On Herbartian Unit Studies

Lately I’ve noticed that there is a bit of confusion over Charlotte Mason’s disdain for unit studies. I’ve encountered some folks who say, “What’s wrong with unit studies? That’s what I do and I love it!” But then they tell me what they do, and it’s not exactly what Mason was talking about.

For example, I met a gal who explained that she and her children would go to the library and check out a stack of books on whatever subject they were interested in. Isn’t this what an adult would do? If I really wanted to know about, or simply had my mind on, a topic, I’d read a number of books on that topic, right?

Well…that may be a type of unit study. I can certainly see why someone would do something like that. In fact, it sounds like it has the making of what Mortimer Adler called syntopical reading.

But this is not what our friend Charlotte was so adamantly against. She was against the unit studies in her day that were based upon the work of the philosopher Herbart.

So let’s look at what this is all about.

What Herbart Believed

As a disclaimer, I must confess that I have not read Herbart. I have only read what Mason says about Herbart. So when I summarize Herbart, I am actually summarizing Mason’s summary of Herbart.

Okay, so Mason explains in one or two of her volumes that she actually agrees with Herbart in some places–much more so than, say, Froebel and his invention of kindergarten. But where she differs with Herbart has huge practical implications.

So, briefly, in Herbart:

  • The mind has a sort of doorway or threshold into which it is quite difficult to get ideas.
  • Ideas slip in and out without much control or input from the learner.
  • Ideas are viewed as fighting amongst themselves to get into the consciousness–as if they couldn’t all get in–as sort of philosophy of scarcity.
  • Ideas, then, need to be chained together as neatly and thoroughly as possible so that when one slips in, it brings the whole chain with it. These linked chains are called “apperception masses.”
  • Someone outside of the student links the chain. The student is a passive learner in the worst sense of the word.
  • Therefore, the onus of learning is upon the shoulders of the teacher. If the child doesn’t take in the ideas, the teacher has failed to properly orchestrate the necessary apperception mass.

Charlotte’s criticisms of this are many. If you are familiar with her writings, then you know that she believes–and this falls into line with the thinking of traditional teachers, from Socrates on down–that the learner is responsible for his own learning. Remember, Charlotte often utilizes a food analogy–we set a varied and nutritious banquet, full of the best ideas of mankind, flavored with highly literary works, and so on. And we teach them to eat. We set the example of love. But we do not force feed, and we do not predigest the food for them.

What a Herbartian Unit Study Looks Like

Charlotte gives a very thorough explanation in her sixth volume:

A successful and able modern educationalist gives us a valuable introduction to Herbartian Principles, and, by way of example, “A Robinson Crusoe Concentration Scheme,” a series of lessons given to children in Standard I in an Elementary School. First we have nine lessons in literature and language, the subjects being such as ‘Robinson climbs a hill and finds he is on an island.’ Then, ten object lessons of which the first is,––The Sea, the second, A Ship from Foreign Parts, the sixth, A Life-Boat, the seventh, Shell-Fish, the tenth, A Cave. How these ‘objects’ are to be produced one does not see. The third series are drawing lessons, probably as many, a boat, a ship, an oar, an anchor and so on. Then follows a series on manual training, still built upon ‘Robinson’; the first, a model of the seashore; then models of Robinson’s island, of Robinson’s house, and Robinson’s pottery. The next course consists of reading, an infinite number of lessons,––’passages from The Child’s Robinson Crusoe and from a general reader on the matters discussed in object lessons.’ Then follows a series of writing lessons, “simple compositions on the subject of the lessons. … the children framed the sentences which the teacher wrote on the blackboard and the class copied afterwards.” Here is one composition,––”Robinson spent his first night in a tree. In the morning he was hungry but he saw nothing round him but grass and trees without fruit. On the sea-shore he found some shell-fish which he ate.” Compare this with the voluminous output of children of six or seven working on the P.U.S. scheme upon any subject that they know; with, indeed, the pages they will dictate after a single reading of a chapter of Robinson Crusoe, not a ‘child’s edition.’

Arithmetic follows with, no doubt, as many lessons, many mental examples and simple problems dealt with Robinson”; the eighth and last course was in singing and recitation,––’I am monarch of all I survey,’ etc. “The lessons lasted about forty-five minutes each.

