Creative Schools: Principles for Principals

Creative Schools CoverHaving completed his examination of the learning task (by looking at teaching, curriculum, and assessment), Ken Robinson turns his attention to what is essentially a meta-educational topic: administrators. That designation (mine, not his) is not intended to suggest that administration is not critical to achieving the educational objectives of a school; Robinson argues just the opposite. But administrators have a very different role, one that needs, in Robinson’s opinion, to be disentangled from the managerial norms of the industrial model. For Robinson, a good principal and a good administrator more broadly is one who equips and empowers schools to succeed in all three areas of the learning task. He phrases it like this:

In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents, and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes.

That community building purpose resonates strongly with my experience speaking with both principals and teachers. Principals have expressed frustration to me with how little of their day can be given to tasks that have a clear and meaningful educational purpose. District meetings and the attendant paperwork consume the lion’s share of their time. When they see teachers, it is not to build to communities but to conduct performance reviews (one of the few places where I think Robinson’s industrial metaphor holds up well). When they see parents, it is not to discuss a common set of purposes but to defuse conflicts and enforce discipline. This lack of community–this prioritizing of supervision over guidance–is a common theme for teachers I speak to as well, for whom a good principal is one who sees them people and can compartmentalize administrative and non-administrative personas.

How then does Robinson imagine fixing this problem? He singles out two tasks that principals should focus on. The first is creating room for and then provoking change. With uncharacteristic theoretical soundness, Robinson correctly asserts that “culture is about permission.” It is about what your group says is okay to do and who gets to make that determination. The principal should be the source of this permission, and Robinson argues the convincing position (even if he doesn’t argue it convincingly) that greater permission means greater innovation.

This includes, most importantly, permission to fail. More than anything, this is what is lacking in schools. The stakes are so high and the measure of success so narrowly defined, that the risk of failure outweigh the rewards of success when it comes to educational experimentation. A teacher who tries a new classroom management technique, a new classroom design, a new instructional approach may reap significant rewards in student growth or achievement; more likely, the gains will be small or imperceptible. Meanwhile, that teacher risks position and career in an environment that has no room for error and no forgiveness for non-renewal. Changing the culture of permission is rightly placed at the feet of principals, even if Robinson acknowledges that “challenging those conventions can be sensitive work.”

The second area of activity for principals is “beyond the gates,” as ambassadors tot he community at large. Schools, like other organizations, need a face, a public persona that can interact with the world at large in a coherent, digestible way. The principal takes the vision of the school out into world and sells it to the district, to the parents, and to the community. They then return with the demands, expectations, and shifting conditions in society in order to keep the school an adaptive and responsive institution. Doing this, however, requires principals to know their schools (beyond teacher evaluations) and to know their districts (beyond administrative meetings).

The problem with this, and with Robinson’s rosy vision of principal led change in general, is that principals are not at the top of the food chain. They are answerable to a higher authority–superintendents and school boards typically. While most principals that I know are former educators themselves and still deeply steeped in a worldview not wholly alien to their teachers, most superintendents and school boards are political rather than instructional animals for whom the perspective of a classroom teacher might as well be extraterrestrial. They, not to mention state boards and national cabinet departments, tightly constrain the degree to which principals can shift the lines of permission or spur adaptation to changing conditions on the exterior.

Admittedly, that is part of the problem that Robinson has identified with the standards movement and its top down model of control and reform. Moreover, the limited “do what you can where you can” approach can and should apply to principals as well. But it is precisely this limited call to action that makes the changes in question less than revolutionary. As Robinson admits, “I know many great schools that practice most, if not all, of the principles discussed so far.” So do I, and my experience with teachers and principals is that those that don’t cannot rather than will not change. They agree with the critique; they agree with the solution; they just do not have the space to act on it. In other words, short an actual storm the Bastille style revolution–in which the people divorced from the learning environment but not from seats of power–are brought to heel, Robinson is just preaching to a choir that has already exhausted its hallelujahs.


