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    Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    On Herbartian Unit Studies

    October 18, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]L[/dropcap]ately, 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.

    On Herbartian Unit Studies

    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’s philosophy:

    • 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 many are studying a single book for an entire year, especially in the sense of organizing the entire year’s lessons around said book. 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 college 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. When teaching, she 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, she believed 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 am 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 — it is a being-too-distracted-by-the-trees-to-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 path 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 a la Herbart 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 books written 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.

    *I read Robinson Crusoe later in 2011. It is a story of selfishness, sin, tragedy-as-redemption, and repentance, much like Captains Courageous.

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  • Reply Julia October 19, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    As someone that knew she was going to homeschool since before marriage and use FIAR before my eldest was 2, I can say that I am walking away from FIAR before we really even get started.

    I have had this tug-o-war going on these last several months and more and more am loving CM without combining the FIAR with CM. I have to say that FIAR still calls to me at times. I have chronic illnesses and having every thing there plus owning most of the books already really helps. My eldest is turning 6 next month and missed the Kinder Cutoff by 6 weeks, thus my husband wants it done at home. I want to just let her be until we have to officially begin next year with 1st. Trying to find that middle road is pulling me at FIAR although modified. I couldn’t imagine reading the books 3 days in a row, let alone 5. When my girls were much younger, yes, as most children really adore repetition. But today? No. They can pour over several dozens of books each day. Some they choose to repeat, but that’s just it- they chose to, not I. I guess the long and not so short of it is that I appreciate using good picture books for the younger years and grades. I certainly will be doing this. SO many wonderful, meaty picture books for many subjects of study- why not? But I don’t think I can applaud the Unit Studies method any longer. I think the last vestages of my Education, Post-Secondary included, are beginning to die out. But really what finally pushed this over the top was looking at Math For A Living Education books. I bought Vol 1 for my eldest. I then, today, compared it Simply Charlotte Mason’s Vol 1 Math and while both focus on numbers and sums from 1-100, the difference is night and day. Twaddlish vs really owning the numbers. Fun and colorful vs understanding the how, why and when of Math. All I could think about was the workbook reminds me of Elementary Math and SCM’s was what I wish We could have used to teach stuggling learners in public schools (former PS employee). I want my girls to really understand how numbers work. To comprehend number sentences. To make the connections of addition to multiplication and so on. The logic. Unit Studies acts as the middle man, FIAR included. I want more for my girls. We will still enjoy those great stories but without the spoon feeding.

    Thanks for the great blog. Now just to try to convince my husband to PLEASE let us skip the Kinder-year.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 20, 2018 at 9:54 am

      I wonder if you looked at AmblesideOnline Year 0 you might be able to find some things that would help your husband feel more comfortable?

      I’ll be praying for you as you move this direction! ♥

  • Reply Anonymous November 5, 2012 at 3:56 am

    I have used FIAR with many of my children. However, we mainly just read the wonderful picture books the program uses and discussed the books .We looked at the art and some of the other areas of study that were of interest at the time.I have never tried to do all the activities in the manual.We did borrow stacks of library books to further explore ares of interest to the particular child at the time.This program has lots of ideas for practical nature study .It gave me something “schoolish”to do with a younger child with little planning on my part and introduced me to authors I may have otherwise overlooked. Kathy S.

  • Reply Penney Douglas November 3, 2012 at 5:01 am

    I do what I call unit studies, but they really are what you talked about at first. We go to the library and pick out lots of books about a certain topic or era, and I read several of them to the kids to help flesh out our history study or Bible study. I do have my kids notebook some things from the unit occasionally, but I try not to overuse any approach or method. I guess I kind of operate on the “less is more” philosophy. We do discuss what we’re reading. My oldest son has become quite a philosopher and thinker through our type of unit study. He’s 21 now and still listens in to our reading time!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts November 3, 2012 at 10:53 pm

      I am still struck by the irony that less is more {instead of more being more} but I think that, in a *lot* of areas of life, this is true!