. . . Under ordinary conditions the story of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ would be the leading feature in the work of a whole year . . . in comparing the English classes with the German classes I have seen studying ‘Robinson Crusoe’ I was convinced that the eagerness and interest was as keen among the children here as in the German schools .”

Basically, the class is going to view everything they learn the entire year through the lens of Robinson Crusoe. These days, I doubt anyone is studying a single book for an entire year. But still, unit studies are alive and well. Konos, for instance, organizes units around character qualities, while Five in a Row has shorter units, focused on reading one book every day for five days. Each day, the book is used to illustrate a different subject {five subjects, one for each day of the week: social studies, language arts, art, applied math, and science}.

Why Did Charlotte Have a Problem with Unit Studies?

At this point, I must say that we need to first go back and understand that the idea of unit studies was born of Herbart. It is very easy to look at unit studies today, and simply appreciate them for what they are. I can almost guarantee you that most of the Christian authors who write unit studies for homeschoolers never, ever read or heard of Herbart.

This is because Herbart took hold. He became cool. If you go to teacher school in this country, chances are that you will be required to write a number of unit studies before you graduate, and the better you are at it, the better your future in the classroom seems it will be.

Here are Charlotte’s main concerns with unit studies:

  1. Education is the making of connections. This is foundational to her philosophy of education. In unit studies, the teacher is making connections for the student in her planning stage. She then directs students to the connections that are to be made. Remember: she is responsible for linking the chain, for building the apperception mass. Unlike a teacher using the Socratic method, who may indeed attempt to direct her students to make certain connections, the Herbartian teacher makes these connections directly for the students. They do not need to think for themselves. If Charlotte is right, and the essence of education is that light bulb moment when you yourself make a connection and come to understanding, the unit study is actually sabotaging education–at least to the extent that it prevents students from making their own connections.
  2. Charlotte required attention paid to a single reading. This woman knew how to train students in the habit of attention! They were to narrate and make the reading theirs. Because they came into possession of what they had read, they were able to apply it in the future–in other words, it was available to them to use in making their own connections, both with other books and with the world around them. One of the main complaints I’ve heard about Five in a Row, for instance, is that children quit attending to the readings. If you are going to read a book over and over, there is no need to remember what it says. You’re going to read it again tomorrow anyhow. Naturally, the children will still pay attention to the books that they love, but they are not accountable to really know the content of the reading.
  3. This method entertains children. I know this doesn’t sound like a negative to our modern ears, but Charlotte was concerned because entertainment is not the same thing as learning. As children are entertained, their ability to use their will to direct their attention to their lessons is actually undermined. It takes no self-discipline to watch something amusing–amusement is more of an appeal to passions than to the will. Because Charlotte knew that attention is a habit to be built and then maintained, an entertainment-centered lesson was counterproductive.
  4. This built pride in the teachers. I’ll let her explain herself:
    Herbart’s psychology is extraordinarily gratifying and attractive to teachers who are, like other people, eager to magnify their office; and here is a scheme which shows how every child is a new creation as he comes forth from the hands of his teacher. The teacher learns how to do it; he has but to draw together a mass of those ideas which themselves will combine in the mind into which they effect an entrance, and, behold, the thing is done: the teacher has done it; he has selected the ideas, shewn the correlation of each with the other and the work is complete! The ideas establish themselves, the most potent rule and gather force, and if these be good, the man is made.

    The teacher is almost deified in the classroom in this regard.

  5. This kills love of the spine text. Charlotte believed that such a program would cause children to never, ever wish to read Robinson Crusoe again. As the teacher “forced much out of little” {as Charlotte puts it}, the children would eventually loathe this book, or any other book approached the same way.

My Own Objections

In my reading of Charlotte, though, I’ve never read her objecting to this approach in the way that I do, so I thought I’d share my own opinions.

