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AHA! Unit-based Instruction…The Recipe for Homeschooling

Dr. T. Roger Taylor and Dr. Beverly M. Taylor  (Free samples at the end of article)

Why Teach via Unit of Study?
Among the many reasons parents choose to leave the public, private or parochial schools is the perception that there is very little, if any, rigor or substance in much of the instruction.  This has been referred to as teaching “an inch deep and a mile wide” vs. an inch wide and a mile deep.

The cognitive domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) centers on the skills of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Burns (1984) found that 75-95% of activities assigned by teachers to their students, focused on knowledge and comprehension, the two lowest levels of the taxonomy. By definition, this form of instruction is without depth, where concepts are answered with a yes/no, true/false, or which of the following is correct…a,b,c,d. This type of instruction has resulted in public school districts, such as the Chicago Public Schools, spending hundreds of millions of dollars only to generate the lowest achievement results in the past 30 years.

Unit of study instruction focuses on in-depth understanding, meaningful project-centered learning, higher-order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, creative thinking, and character/ethics education, which are woven throughout the fabric of each lesson. The disciplines of literature, history, mathematics, science and social studies are integrated so that learners understand the relationship among the disciplines based on a thematic topic or Big Idea. The curriculum unit of study is differentiated by integrating media, literature, fine arts, cultural literacy, social studies, science and mathematics to create an environment where learners are successful in understanding the connections among disciplines rather than memorizing facts within each discipline. (Taylor, 2004)

The Recipe
Take one Big Idea
Add the following disciplines…history, science, mathematics, literature
Mix with higher level thinking skills, moral/ethical dilemmas, creative thinking
Add a pinch of state and national standards
Integrate the arts, music, media and technology
Sprinkle with communication skills, cooperative learning and project-centered learning
Fold in formative and summative assessment, divided into self, peer and teacher
Bake for four weeks
Makes a motivated, intellectual, creative, ethical and productive learner

Choosing the Big Idea or Theme
The Big Idea is often centered under the umbrella of social studies; however, science, mathematics and literature are all equally powerful in anchoring the theme or Big Idea.  Themes can focus on a specific time period such as medieval times, U.S. Revolutionary War, U.S. Civil War, World War II, the 1950s and the Industrial Revolution or on a specific Big Idea in science (aeronautics, micro-organisms, animals and their habitats, oceanography, plate tectonics and the solar system), mathematics (quadratic equations, exponential growth, palindromes, patterns, and geometric shapes) and literature (character building and man’s search for meaning through literature, study of authors, loss of innocence in literature, WWII and the English Renaissance through literature or specific pieces of literature such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Door in the Wall,” “Johnny Tremain” and “Macbeth.”)

Add the Discipline
In unit-based instruction, there is a series of in-depth lesson plans connected to content within that specific unit.   The lesson plans are created to be interdisciplinary and connect to other teaching units during the day.  For example, if the theme is the Holocaust, the history unit is based on World War II, the literature unit may include “Diary of a Young Girl, the Ann Frank Story” or Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”  The science unit may focus on genetics (Hitler was trying to create the super race) and the mathematics unit may center on chromosomes, DNA and probability.  Each unit of study for the theme Holocaust is interdisciplinary, thematic and integrated among the content areas.  A fun and interesting title for the Unit of Study creates an interest in the theme.  When creating your own unit of study, think of a title that is engaging to the learner.  A suggested title for the holocaust theme is “No Light in the Attic:  Let’s be Frank.  It’s up to you.”

A popular unit of study for younger children is fairy tales. Since many of the fairy tales we know come from the Middle Ages, this is a perfect time to align instruction so that the history unit is taught in parallel with the fairy tale unit. During the Middle Ages, the five simple machines/tools were perfected and, therefore; they become the focus of the science unit. The mathematics unit of study centers on linear measurements of distance and time. The units make interdisciplinary connections and tie the curriculum together.   Title? How about, “Once Upon a Friend: Living Happily Ever After with Pipers, Pigs and Princesses?”

Higher Level Thinking Skills and Project-Centered Learning
With unit-based instruction, each lesson becomes totally relevant to the student’s life and experience because there are connections between and among the disciplines. Each lesson is project-centered, with school-to-career connections so that learners never have to ask, “Why do I have to learn this?” Each lesson has writing woven into the content so that students learn creative writing, grammar and syntax within every lesson, instead of being taught in isolation. Because of the relevance and depth in unit study, the ultimate result is not only a highly-educated, knowledgeable student, but also one whose mastery of learning and critical thinking skills will maximize results on admissions exams, such as the SAT and ACT.  Each lesson is aligned with state and national standards so that exemplary performance on standardized tests is assured. Even though standards are not mandated for homeschooling, it is recommended to use the state standards as a guideline and comparison.

Creative Thinking
Ultimately, the love of learning is nurtured and developed in unit-based instruction.  While much of traditional school learning is rote and non-engaging, the best unit of study is compatible with how the human brain functions. For learners who are naturally creative, each lesson includes six levels of creativity to satisfy the learning style of these students while demanding that learners who think more in a linear manner open their minds to more creative and divergent thinking. In addition, students who are the creative thinkers must stretch their minds to think in an inductive/deductive manner. The hands-on project-centered approach is equally creative and academic, as is the moral/ethical dilemmas woven into each lesson.

Multiple Intelligences and Assessment
“If students do not learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn.” (Taylor, 2008)   The Eight Intelligences of Howard Gardner (1983) are integrated into each lesson so that verbal/linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical/rhythmic, visual/spatial, body/ kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist intelligences are developed as part of the learning process. With these multiple intelligences, learners are validated and reinforced in each lesson while they are simultaneously challenged and stretched to think in different ways. Assessment is included in each lesson so that each part of the teaching process has formative assessment and feedback to correct misinformation and to “fix it before it is broken.” The hands-on project-centered learning is validated by a rubric, which is determined before the project starts so that each step of the project is assessed to assure the ultimate product is excellent. At the end of each lesson there is a summative assessment not only from the teacher but more importantly a reflective summation of performance from the learners.

When using the integrated, interdisciplinary approach for unit-based instruction, there will be unique AHA! moments on a daily basis that excite even the most reluctant learner. Students become producers and creators of ideas rather than rote consumers of knowledge. It’s a key to life-long learning.

Go to to view, download and print out sample curriculum units.  Click on “Homeschoolers” on the homepage.

Bloom, Benjamin S. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1956.

Burns, Robert. “How Time is Used in Elementary Schools:  The Activity Structure of Classrooms.”  In Time and School Learning, ed. Lorin W. Anderso. Osford, England:  Croom Helm, 1984.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Taylor, Roger, Differentiating the Curriculum:  Using an Integrated, Interdisciplinary, Thematic Standards-based Approach (Summer Resource Handbook) CDE, Inc. 2004.

Taylor, Roger.  (December 16, 2008). If Kids Do Not Learn the way you Teach, Teach the way they Learn [Webinar 02].


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