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Instead of Curriculum: The Great Courses

Instead of Curriculum: The Great Courses Review

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress; The Great Courses logo ©The Teaching Company; used by permission

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The Great Courses Review

Our family has greatly enjoyed using The Great Courses audio and video recorded classes.

The first of The Great Courses we used was The Story of Human Languagepresented by leading linguist John McWhorter, who gives 36 lectures about the development of human language, why languages change or become extinct, dialects, how languages and their grammars affect thinking, and what the study of language can tell us about history and interconnectedness of early peoples.

We got this CD set from our local library and enjoyed 18 hours of listening-while-driving. This course, like the majority of those offered by The Great Courses, is considered college level, so some of the content probably went over the heads of my captive audience of three sons in a minivan, but I know they did take in a surprising amount, because they could talk about what they learned.

From there, we began listening to every Great Courses CD set the library had. They offer courses in science, math, fine arts, music, religion, philosophy, history, literature, living, language, business, and economics. But it’s the course titles that are really intriguing — such as Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy, The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World, Writing Creative Nonfiction, How to Listen to and Understand Opera, and nearly 400 more.

Listening in the car remained our number one venue, but the boys also listened in their bedrooms at night or as we were making art or working on projects together. Sometimes we listened to the same course all together, which created a nice joint experience; other times we were listening to different topics, anxious to tell one another what we were learning on our own.

The lectures are appealing, since the professors who design and present them are chosen based on their expertise and their communication and presentation ability. However, again, these are college professors, and they are basically geeking out on their favorite topics — so it helps to be a little geeky on the receiving end, which I admit, we are.

Also, my kids were already well conditioned to listening to news radio, audiobooks, and recorded stories in the car and at home, so they were primed as an audience by the time they were in sixth or seventh grade. When the kids were younger, they simply played as the audio played, taking in what they could. Other children may have a different response especially before the mid-teen years, so I recommend using Great Courses from the library to see how it works.

While engaging, the presentations are fairly serious — the emphasis is on information rather than entertainment — so not every child or teen is going to go for these. I concede that I probably got more from some of the lectures than the children did at the earliest ages, but that made it a nice bit of professional development for me — a time for my own learning, with the kids tagging along.

Over time, we exhausted the library titles of The Great Courses, and as my kids got older, we began using them to address specific learning goals. For example, as part of one son’s study of high school government, he listened to two courses, The History of the Supreme Court and Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights.  Another son requested Secrets of Mental Math.

When we sought these specific titles, we had to purchase them rather than obtaining them from the library. I found that The Great Courses has great sales — it’s worth following the website to find when you can purchase some of the titles at huge discounts off their list price. They are still pricey for many homeschool budgets, so there were also several times where I did a deal with a friend — she purchased one Great Courses set on sale that she wanted to keep for her family, and I purchased one that I wanted to keep for our family, but we agreed to loan them to each other liberally, so we got more bang for our bucks.

When I began using The Great Courses, there were only a few courses designated as high school — most were college level. Now there are 19 high school classes, including math, chemistry, American history, and world history. I haven’t used these. If you have, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the high school classes.

Purchasing from The Great Courses has been a pleasure in itself. They have stood by their lifetime promise to replace defective or damaged disks. Not only have they kept up with the times by offering you streaming video of each course that you purchase (even if you purchase it on CD or DVD), when I called to ask questions about this service, they told me that they would go through my order history and make this streaming video available to me for each course I have purchased over the years. (This service is understandably only available for courses which they already offer in a streaming format).

There is an iPhone/iPad app for The Great Courses, and the streaming will also work on Android devices from the website.

Since we first began using The Great Courses, they have shifted to producing many courses on DVD rather than CD and offering a video component for many courses. I have only used one of The Great Courses with the video, and I do want to say that the video is not going to be the same type that you would get from, say, The Discovery Channel or The History Channel.

In the one video course we have used, the video was largely of the lecturer and presentation-type “slides.” While the video was informational and well-produced, these are still college professors, not celebrity performers, and the video presentation is more like that of an engaging college lecture series rather than a slickly produced television series that one of those big networks might produce on a science or history topic.

Because of my limited experience with The Great Courses video, I can’t say whether this is typical, but I will say that I still feel the information is worth what I paid. As a former radio journalist myself, though, I recognize that I get an awful lot out of audio and may be bothered less by this than some people. Again, try the DVDs with video at the library first, or call The Great Courses people and ask about this if you think it will be a factor in your satisfaction.

