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Homeschool Unit Studies

The Learning Tree

A Model For Homeschool Unit Studies

The Learning Tree is a model of homeschool unit studies that fosters student participation in the learning process. It is not a curriculum, but an organic model that families can use as they design their own curriculum.

learning tree

Even if you are using another unit study program, you can easily choose some of the components of this model to incorporate into your homeschool unit studies.

How the Learning Tree Developed

I love using unit studies and feel they best promote the type of self-learning that is at the heart of the homeschool movement. At one point or another, our family has used most of the homeschool unit studies out there - and with success. (To be honest, I will state we also have used many textbook programs as well. The ability to use an eclectic approach to meet the specific needs of each child in each subject as they change over time is one of the strengths of homeschooling.)

While I am an advocate of unit studies, I often had frustrations when we used them in the early years. This included the following problems:

  • There was more content than we could cover. I often felt guilty that we had not "done it all."
  • Sometimes my students became academically lazy when tests were not administered. Sure, they enjoyed the projects; but I often could not detect any academic learning taking place. "Read and forget" seemed to be the motto of some kids.
  • I wanted my students to take responsibility for planning and carrying out their own learning. But some students need more discipline and requirements than others.
  • There needed to be a minimum requirement for all students, and a system of reward for academic achievement above the minimum.

Little by little over the years, this model took shape. If some of the components look familiar, it is probably because they were adapted from one or more of the unit studies we used.

Why do we use a tree?

Originally I had a more "mechanical" model. This demonstrated that some of the learning activities were "input" which allowed the students to learn new material. Other learning activities were "outputs" which demonstrated the student's acquired skills, knowledge, and analysis.

This model assisted student's to recognize that they needed to balance the different types of learning activities, and do a minimum number of both. Sometimes it is easy to apply. Reading a book is an input, writing a paper is an output. But what about taking part in a book discussion? Some activities fit into both categories. We needed a less technical and more dynamic model that changed as they changed.

Thus the model of a tree which grows and changes developed.

learning tree

The Trunk

The trunk is the topic of your homeschool unit studies. It could be "birds", or "Ancient Egypt," "soccer," or "presidential elections."


The roots are your resources. You can think of it as a living bibliography. Of course it will include all books you read. It may include internet sites, educational games, field trips, magazine articles, experiments and a host of other activities from which your students learn.


The branches are the main areas of content to be learned. Let's use a unit study on "birds" as an example. The branches might be:
  • Illustrate the life cycle of a bird.
  • Describe six different categories of birds.
  • Identify the main parts of a bird's anatomy.
  • Trace the migration pattern of several birds.

Notice that the content has measurable objectives. There are specific things the student is expected to be able to do at the end of a unit study. They start their unit studies knowing what they need to learn.


The fruit is the outcome your student produces in the course of completing the homeschool unit studies. It should have a creative aspect to it. For the study of birds, your student might have the following fruit:
  • Wrote a paper on swans.
  • Developed a poster on the life cycle of swans.
  • Used a field guide to identify five birds in our back yard.
  • Went on a local bird watching walk and drew a map.
  • Made a clay model of a wood-pecker.

Some of these outcomes are directly related to the objectives. Some are opportunities students discover and pursue during the course of their unit study.


Students can earn points for the different activities they do. Ten points can be earned for an hour of work. You can also give one point for every page they read. Students can be required to do a minimum number of points for each unit study. We recommend 100 points. As the students get older, the requirements may become more detailed. Here is an example:
  • Minimum Requirements - Total 100 points
  • Writing: 25 points
  • Reading: 50 Points

There is never a maximum number of points a student can earn.


The MatchCard Science Unit Studies grew out of the Learning Tree model. You can look at the examples and develop your own unit studies for any topic. Look at the MatchCard Science Unit Studies.

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