  • Reply Ellen October 24, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Ahh, yes. I don’t think FIAR is rigorous enough for up to age 8, either. But for a pre-readers, its working quite well. Kindergarten seems to me like a time to introduce a lot of interesting topics and ideas without worrying too much about the depth of it. I am pretty relaxed with kindergarten, I’m finding. =)

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 24, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      Me too, Ellen! I think you are blessed to start out relaxed. I had to loosen up over time and I still feel badly for how academic I was with my oldest…

  • Reply Kelly October 21, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Your paragraph on Captains Courageous describes the way most Bible studies are conducted, too. So sad.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 21, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      Kelly I had never thought of that! Sad indeed.

      Many Sunday Schools, too, concentrate on either (1) the minutia or (2) moralizing rather than discovering things about God and His Messiah.

  • Reply Bethany October 20, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    We’re working on Crusoe this year too! I’m glad I found you…I’m a fellow student of Charlotte Mason! And I’m following you now!

  • Reply Keri October 20, 2012 at 6:48 am

    I personally Love Unit Studies and feel learning is best accomplished when it is enjoyable “Entertaining”. I also feel like there is no point pushing what will not be learned. Sometimes people just can not or choose to not learn certain information. I believe you will learn when you Want to learn 😉 ~> I did enjoy reading you re-post, it was very interesting.

    Keri- A Home Schooling, Online Curricula Using, Unit Studies Loving, Co-Op Teaching, Craft Making ~>Momma<~ to DD & DS :`)

  • Reply sara October 19, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    This was a very helpful post. Thanks!

  • Reply Ellen October 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    I know you’re tired (boy, I know that one right now), but if you get the time, I’d love to know what you think of FIAR…

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 18, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      I don’t know that it is fair for me to say anything one way or the other because I have never used it with my own children. I mean, I *think* I grasp the concept, but I just don’t think I should say. Personally, I fall on the Classical/CM side of the equation {as you know} so it would never be a good fit for us philosophically. With that said, some wonderful Moms from my CM reading group, with littles about your chidlren’s age, are using it and really love it. A lot of AO moms consider it a good option for kindergarten. Etc. I definitely haven’t heard bad things! I would be concerned using it all the way up to age 8 because the booklist is far, far from rigorous enough for a child in third grade, but that is the only concern I think I can voice without really studying it.

      Sorry I’m not much help!

    • Reply Lani November 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Brandy, I own the FIAR guides and most all of the picture books. Love the book choices. Use them for preschool years and K here. But then many are also recommended by AO for year 0. I tried way back when to do FIAR the ‘right way’ by reading the book each day, etc etc. My oldest would have none of it. Thank goodness. It was killing his interest in otherwise much enjoyed and later beloved books. The activities are definitely contrived and forced. Much of it inappropriate in my opinion for a 5 year old. The only thing that made sense was to locate the place (if obvious) on a map/globe. Some of the art activities were nice if you had a child with that interest but again, not sure for a Kindy. Personally, I think you are correct to include it in your post. As written, it is definitely a unit study.

  • Reply Ellen October 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    I’m doing Five in a Row with my 5-year-old (and my 3-year-old tagging along on what he’s interested in.) I’m not sure if we’ll do this next year or not, but I have found this kind of unit study to be good for us this year.

    One thing I have noticed is that Seth is making his own connections many times before I bring them up. For instance, in “Lentil” by Robert McCloskey, he wanted to know why the townspeople gave Old Sneep an ice cream cone when he tried to ruin the celebration. I suggested that maybe they were showing him grace, and we talked a little about that.

    I think the most important thing about this is to keep the lessons short and simple, don’t try to force connections that don’t exist, and don’t do this with long books. Five in a Row uses picture books, partly for the enjoyment of talking about and copying drawing methods. I don’t think I’d want to do a unit study with a longer book, like Robinson C., because that is a stand alone work of literature, but I don’t think a bit of unit study analysis at a young age with picture books is going to hurt anything. =)

    But I’m not a Charlotte Mason purist, and I know it….

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 18, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      Honestly, if I was rewriting the post today, instead of reposting it, I’d probably have taken out FIAR and used a different example because I really don’t have a problem with it. But I didn’t because…well…I’m tired today. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm

      ps. Of course, the point is not that I have a problem with anything in particular but that I find that most people don’t know why *CM* had a problem. So hopefully I explained it…Just thought I’d throw that out there. 🙂

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... October 18, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Thank you. I’m glad you posted this!!

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