Also, for those of you who may be a little mixed up about The Great Courses, yes, it’s the same company that used to call themselves The Teaching Company “bringing you The Great Courses.” They’ve dropped The Teaching Company name and now strictly go by The Great Courses. All their courses are presented in English, and they ship internationally. Customers in The United Kingdom are encouraged to go to, and Australian customers should go to

Listening to one of The Great Courses on a long trip is a wonderful way to pass the time. Using one of The Great Courses instead of curriculum is a wonderful way to expose your older children to top experts in their fields — or to help meet a high school learning goal in a unique way.

Jeanne Faulconer

A popular speaker at homeschooling conferences, business groups, and parents’ groups, Jeanne Potts Faulconer homeschooled her three sons in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia for twenty years. Jeanne is director of Brave Writer's Homeschool Alliance, which provides homeschool coaching, community, and "grad school for homeschool" for parents. She is the contributing editor for TheHomeSchoolMom newsletter and writes the popular Ask Jeanne column, addressing homeschool parents' questions here at TheHomeSchoolMom. She is a former college faculty member, former editor and book reviewer for Home Education Magazine, a long-time editor for VaHomeschoolers Voice, and a news correspondent for WCVE, an NPR-member station. Holding her Master of Arts degree in Communication, Jeanne has conducted portfolio evaluations for Virginia homeschoolers for evidence of progress for many years.

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  1. The Rev. Dr. John Phalen

    Great Courses has made a major shallow move as far as I am concerned. I write as a customer of long standing. Fairly recently, The Great Courses have made selective courses available on Hoopla – the e-books borrowing venue available through public libraries. Hoopla allows 6 borrows a month. I am careful in selections as I can easily borrow the number allowed. The problem, Great Courses only allow the borrowing of the first 30 minute lecture! Is this :come on” marketing? How shallow! I am having difficulty in finding the right person in Great Courses to e-mail. If someone can get the message to Great Courses. Tell them tos stop it! Please do not be about limited and shallow learning. Withdraw from Hoopla or put entire courses on for the public to borrow.

    • Mary Ann Kelley

      That is unfortunate. Perhaps calling their toll free number and asking for the appropriate contact information would be productive.

      It looks like they have a new “plus” plan with unlimited viewing for $15/mo. (when paying annually) for the video courses, and most libraries have physical copies of the audiobooks in a more limited selection. Additionally, many of their courses are available on Audible (various pricing structures). Not free, but at least a better option than buying.

  2. Jeanne Faulconer

    Hi mritter. Thanks for your comment. The title refers to the blog posts that are here at TheHomeSchoolMom as part of the series of articles called “Instead of Curriculum.” These are resources kids learn from that are not, strictly speaking, considered to be formal homeschool curricula. The Great Courses are among the resources families use this way.

    You can read about the general idea of using resources “instead of curriculum” here:

    As for awarding credit, that is up to you. High school credit is awarded by homeschooling parents for many learning experiences that don’t originate in formal curriculum. All over the country and around the world, homeschooling parents give their kids credit for experiential learning, learning from non-textbooks, original research, and other non-traditional approaches to learning. This is one of the reasons homeschooled graduates are sought after by colleges — they are strong in contextual learning and are used to learning outside of specific designated resources, “rabbit trailing” on topics of interest through vibrant “real books,” documentaries, and other materials.

    Different homeschoolers would handle this different ways. For a government credit, I had one of my kids listen to THREE Great Courses and discuss issues with me from each. I felt more than comfortable that his mastery was complete at a greater depth and on a broader range of issues than what is typically expected of high school students. Other parents might just use one course from the Great Courses and add papers or additional reading. It’s up to each individual parent.

    If you think about awarding credit for mastery of concepts and knowledge rather than completion of a certain number of hoops to jump (for example, the work of a traditional homeschool curriculum might have quizzes, worksheets, textbook pages read or outlined, etc.) it becomes easier to think about how to award credit.

    You can look for information about how eclectic, interest-led, and unschooling homeschoolers document their learning during the high school years, and that will help you understand how you can use resources like The Great Courses and translate that into “credit.”

    Good luck!

  3. mritter

    We like the Great Courses, too, but I am curious about how you incorporated these into high school transcripts. Were you able to count one Great Course as one course credit, or did you just use them as part of your curriculum? The title of the article is a bit confusing. Thank you!

    • Claire

      Most high school courses require 150 to 225 hours of work.

      Take for an example: American History for 1 High School Homeschool Credit

      There are a number of Great Courses that could be added together

      Go on field trips to historic sites if possible

      Plus History Channel, PBS, and traditional library and high school/college textbooks on the subject

      Then have the student take the AP test or CLEP test if you like.

      Hope that helps.

      • Jeanne Faulconer

        Great ideas, Claire. I personally didn’t count hours while creating credits for homeschooling, but it’s certainly an option.


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