This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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Creative Schools: Testing, Testing

Creative Schools CoverFollowing a chapter on teaching and a chapter on curriculum, Ken Robinson offers up the final piece of this particular arc: assessment. He admits that more than what is being taught or how it is being taught, testing generates monumental levels of anger, stress, and controversy. Oddly, though, this chapter is probably Robinson’s least controversial. His arguments against the current obsession with standardized tests are familiar and mostly sound. His proposals for alternatives are also generally sound, some of them familiar and others less so (though still reasonable and in some cases battle-tested). It hardly seems worthwhile to dwell on a topic that Robinson covers so well and that has been beaten to death (all but literally, unfortunately) by everyone, everywhere. So let me just quickly recapitulate the good and the bad arguments Robinson makes for rethinking the way we do testing. Let’s start with the good:

  1. Standardized testing, whatever it’s original intent or utility, has become an obsession unto itself. It consumes huge amounts of instructional time and energy, and the results are all that matters. Not what those results are purported to measure; just the number itself.
  2. Standardized testing must be administered on so significant a scale that it leaves no room for assessment diversity. Questions are multiple choice and objective/quantitative. Analysis, nuance, variability, and perspective are all lost. It’s simply a matter of necessity. Having been employed as a grader for IB, AP, and distance dual credit programs (not to mention grading my own student work), I can say with great certainty that it would take an army of grunt labor to grade even short essays from every student in the country every time they test in the current system. There is just no way for the robust and diverse assessments that students need when you test on this scale.
  3. Standardized testing colonizes the curriculum. In the words of one of Robinson’s diverse cast of characters: “How the subject is tested becomes a model for how to teach the subject.” This is the familiar “teaching to the test.” The test determines not only the content (because why teach anything that isn’t going to be on the test); it also determines the method of teaching. Teachers are not interested in any demonstration of mastery other than the ability to pass the aforementioned uni-dimensional assessment. We teach one standardized set of facts and one generally useless means of applying them (on a scantron).
  4. Standardized testing’s link to federal funding promotes corruption. Robinson calls it “massaging the figures,” but let’s be candid. It’s not just the false ADHD diagnoses or targeting of borderline students that Robinson highlights. Teachers cheat on standardized testing because not only do their evaluations depend on it but because the very existence of their schools may depend on it. It financially incentivizes academic dishonesty in a way that all but begs for corruption, except rather than a hooded figure in a back alley offering a teacher money to change a test score it is the federal government in the broad light of day saying, “Want this money? How about you bump up those scores a bit.”
  5. Standardized testing is driven by profit rather than educational motives. This is related deeply to the previous point. Robinson notes that the revenue of the testing and educational support industry in the US in 2013 were higher than the domestic box office gross for the whole film industry and disturbingly close to double the total revenue of the NFL. The persistence of standardized testing has certainly not been because it is beloved or because it works. It’s because it makes money, money that funds its perpetuation (thanks to the free speech that private educational companies enjoy).The folly of this particular point is that in the push to nationalize educational standards the one thing that has remained privatized is assessment. The US has a Department of Education. If it’s going to tether funding to performance, the least it could do is assume responsibility for assessing performance. That would cause ideological outcry from Republicans opposed to nationalization, from Democrats opposed to standardization, and corporations opposed to bankruptcy. (That’s how I know it’s a sensible idea.)

All of that is more than enough to be damning to standardized testing as it is now practiced. But Robinson can’t help but squeeze in a couple of bad arguments as well.

  1. Standardized testing focuses on basic skills that are not economically advantageous for students in developed countries. Because workers in the developed world will do basic tasks for less money, it is nonsensical to pressure students in the developed world to focus on skills better suited to other economic contexts. Our students should be “teaching children how to employ their natural creativity and entrepreneurial talents” to prepare them for future unpredictability and the demands of our markets.The idea that “basic” skills are for “basic” students in “basic” countries is pretty offensive on its face, and I’m sure that Robinson would object to having it framed that way. It is, however, just a rehashing of the same chauvinist myth I highlighted in the first chapter, the idea that our children can’t be held to their standards because our children have special cultural or society (but surely not racial) gifts that those other children don’t have. In the earlier chapter, his case was explicitly Orientalist. Here it is more generic and more classist than anything, but the toxic logic is still the same.
  2. Standardized testing is a poorer predictor of success later in life than high school GPA. Robinson makes the argument specifically about the SAT and college success. The is a curious stance for him to take, given all the good arguments above. If standardized testing is colonizing the curriculum and if it is an instructional obsession, then the test is determining high school GPA as well. Even if your score on the test doesn’t produce your score in a class (and thus your GPA), the gravitational pull of testing is so strong–according to Robinson, rightly I think–that it pulls high school grades inevitably into its orbit. This argument seems self-defeating.

