The Bow Tie Boys

The Bow Tie Boys

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Impact of Isolated Units

Many of my current classes are based upon units. Although these units are a nice organizational pattern, they often feel severely disconnected from one another. In previous classes, I didn't understand the relationships between the different units until the end of the year. This set-up in my mind, ruined the synergy between the unit and didn't make the class feel like one class, but more like a dozen separated ones.

One specific example that sticks out to me was my sixth grade English class. This class had several units, some based on books, one focused on grammar, and another based on writing. The units felt extremely disconnected from each other and it was at the end of the year that I final connected the dots. Especially in English, all the aspects of learning (grammar, reading, essays, etc.) are intertwined into one subject, English. In the words of Linda Rief, "Neither can I separate reading writing, speaking, and listening. They are integrated processes finely woven into a tapestry of literacy." (Seeking Diversity, 1992). This isn't just the case in English, but in all subjects. Everything is connected, yet it is rarely taught as so. My current math class, (which I talked about in my blog two weeks ago) doesn't have units. Everything is built off the previous learning, and everything clearly relates to one another. This was obvious after only a week of taking the course. Before the weekly small quizzes, I find that the best way to study is review old concepts and to redo some of the homework problems, and after the quiz I still retain the knowledge.

On the contrary, many of my classes don't build off previous learning each unit. As a result, the night before the big unit test my fellow classmates and I cram in knowledge to study. Immediately after taking the test, all that knowledge went straight out of my head. The unit tests are just an assignment that are used for a regurgitation of memorized facts. A fellow bowtie boy, Sean Pettit, is well known for saying, "units encourage forgetting". Units break up learning into a choppy experience, not a fluid one.

Another one of my current classes that doesn't have individual units is my science class. The class is very unique in that over the course of this year and next, we are taught aspects of Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics, all in one year. These individual aspects of science are normally taught in individual courses. In my science class however, the next two years of science will teach me all three of those science subjects. The cool thing about my science class isn't just the fact that in two years we are taught three years of science, but also that the Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics are weaved together to form one class. One week, we learned about orbital dynamics and circular motion but then the next week we learned about the result of those forces which are stars, planets and galaxies. This pedagogy is a very interesting one to me but I really like it. Before I can even start to get bored of one individual area, such as physics, we have moved on to a different aspect. I also like the fact that, due to the switching of sciences, I can give more varied input. I can think about Earth Science, Chemistry, and Physics, all at the same time and also express that thought in this class and what I say will have relevance. Penny Kittle said, “You have this thinking building up inside you all the time and you just need to get it out”(Write Beside Them, 2008). Having multiple things going on at once means I don't have to hide away my thought because they aren't relevant. Finally, I like the flow and transition to and from the different sciences. They aren't forced and don't seem like a major shift, more like a continuation from the previous science aspect.

Obviously, this idea of teaching three sciences as one would be difficult to implement in many schools. However, the weaving together of different aspects of an individual subject, would be much more manageable. In history, linking civilizations to one another and teaching how they connect and relate can make history feel like it is all connected, which it is.  History shouldn't have units, but more of a focus each day that still ties everything together. In math, building everything off each other tears down unit walls and connects seemingly unrelated concepts. In science, although it would be near impossible to implement a system like my current one, science is all connected. Many of my friends who take just Earth Science this year make a giant leap from geology to astronomy. There shouldn't be giant leaps. Units create these leaps. A slow yet concise transition is what is needed to connect things that would have otherwise been completely separate units.  Finally in English, weaving together grammar, reading, writing, and the others aspects of English together into one would create a more authentic learning experience.

Works Cited:

Kittle, Penny. Write beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. Print.

Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational, 1992. Print.                                                


  1. Joe,

    So much truth here. The units (with the exception of your science class) have created individual silos of information. Bundling standards / topics together into an essential question for the semester or the year would help build the connections that you crave. Keep asking for it! You are on the right track.

  2. Joe,

    Thank you for sharing your thinking about this subject. It is such an important topic because most people learn through seeing patterns and connecting. I love threading all of our learning through the lenses of hope and struggle.

    For me the disjointed units you write about are like not being able to see the forest for the trees. We risk either hitting into the trees or just walking haphazardly around trying to find our way.