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Homework Vs. Homeschooling: 7 Differences

By February 14, 2024One Comment

As more parents around the world experiment with virtual schooling, I’m seeing more statements equating homework with homeschooling.

“Homeschooling is so hard. I can’t even solve my kids’ math homework.”

“I always knew I could never homeschool my children, and all this homework just proves it to me.”

“I’ve decided not to do any more homework because I’m a terrible teacher, and I value my child’s mental and emotional well-being more than his grades at this point.”

As parents, we naturally want the best for our children. We want them to grow and excel mentally, emotionally, and academically, to the best of their abilities.

We shouldn’t have to choose one over the other, or at the cost of another.

homework vs homeschooling

Grades should never come at the expense of a child’s mental, emotional well-being. Homeschooling has always recognized that … long before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. (See more reasons why parents choose to homeschool in this blog post.)

In reality, homework and homeschooling are not the same.

When I think of homework, I think of an assignment, exercise, or worksheet that usually gets completed at home – often separate from the main classroom lecture or lesson.

When I think of homeschooling, I think of an educational adventure that embraces a lifelong love of learning – regardless of location.

Here are just a few differences I see between homework and homeschooling:

1. Homework is relatively new. Homeschooling is relatively ancient.

Guess when the word “homework” entered the English language? According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, its first known use was in 1662, and it meant “piecework done at home for pay”.

(If only we did it for pay today … sigh!)

extracurricular activities homeschool

But before the 1600s – and even a long time afterward – children received much of their education directly from their families.

Check out this passage from “Left, Right, and Online: A Historic View of Homeschooling” by NHERI:

Education in the United States has its roots in the home.  In colonial times, school was typically held in one’s home around the hearth (Carper, 2000).  In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to require compulsory school attendance (Ensign, 1969).  This law required every child from age eight to 14 to attend a public school for at least 12 weeks during the year, and 6 of those weeks had to be consecutive (Ensign, 1969).  This law also had a penalty not to exceed $20 for students not attending school (Ensign, 1969). Soon other states followed Massachusetts in passing compulsory school attendance laws.  It was with the passage of such laws that homeschool first became the exception rather than the normal mode of education.

See that? Even when compulsory school attendance laws passed, they only applied to children ages 8-14. All in all, they applied to a minimum of 12 weeks, or about three months!

A recent HSLDA article highlights this perspective, where homeschool father Canute Waswa says education in Kenya was historically integrated with life until colonialism introduced “formal schooling.”

In other words, formal schooling (which includes homework) is the unusual, experimental approach to education. Homeschooling existed long before it experienced a resurgence in the 1970s.

2. Homework encourages quick answers. Homeschooling encourages independent work.

homeschooling with littles

For a few years I went to a private school before my parents withdrew me to homeschool.

Whenever I got homework to finish after school, I usually counted how many problems (or activities) there were. If there were a lot, I tended to set aside more time for it. If there were only a few, I tended to put it off for later.

Does that sound familiar?

The goal for homework, ostensibly, is to test whether a student understands the topic enough to answer questions correctly. In other words, the metric being measured is the student’s ability to provide correct answers.

Well, we all know ways to cheat the system. Maybe one student tells another student the answers ahead of time. Maybe students search for answers online. As long as the metric is the right answer, full comprehension of the topic isn’t always needed.

On the other hand, homeschooling uses metrics that are a lot less tangible. Parents set the tone for their homeschool and what makes a successful assignment.

Additionally, homeschooling tends to provide a lot more “independent” work for the students. I know this from my own childhood experience. After the textbooks and lessons were over, I enjoyed freedom to do whatever I wanted.

In the early days this involved a lot of free play. Over time as my academic skills developed, I wrote my own stories, rehearsed in community orchestras, participated in a nationwide homeschool debate tournament, attended community college early, wrote for the college newspaper, and much more.

I don’t think I could have accomplished so much if I hadn’t gotten used to doing so much, independently, from such a young age.

youth entrepreneurs

It looks like my personal experience is borne out by at least one study researching creativity in homeschooled children.

The study found homeschool students’ marks in creativity scored “well above the 50th percentile, which is the average for students attending conventional schools. Children who scored higher in verbal and figural creativity also tended to have higher academic achievement scores. Achievement, too, was above the national average.”

While the study could not conclusively prove what caused the higher creativity and achievement scores, it suggested one reason might be the higher amount of independent work:

[A] home school environment that encourages children to work independently may do more to foster both creativity and academic achievement than any particular pedagogical practice or curriculum content. It would be well for future research to examine these often overlooked intrinsic characteristics of home schooling.

Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of everything we’re working toward – that our educational system raise independent, lifelong learners?

