There is no better way to perpetuate and reinforce brutal high school social hierarchy and favoritism than with a house system. That, at least, was my first experience of houses as a high school student. There were four houses which would compete in three projects a year upon which they would be judged and given points. In addition, teachers could give and take away points at will. Favoritism was rife, the ad hoc character of the program was extremely evident even to this fairly dense participant. Seeing people get rewarded for random things and fail to get punished for others served to heighten the sense of cosmic injustice that I felt was becoming a ubiquitous feature of my world. If I had read Harry Potter, I would have known that the Wizarding World suffered from a similarly high level of under-evolved social reward mechanisms.
However, despite the wretchedness of the system I was a part of, I still felt some love and solidarity for my house. It was one of few instances where I was able to hang out with students above my grade level and work alongside them on a project. When the program was disbanded, I felt it was the rightful death of terribly dysfunctional system. Nonetheless, wistful waves of nostalgia stopped me from rejoicing. When I set out to create a House System myself it began with one grade level. A teacher and I decided to split the freshman class into three groups for competitions. Between the two of us we taught this group over half of their courses, so by dividing them up into semi-permanent groups we would have ready-made teams which could compete for points that would accumulate across all four classes. There was no way to lose points, each game had the rules for points laid out beforehand, and the teams were designed by myself and the other teacher.
We created three teams because three divides into more numbers than four and because teams of four would be too small within a grade level. That was the beginning. In those days we had a lot of fun socially engineering the teams in different ways as my fellow teacher and I would switch up student teams each quarter. But the ultimate form of the house system was a random draw of the cards. The key reason for this was that we feared that any system which allowed for partiality would end in partiality. I didn’t want people seeing the house they were selected into as the arbitrary whim of a human, but like the Sorting Hat’s Song and pronouncement, something outside of human hands. Trust to the heart of the cards, to Providence.
Reading A Cooperative Species alerted me to social concepts of fairness and reward in behavioral economics. A key takeaway for me was that in iterated games people would tend towards cooperation and that people are generally altruistic if they are recognized for their altruism and see free riders get punished. It was around these ideas that I tried to fashion the official House System.
The first rule in my mind was that everyone had to have equal opportunity for points. Thus, points could only be acquired through clearly defined rules: like an A on a test or essay, taking the SAT, working on the Virtue of the Month project, winning in a classroom game. There would be no way to lose points. This would be a system for positive reinforcement only.
The second rule was to actually tell students when they received points, either orally or in writing. It is hard to be motivated or feel positive reinforcement from rewards you didn’t know you received. In addition, the house points total had to be public knowledge so that students who, for example, received an A on a test would both see the mark of PLUS ONE POINT on the paper and see the number on the BIG BOARD rise. In this way, individual excellence helps the whole team.
The third rule was being on the lookout for free riders. I have only been able so far to punish one level of free-rider: the egregious foot dragger, i.e. students who don’t show up to house (or are perpetually late). The secretary of each house brings me an attendance sheet afterwards so that I can discipline students who are late (or if you prefer verbosity “use self-reflective behavioral alteration techniques to encourage positive socialization”).
Each of the Three Houses has three months for which they create activities promoting the Virtue of the Month by any means they can. The House as whole receives points for the inventiveness and effectiveness of their virtue program.
In practice, I knew that this would go poorly the first few years as students had to be coached towards making the system work. And indeed, there is still lots of room for improvement (I will discuss the numerous weaknesses in a moment). One key innovation in the past two years having each house elect officers which then make up the Student Council. This created a group of mobilizing agents who have enough clout to encourage their peers to participate and get things done for their house, like homeroom cleanup at the end of the day.
Students (usually elected members) sometimes come to me and say that their house is too chaotic, that “no one cares” about the house, and that they can’t get anything done. The students are basically right about this, except on one point: the exaggerated “No one”. At least, 60% of students want their house to be the best (or at least better), are willing to do extra work to make it so, and feel some self-righteous belonging with their house. In addition, they like that they have the opportunity to mix with students who are not in their classes. So I tell them, “Yeah, the House System doesn’t motivate everyone, and it does need improvement. But it is motivating for a good number of students, and we can bring that number up if we fix the problems.”
Now here are the current problems:
1) Teachers do not give house points to students for doing well on tests and such. If every teacher just wrote to students when they gave them feedback +1 House when they deserved it and let me know, then students would receive a lot more points and the competition would feel more real.
2) The Virtue of the Month activities can get hung up by a lack of organization or ideation on the part of the students.
3) Scores are not updated to the big board quickly. This is exacerbated by the low level of teacher participation, which disincentivizes me from updating the scores.
I think these problems can all be remedied. But it is difficult to make the process streamlined enough to improve upon it. My current view of the house system is very positive. This past year students ran almost the entire thing themselves. There is still an immense amount of room to make the student experience better, but after four years, we are close to making a system which students can be very proud of.