First, I get concerned because this is not the way a good reader approaches a book. I do not read, for instance, a book by Jane Austen in order to learn the geography of England, or to do a math problem about how if Mrs. Bennett has five daughters and marries off two of them, then how many does she have left? I’m not saying that, in reading a book, one never asks questions of geography or math. It does happen. What I’m saying is that these are not natural questions to ask of the text, nor are they the most important questions to ask of the text. If this is how children are reared to view books, as objects to dissect the life out of, they will never learn great ideas from books–a sort of being too distracted by the trees to actually see the forest sort of situation. In other words, they will never be great readers, and Mortimer Adler will be forced to roll over in his grave. Chances are, they’ll never be able to formulate plots enough to write a great book, either, as they will fail to understand the nature of a book.

Second, and I already alluded to it, this is not the way to comprehension of a book’s greatest ideas. I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe, but last year I fell in love with Captains Courageous when I read it for the first time. It could be dissected in much the same way. Someone could take the book and use it as a jumping-off point to discuss fishing in general, bait, tackle, ship construction and maintenance, sailing, weather, current, water safety, and so on and so forth. But the book is about redemption and becoming a man, and if you don’t read it this way, you miss the point. Is it an allusion to baptism, when Harvey falls into the water and nearly drowns? And is it Messianic, when he is pulled out, rescued, and then “discipled” in true manhood? A million rich conversations could pour forth from thinking the noble thoughts of the book, but unit studies tend to dwell on the minutia. All books have their interesting details, but the great thoughts–the Permanent Things–presented, transcend those details. In fact, many don’t make the cut and aren’t worthy of being preserved for generations because the author was too locked in the details of his own time; he failed to transcend and speak about the Permanent Things.

And So it Goes

My motivation here in writing this was not to convince folks who love unit studies to stop, nor to cause those who don’t to feel smug. I really hate fighting about methods. But I’ve found lately that there is a lot of confusion as to why Charlotte objected to unit studies, so I hope that this helps us understand the nature of her concerns. Whenever we adopt or reject methods or philosophies, we ought to be aware of their historical background and reason for being, rather than just being enamored with the method itself.

This post may contain affiliate links.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. says

    GnC, I am SO sorry! Somehow I didn’t see your comment in my moderation folder until now. I only moderate comments on posts older than a month, so I’m not in the habit of checking that folder. Thank you for your comment…and welcome to Afterthoughts. :)

  2. says

    Brandy, I just popped over from CM Education. I’m so glad I did. I’m just finishing Volume 1 and have not had a chance to even consider the meaning of Unit Studies. I appreciate how you have laid it out: very clear and informative. Hope you don’t mine, I’ll be reading through your older posts ; ) and look forward to your discussions on CM Education. – Jenny

  3. says

    Homestead Mommy,

    It sounds to me that FIAR is the best of the best, especially if it can be said that it asks questions which naturally arise out of the text for the children themselves. Some books *do* demand geography, for instance–I always laugh when I see the maps inside Tolkien’s books. I would never have thought to map the adventure, but every boy I knew growing up *did* and they loved having a *real* map for accuracy. :)

    It seems to me that just approaching whatever we do with the idea that responsibility for learning resides in the learner is the biggest issue, rather than any particular method itself. My problem in the past was that I thought I could, in a sense, *make* my children, if I could just be brilliant enough in my teaching. :)

  4. says

    Loved your post Brandy! When we first started homeschooling, I used a mix of CM, Classical and unit study’s. I’m slowly moving more towards CM’s methods, using AO this year. But I do still love FIAR. I’ve used other unit studies but FIAR seems to come the closest to CM’s methods (I haven’t finished reading her books, these are just my thoughts biased on what I’ve read so far. I could be totally wrong! LOL).
    It’s meant to have short lessons, all of them can be done conversationally. I’ve found the activities suggested come naturally from the story. Instead of saying, “How can I make an LA lesson fit this book?” It takes something obvious from the book and teaches about that. Something like writing style, open ended stories etc. I found the lessons were answers to questions that our children would ask as we read the story.
    Other units I’ve used from HOAC (Hands of a Child) or Homeschool Share (I have found some good things here to), seem to be more like the Herbart style you were talking about. Making all the subjects fit into the book or topic. Trying to force a language lesson from a topic of volcanoes, just doesn’t make sense to me. :-)

    I’m not trying to defend either method (CM or FIAR), I love them both. 😀 And I love the way you wrote about both. I had heard CM wasn’t for unit studies, but I didn’t know why. Now I understand much better what it was CM didn’t like and why.

