kitchen table math, the sequel: house

Friday, May 29, 2009


One of the questions in my mind this year, with C. attending Hogwarts, has been: why is the place so happy?

Somehow, the school motivates the kids to work hard and strive, and yet the winner-take-all burnout culture that often exists in high-performing public high schools doesn't exist there.

Why is that?

I don't know the answer, although I think it has to do with the fact that the kids develop a group identity the first day they arrive, when they attend a formal induction ceremony held in a nearby chapel.

In the ceremony a senior escorts each of the new boys up the center aisle of the sanctuary to the chancel, where a priest holding a mace blesses him and presents him with a freshman pin he is to wear on his jacket. Then he joins his mentor group standing off to the side.

I assume the mentor groups are related to the house system in British boarding schools:

the house system
Can competition and camaraderie coexist? They do in Highlands Latin School’s house system.

At first it may seem that competition and camaraderie are at odds, and sometimes they probably are. But in Highlands Latin School’s house system, they seem to go together quite well. A traditional fixture of many British schools, the “house” system has enabled Highlands to accomplish a number of goals that can be elusive for many schools.

The Origins of the “House” System

The house system is widely used in British schools and schools that model themselves after the British system in countries with past British colonial ties, such as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, and Singapore. The system began in boarding schools, where students actually ate, drank, and slept in individual houses during school terms. The house system still operates this way in prestigious British boarding schools, such as Harrow, Eton, and Winchester College.

But, perhaps because of its obvious merits, the system is now used even in day schools, where the term ‘house’ refers simply to groupings of pupils, with no buildings involved. The houses are usually named after Christian saints or for famous persons historically connected with the school.


At Highlands Latin School in Louisville, Kentucky, the advantages of the house system have been manifold. The houses provide not only an increased sense of identity and belonging, they also provide students with a sense of tradition. Leadership opportunities also abound in the house system.

Highlands, which is an outgrowth of the work of Cheryl Lowe, founder of Memoria Press, has seen a marked change in the attitude of students as a result of the establishment of the houses. “Because of the competition and the identification of each student with a house,” says Martin Cothran, a Highlands instructor and a co-director of the school, “there are constant opportunities to cheer your fellow students on. The positive attitudes of students toward one another and toward the school have been quite amazing since we started our program.”

The sense of tradition is palpable too. The Highlands house system, which is only a year old, already has about it the sense of history.


The feature of the houses most popular with students is the competitions. At Bingley Grammar School in West Yorkshire, England, houses compete on the basis of academics, attendance, and sports. Sports competition includes cross country, netball, rugby, and table tennis. At Highlands, students compete in academics, community service, and sports, including dodgeball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, kickball, and volleyball. They also compete in chess and Latin Scrabble.

Academic competition is based on GPA. Houses are given points on the basis of how house teams perform in academic quick recall competitions. Community service points might be given on the basis of which house turned out the most members to sing at a rest home.


If I were starting a charter school I'd want it to have a House system.

how to create a virtual culture
Anonymous on competition & "positive compulsions"


Allison said...

Houses work as long as you have a good sorting mechanism.

Under no circumstances can the children be in charge of the sorting.


Why? Because CULTURE IS KING. This goes back to the other post about the group delusion necessary to foster educational excellence in oneself while at college.

Based on my experience watching college sorting into living groups/dorms, I am pretty much convinced that allowing the members to sort themselves leads to entirely dysfunctional houses, and that once a culture is in place, or even WAS in place, it's almost impossible to kill it.

Short version: it's like that bugs bunny episode where the truckload of hats flies open, and as the hats fall on Bugs and his antagonist (Elmer?) they change roles.

The sorting mechanism needs to consciously try to break all the old cliques and create new ones. It needs to stomp out any self-mocking culture, any cynicism about the culture from taking root, and it certainly needs to suppress bad behaviors.

This is what happens in the military at Boot Camp, but the Marines really have it down.

ChemProf said...

Yeah, I'd second what Allison says here. At my school, they moved the freshmen down from the hill dorms they'd been in forever to one in the center of campus. This upset the upperclassmen, because living in (flat) central campus had been a perk of being a junior or senior. The official reason was that, since freshman had to be in one assigned place, they needed to be in a handicapped accessible dorm, and the hill dorm wasn't. However, the real issue was that while one hill dorm was held for freshmen, the other one was the party dorm, and that was also where freshman overflow went. I always worried about freshmen in the party dorm -- they had much higher failure rates -- and when the freshmen were moved down to central campus, we were also able to break up the party dorm. But changing the culture of a dorm is really hard, and often requires big changes!

Catherine Johnson said...

yup - there's no self-sorting at Hogwarts. The school assigns kids to mentor groups.

I'm pretty sure the mentor groups change each year, too.

I shouldn't be conflating mentor groups with house, at all, probably --- at Hogwarts the whole school is the group. The mentor groups really are 'mentor' groups; that is the school's way of assigning a "parent at school" to all the kids.

fuzzy thinking....

GoogleMaster said...

My university alma mater uses the residential college AKA house system, and it is by far the most identifying aspect of student life, extending even past graduation. When you mean an alumnus of my university, you don't ask "what year" or "what major"; instead, your first question is "what college?" There are natural rivalries that have arisen amongst the colleges, and there is a yearlong competition for a cup signifying the "best" college. It helped a lot that the school has no Greek fraternal organizations (in fact, I think they are banned). Incoming freshmen and transfer students are assigned to a college by some mysterious sorting process. You stay in the same college for life, except for the rare instance where you request a transfer for some reason or the even rarer instance where the university opens a new college and takes volunteers to help colonize it. The alumni magazine identifies people by year and college rather than year and major/degree/department.

Catherine Johnson said...


Yale uses that system, right?