Unit Studies Vs. Textbooks

Which homeschooling approach is right for you?

Both unit studies and textbooks are popular with homeschoolers. But which is right for you? Compare unit studies and textbooks and their methods of teaching.

books vs. learning tree diagram

Didactic Instruction vs. Learner Oriented Education

First, it is necessary to state that it is a simplification to say there are only two educational methods. In reality, there is a wide variety of methods and philosophies behind those methods.

However, we can make a generalization and state that most educational approaches tend to fall into one of two categories: didactic (or textbook oriented) or learner oriented (sometimes called self-directed) education. And while generalizations are seldom precise, they are usually accurate enough to help draw some useful conclusions.

Simply stated, didactic teaching involves a set curriculum with a body of knowledge or skills that is to be imparted to the student.

Learner oriented education, on the other hand, has as its goal the development of the student in order to obtain a higher level of thinking or living.

Hmm, so which is better?

Let's compare them more.

Didactic Instruction = Textbook Approach

As I stated before, you will have to pardon the over-simplification that is inherent in placing all educational philosophies into only one of two boxes. However, we are all familiar with didactic instruction. It is the most common form of education used in schools. Textbooks (and lectures) are the media by which didactic instruction is delivered.

There are some distinct advantages of this method.

Well defined content

Didactic instruction involves developing goals and objectives and defining the body of knowledge needed to meet those objectives. There is a set body of knowledge that is to be taught.

This content is generally agreed upon. It may be modified and re-evaluated, but to a large extent remains the same for many years.

There is an obvious advantage to well defined content. Why reinvent the wheel every lesson? There is at least some consensus on what students need to know and an avenue to ensure that such learning happens.

Systematic and Progressive Instruction

The content is defined, and is broken into smaller pieces. Step by step, the student progresses through the material to learn the content and meet the objectives.

Often there is significant logic behind the order. Addition is learned before subtraction, multiplication before division etc.

It can be argued that the systematic approach has been the backbone of the western educational system in general. It is logical, well defined, and progresses from one point to the next systematically.

Availability of Appropriate Grade Level Materials

In addition to defining the content and the systematic approach, the didactic method also produces grade level materials. A third grade science textbook is written at a third grade reading level. An eighth grade science textbook is written at an eighth grade reading level.

In addition to textbooks, other learning materials including workbooks, computer programs, manipulatives, etc are produced as tools to accomplish the stated goals.

Learner Oriented Education - Unit Study Approach

Learner oriented education focuses more on the needs of the student than the demands of the curriculum. Content is presented through unit studies in which the students interact with the content in a variety of modalities. Like didactic instruction, learner oriented education also has its advantages.

Individualized Learning

With unit studies, fast learners are not slowed down by the class, or slower learners floundering to keep up. Students learn at their own pace.

Encourage Exploration and Lifelong Learning

Self-directed education has a love of learning as one of its goals. Students are encouraged to delve deeper into the content to meet their own personal desire to learn.

Higher Level of Interest

Unit studies are more motivating and interesting. This is partially because motivating the learner is one of the goals. In addition, unit studies have multiple modalities (ie what we sometimes call "hands on learning") which is naturally more interesting and fun. Give a group of students a choice between a workbook page on sorting apples or a bushel of apples to actually sort. Guess which they would choose?

Use of multiple modalities

Sometimes referred to as different intelligences, different students have different inherent abilities. With unit studies, avid readers are encouraged to read about the subject of interest. Writers produce a variety of written projects. Talkers get to give speechs, artists produce art, and the insatiable curious is allowed to keep asking "why?"

Learning through multiple modalities not only increases the motivation and interest level in the content, it gives students the concrete ability to develop their own unique set of social and interpersonal skills.

Multi-Level Learning

This is of particular interst to homeschoolers. Multi-level learning refers to the fact that several students in different grades are learning the same content. Usually reading, writing, and arithmetic are taught separately at each's students' current level; while social studies, science, and the creative/life arts are taught together. But each student still is engaged at his or her own academic level.

Compare the two approaches

In short, the didactic approach is logical, effective in covering set content, and usually more economical in terms of both time and money.

Consider, for instance, the third grade science textbook mentioned earlier. A textbook is simply the most convenient and economic way to cover that material.

The learner directed approach is more dynamic, individualized, and creative. It produces life long learners rather than relunctant or resistant students.


The didactic method is, in contrast to the other, more stagnant and less engaging. Quite frankly, it is usually boring.

Now I know that the producers of textbooks do not want to be boring. Nor do the teachers who use them. They invest a lot of time and effort in including full colored pictures and interesting information.

But in spite of their laudable efforts the truth remains. They are not interesting. When was the last time you or anyone you know ever bought a textbook because you wanted to read it? Rarely are they purchased for any reason besides a requirement.

Seldom will students get excited and ask to read more of their textbook chapters, or beg the teacher to lecture longer.

The unit study approach also has its disadvantages. It requires more creativity and planning to make sure there are no gaps in the students' education.

Often, it is more expensive in time and money. Again considering that third grade science course, imagine the shelf full of materials needed to cover all that material with a hands-on approach.

For that reason, developing unit studies can become very emotionally draining and time consuming for the parent.

Of course, multiple options exist for purchasing unit studies that provide numerous options for the families. There is usually a time/money factor. The less time it requires of the parent to plan and acquire the materials, the more it costs. Lower financial costs usually require greater time investment.

Eclectic Approach

Many homeschoolers have an eclectic approach: they incorporate both educational methods into their program. This can be done in a variety of ways.

Use different curriculum different years

Some families intentionally use a unit study approach up through a particular age, often until high school. Thereafter, they may switch to a more didactic and college prepatory program.

Families may also choose to move back and forth every few years from textbooks to unit studies. Sometimes this is a planned curriculum choice; or it may be a matter of experimenting before finding the best approach for their students.

Different Subjects - Different Approaches

Another option is to use one method for some subjects, and the other for other subjects. It is not unusual to find families using unit studies to teach English and social studies, but textbooks for math and science. Others intentionally move back and forth using textbooks for science/units studies for social studies one year; and then switching to science unit studies and history textbooks the next year.

Didactic Acquired Objectives

Another eclectic approach is to combine both for one subject. For instance, families may use the outline and objectives from a textbook series to establish the core curriculum, but then use unit studies to actually cover the content.

Textbook Breaks

Another eclectic approach is to use textbooks, but then have scheduled breaks from the textbook for one subject to do more learner oriented projects.

This is the approach that is often used in schools, and can be used in homeschooling as well. Families may take a month, or a quarter, or any other specified length of time to teach the textbook content WITHOUT the textbook. This is a method that allows families who prefer the convenience of textbooks to enjoy some of the benefits of unit studies at the same time.

The opposite could also be done. Families who generally use unit studies for all course work can take time to teach content in a more didactic manner. This allows students from those families to obtain studying skills for read-then-test subjects.

Weigh In

As you compare unit studies and textbooks, think of the advantages and disadvantages for your household.

  • Do you like the creativity of keeping a portfolio that demonstrates learning through multiple avenues?
  • Do you prefer the objectivity of textbooks with set content and tests?

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