  5. says

    I almost feel like I ought to add a little note on Five in a Row {henceforth FIAR} because, from what I have heard, it is *definitely* worth the book list. And you are right, Silvia: little children *do* love to hear the same story over and over. I think that unit studies at the very youngest ages are far, far less a concern than unit studies after age 6. I think the concern still rings true in that if the parent becomes a crutch for the child, making all of the connections for him, then he may be at a disadvantage when starting formal lessons. Plus if a lot of unit studies are being done in the early ages, this means the child is not going to be out of doors as often as CM suggested.

    Pam A.: Welcome to Afterthoughts! It really is a freeing concept, I agree! I felt such pressure before I met Charlotte Mason, that I needed to reinvent school in my home. I think a lot of moms get worn out doing pre-school, so much that they give up and send children to school after that because they can’t keep up that pace. I think CM style is not only more effective, but easier to accomplish in our homes.

    I think a lot of CM families *do* do more activities than CM herself, but it’s still in a different way than a unit study. A traditional CM school had the afternoons free for leisure {in the form of handicrafts, free reading, nature study, etc.} or vocational training for poorer children. The students tend to invent their own activities, playing at Robinson Crusoe, for example. Many children will act out their books {if the books haven’t been killed for them}. James Taylor called this connatural or sympathetic knowledge–where they become part of the book and the book becomes part of them.

    The difference is probably best summed up by David Hick in Norms and Nobility {the book upon which the upper years of AO are structured, in addition to CM’s volumes}: “It is the mark of an ineffective teacher to answer a question before it has been asked.” When the children are allowed to simmer in their thoughts, over time they will ask more and more questions and there will be greater chance for discussion and activity, but it comes organically and originates in the learner rather than the teacher. This is one of the primary differences between traditional education and modern, post-industrial education.

  6. says

    This post has been all-around liberating to me. I still consider myself a newbie to CM’s philosophy, and this year will be our first foray into Ambleside Online. I picked up Andreola’s book first, before I discovered CM’s writings were actually availabe, so I’m still very much in the learning stage.

    I’d wondered about this, if others do more than “just” read the text and narrate, or if they add in the related studies, but I couldn’t see how to fit that in with all we will be doing already.

    Thanks so much for this, truly.

  7. says

    I agree with you, Pam, and Kansas Mom. I give Brandy an A plus. She is our personal CM, isn’t she? I mean because of the way she does the syntopical reading and brings everything to us in a great synopsis PLUS her own thoughts so graciously weaved.

    Pam, I think Five in a Row has some value, even if you buy it to read about great living books and don’t get to do everything as they say, though they also give you flexibility and don’t think you should force anything either. It makes you fall in love with some books. We knew about When I Was Young in the Mountains, and surprisingly my daughters absolutely loved Follow the Drinking Gourd, we got to hear the songs about that and other books in video, but the pictures of the book beautifully narrated… they got gourds and cleaned them and cure them to drink from them… they were fascinated with much (not all), just by themselves, not because I did the suggested lessons. And Gee Willis, lovely book they adore, not to mention Make Way for Ducklings, I fell in love with MacCkloskey there, bear in mind I wasn’t brought up here so it was new to me. And The Story of Ping, A New Coat for Anna… oh so many good books we still have and read sometimes! And I liked reading some of the suggested activities and to see how some great books can lead to so many different connections. But then I decided we will fly solo, and I did not needed the Volume 2, the one I had, and I managed to sell it for the same price I got second hand.

    And yes, reading a book once every day for five has pros and cons… anyhow, it’s just a lovely selected collection of books, and different ideas for different ‘subjects’ to derive from it.

    In fact, the preschool teachers I worked with for two years used Five in a Row. I taught like that again, not knowing where that concept came from. Does that tell you something? It was good for a class with 20 plus children where most haven’t been exposed to any literature, and to have one activity a day from a book, and something to show at the end, and children who seem to parrot some facts but who also made some licit connections, as much as you can in a preschool of today environment.

