last year pf teaching at public schools, our district unveiled this big plan that teachers should create unit studies for their classes, integrating math, history, science, reading, grammar, etc. I was a lost puppy. I dipped a toe in unit study creation, but since my principal was not entirely on board with the district’s initiative, I was able to continue the (mediocre) methods that I used before.
When I went to teach at a school using the Charlotte Mason philosophy, one of the first things I heard was that we were not to create unit studies. These were an encroachment on a child’s ability to learn. I was pretty excited that this wasn’t something to worry about anymore. But, this doesn’t mean that we never read two books about a topic at my new school. When we studied birds, we read science books about them, made bird nesting boxes, and cross-stitched birds. We memorized Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, What Does Little Birdie Say? and we visited the Audubon society. These things were part of the curriculum, and were not considered to be unit studies by the very well-informed, Charlotte Mason following founders and administrators of my school. It never occurred to me that some people would call these experiences a unit study. (I wrote about how we study birds in the early years here.)
I think the difference between a unit study and learning about a topic is the approach. You see, in the passage I mentioned above, the first approach, that was “well and good,” contained ideas. Living books, living experiences are used. This is what I did as a Charlotte Mason teacher. It seems to me that some people are afraid to allow anything to connect. But this is how the Holy Spirit instructs us. If we get too caught up in not connecting anything for our children, then we will miss the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our homeschools. My class and I were studying Alfred, Lord Tennyson that semester. He had a poem about a little birdie, so we read it and memorized it. Our handicraft was cross-stitching that semester. Cross-stitching something lovely from nature seems like a beautiful way to honor God’s creation. Should we make sure that we don’t cross-stitch birds while learning about them in order to avoid connections? I don’t think so.
Related: The Complete Charlotte Mason Preschool Guide
I think Charlotte Mason’s purpose for illustrating the problem with ‘concentration series” is not that we should avoid connections, but avoid inanities. She said:
The children who are capable of and eager for a wide range of knowledge and literary expression are reduced to inanities; a lifelong ennui is set up; every approach to knowledge suggests avenues for boredom, and the children’s minds sicken and perish long before their school-days come to an end…” Towards a Philosophy of Education
If I wanted to, as an adult, learn about a time period in history, I would read living books about it. I would read fiction and non-fiction on the same topic, and maybe find information online. An historical site would be important to visit. I might attempt to make a recipe that was important to the time period, or listen to music from it. This does not insult my personhood. No one is making connections for me. I am simply seeking out the lovely and the relevant.
Of course, the decision of how to educate your children is not between you and me, or even you and Charlotte Mason. It’s between you and the Holy Spirit. In my home, while I will try to avoid the inane connections, I don’t think that learning from several sources and experiences around the same topic is an any way missing the Holy Spirit’s call for our homeschool.