3. Homework is independent of parents. Homeschooling requires them.

Because teachers (not parents) usually assign the homework, parents can find themselves at a disadvantage when trying to help their students with it.

They don’t always know the subject or topic ahead of time. They haven’t heard the teacher explain the assignment. They may not catch all the nuances and expectations about the homework, and their children may not have heard (or remembered) these to tell the parents.

special needs homeschool resources

On the other hand, parents take full responsibility for their children’s education in homeschooling. That doesn’t mean they are completely immersed in every microscopic detail. For example, they may delegate some responsibility to tutors, use a prepackaged curriculum, or enroll in a local homeschool co-op or enrichment program (we have many of these in the KC area).

However, homework should never take homeschool parents by surprise … precisely because if there is any homework to assign, the parents are almost always the ones assigning it!

4. Homework takes away from family time. Homeschooling encourages it.

A lot of people during this time cannot imagine trying to cram a day’s worth of schooling with full-time careers, along with the many other responsibilities of running a household.

However, a growing number of families do work and homeschool. (We feature some of their tips to balance work and homeschool here.)

How can they accomplish this?

teach vocabulary homeschool

Well, the important thing to remember is that homework – in its current format – tends to encroach onto the precious few hours when parents are actually home with their children!

On the other hand, homeschooling can take place even when parents are working their own careers, especially if the children are independent learners.

For example, I work with my children’s homeschool in the mornings from about 9-11 a.m. That’s all I need! The rest of the day is free for me to work from home.

Granted, they’re in elementary school and preschool at the moment. No doubt my homeschool-and-working schedule will change as their academic needs change.

But from my homeschool experience, my parents spent less and less time teaching me as I did more of the coursework on my own under supervision. By my later high school years, I was already studying at my local community college. This helped me complete credits towards my high school diploma and gain college credit at the same time!

Homeschooling gave us our evenings and weekends to enjoy as a family. We had more time together just to laugh, to play games, to have conversations, to share life.

5. Homework is limited by time and space. Homeschooling is 24/7.

All right – cough cough – so maybe homeschool families can get a bad rap on this one. The truth is, almost anything can be “educational” if seen in the right light!

Seriously, though, homework by its very nature tends to be something written down or completed online. Naturally this involves some constraints on location and time.

No such constraints exist on homeschooling, though. You can homeschool outside or inside, late at night or early in the morning, all while using as many low-tech or high-tech tools as you wish!

(For more creative strategies to use in your homeschool, see this blog post about teaching methods in Finland that have proven remarkably effective.)

6. Homework emphasizes external numbers. Homeschooling emphasizes learning goalposts.

homework and learning goalposts

Here’s another popular misconception that’s easy to fall into – your child may fall “behind” if they don’t finish their homework. That’s because homework assignments tend to have specific deadlines attached to them: Turn this in by tomorrow, or next week.

Can we all stop for a moment to think about this? Since when is a child “required” to understand fractions by a certain date?

If one child understands the concept by age 6, and another child at 6 years needs a few extra weeks before they get it … have they really fallen behind?

Enter another benefit of homeschooling: it allows you to customize your child’s approach to learning.

Every child is unique. Homeschooling gives you the freedom to recognize their individual needs and adjust the teaching pace to whatever suits your children.

BONUS: See this article citing research suggesting homeschool students can learn more in fewer hours than a typical public-school day.

7. Homework prepares you for tests. Homeschooling prepares you for real life.

homework and homeschooling
Photo courtesy of Craig and Shawna Ketter. Read more of their story here.

Because of its very nature, homework sticks out as an imperfect yardstick for teachers to decide whether you pass or fail a certain level of knowledge in any given topic.

Homeschooling, by contrast, sticks out as an intentional choice to educate children holistically – by the parents who know their children best. They often pick up on their children’s special strengths and interests that outside teachers sometimes miss. Parents have known their children for years, while teachers can come and go with every school year.

Looking back on my school years, I don’t remember every grade I got for every subject. I don’t always remember everything I studied.

But I’ll tell you what I do remember – times together as a family, field trips and vacations, the surprise and excitement of new discoveries and thoughtful discussions, meeting people from all ages and backgrounds, and learning to express ideas. Yes, especially … the wonder of ideas.

We have updated this blog post, originally written in May 2020, for timeliness and detail.

Enjoyed this blog post? Check out more thoughts regarding COVID-19 and homeschooling!

Shanxi Omoniyi

Shanxi Omoniyi (@ShanxiO on Twitter) is MPE's online content director. A homeschool alumna, Shanxi graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in journalism and English. Her company, Wordspire Media, helps businesses and nonprofits share their stories through content marketing, social media management, and email marketing.

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