    As everything, you need to know what you have in your hands, as Brandy says we should know why we defend what we defend, and the reason behind the principles that guide our actions.

    And as you say, Pam, I also don’t need TV, ha ha ha. I have a rich life with you, friends, and my family happenings.

    And yes, if we lived closer probably we would have missed each other completely or we never would have thought we could have had anything in common!

  8. says

    Once again you have explained something wonderfully well! I especially love how you’ve pointed out that dissecting a book detracts for our ability to relate to the ideas and truths in it. I often feel the same way about some Catholic curricula that ask us to (for example) calculate what time we must drive if we live ten miles from church and want to arrive ten minutes early for Mass to say the Rosary.

  9. says

    You get an A+ Brandy. Excellent explanations and in depth understanding of the whole unit study thing. You are one smart cookie…but you don’t condescend to people. Awesome.

    Silva, you make me laugh! All the time! I like how Plato surprisingly captivated a doubter like you. I like your explanation of giving up something, but keeping the lists to do it YOUR way! Smart, but too funny! I love, love the thought of your husband making those boxes for you with tea, and coupons!! Working it out for you…great analogy; though I’m not condemning Five in a Row, as all I know about it is what I heard here. But if a method does all the work for the students I can see their brains would get mushy.

    You guys are just too interesting AND entertaining. Guess that’s why I don’t need tv! Funny thing is, if we lived near each other, I bet we wouldn’t even pay attention to each other! It’s the heart things that have put us together on this page.

  10. says

    Thanks for the post. As a former teacher I agree, we are taught to write unit studies, and no, we do not know this type of education came from Herbart.

    Like you I don’t like to convince or confront. Those who are happy doing what they do, and share it, I respect. The same as when I hear mom talking about those folders or whatever… I’m who I am, but as you say, many things I do are based on principles some of which I can explain very well, others are still intuitions, others may just be linked to personality or preference.
    But one note you stroke it’s that about entertainment. I have a problem with FUN. I was even partially and silently offended when Mystie said, oh, “you seem to be a fun mom”, :))))) because I wrote about having play dough and paint available and we always do much of that. Then I told her I am very sober and I also do need to smile more too! I’m kind of the puritan ‘bad’ guy here. And I remember how I laughed when she also said her idea of presents was some gum for xmas wrapped in whatever paper and tape… or something similar.
    All this dissertation to say I consider much of the modern education and homeschooling alike, very oriented to making, busy hands, forced projects sort of mini unit studies, ad hoc things, and the unit studies on classic books are to me a crime.
    But I confess once upon a time I had Five in a Row, which I ended up selling and kept the list of all the 3 volumes to get the books and read them as much as we wanted, but they were not the books I required narrations from, since I read them to my girls before they were six like the oldest, since I took to heart not to ask for narrations before starting AO year 1. What I mean is that I think the success of the books of Five in a Row is linked to the fact that young children like to an extent to be read the same book several times. As for the suggested lessons… they never worked with them… or with me! :((

    As you say, the ball is on the student, he has to make the reading his, we just need to put him in touch with the ideas, do a brief introduction, some inviting short talk or even the simple suggestion or reading of the book. Narration is all I believe works, forced unit studies, as CM says, kill the book. See what happened to me and Plato? So much I read about others about Plato, I got nauseated and thought him to be as mediocre, then I’m reading him now and it’s fabulous. I wish I had been initiated in books for the pleasure and ideas they provide, pleasure of knowing and making connections, not of being entertained.
    Many use the work-boxes and they say they children like them. I’d love them. How neat if my husband had my chores and responsibilities in six boxes, and in one of them I could find a bag of tea for a morning break, and in another the coupons for groceries or list already made… you know, that’s more fun than cleaning your room, helping mom, etc. But you know, at the end of the day, EVERYTIME, EVERY SINGLE TIME we do some of the CM suggested practices, the girls become totally immersed, and they feel proud of what they have learned themselves. I like to say we have joy and I want to be a joyous much more than a fun mom. Actually I was thinking about writing about this, the word fun is been bastardized and now I have an aversion to it that it’s not healthy either, there is nothing wrong with having FUN. It’s only that this tendency to see education as good when it provides fun in the student, is something that makes me crazy!