Those bad arguments notwithstanding, what does Robinson propose as a solution or alternative. In case it wasn’t completely predictable by now, the answer is keep doing what you’re doing until things change. Robinson points out that “some teachers have always used a range of assessment methods in class” and encourages others to do what most are already doing. Use a variety of assessments. Use them purposefully to diagnose student aptitude, assess progress, and test mastery (rather than primarily to compare students to each other or to a bell curve standard). Reverse engineer assessments from desired outcomes rather than making success on the assessment the desired outcome. This is all good advice, but just like all the good arguments against testing none of it is particularly revolutionary.


This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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A Very Victorian St. Distaff’s Day

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, hoping to see Victorians in their “strikingly exhibited” and “peculiar character,” what Hervey calls “a people in its undress, acting upon its impulses, and separated from the conventions and formalities of its every-day existence.” That sort of historical voyeurism is the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


Though the twelve days of Christmas end, aptly, on Twelfth Night, Hervey concludes the season with the following day: St. Distaff’s Day. Strictly speaking, the activities of St. Distaff’s Day are not really part of the traditions of Christmas so much as they are the common script Victorians employ for exiting the holiday season and re-entering the world. “It is not, as we have said, to be expected that after the full chorus of increased mirth which hath swelled up anew for the last of these celebrations, the ear should all at once accustom itself to a sudden and utter silence — should endure the abrupt absence of all festival sound.” As such, St. Distaff’s Day forms a bridge out of celebration and into the dreariness of the rest of the year, where “the genius of mirth met the genius of toil on neutral ground for a single day.”

So, after returning to work in the morning, English men and women allowed themselves a break on St. Distaff’s afternoon. The farmer lays aside his plow, his wife her distaff (from which the day gets its name). In times past, the afternoon was a time for the men to build a bonfire out of chaff still left in the fields–a final act of revelry from the season–and for the women to try to extinguish it with pales of water–a final act of mischievous from the season. “It was, in fact, a merry contest between these two elements of water and of fire; and may be looked upon as typical of that more matter-of-fact extinction which was about to be finally given to the lights of the season when the sports of this day should be concluded.”

Book of Christmas - Returning to School.png

With this last bit of merriment, the holidays are extinguished; the next day, adults return to their labors and children to their schooling. (Curiously, the season in Victorian England still basically mirrors the break given to school children today. In fact, our local district is off from precisely St. Thomas’s Day to St. Distaff’s Day.) Thus ends the Christmas season as well as this series exploring it with Hervey. I conclude by echoing Hervey’s final invocation:

 Our Revels now are ended; and our Christmas prince must abdicate…We trust, [this book] may survive to furnish the directions for many a future scheme of Christmas happiness.

Survive it has, and if it has enlivened anyone’s holiday season then Hervey will have achieved his purpose. Who knows; maybe next year I’ll really succumb to the Christmas spirit and try to re-create Hervey’s very Victorian Christmas season.

 

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A Very Victorian Twelfth Night

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, hoping to see Victorians in their “strikingly exhibited” and “peculiar character,” what Hervey calls “a people in its undress, acting upon its impulses, and separated from the conventions and formalities of its every-day existence.” That sort of historical voyeurism is the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


Juxtaposed to the spirit of solemn reflection that haunted New Year’s Eve and New Year’s itself is the general spirit of mischief that pervades Twelfth Night. The twelfth night after Christmas is celebrated in the liturgical calendar as Epiphany, the feast in honor of the wise men’s adoration of the baby Jesus. Yet wisdom is far removed from Twelfth Night festivities. If Time haunts the New Year’s observance, Twelfth Night is presided over by the jovial and irreverent Lord of Misrule. Not, mind you, an actual individual as it was at medieval festivals of fools, but a presiding spirit nevertheless.

Book of Christmas - Twelfth Night KingThis Lord of Misrule had as his minions on earth a full complement of London ruffians and street urchins–“perplexers of Lord Mayors and irritators of police–to actualize his mischief on unsuspecting pedestrians. Hervey provides an example (and an illustration) of a particularly common prank on Twelfth Night. It involved the:

transfixing the coat-skirts of the unconscious stranger to the frame of the door or window, at which he may have paused to stare and wonder. Once fairly caught, lucky is the wight who can disengage himself, without finding that, in the interim, his other skirt has been pinned to the pelisse or gown of some alarmed damsel, whose dress is perhaps dragged, at the same moment, in opposite directions, so that he can neither stand still nor move, without aiding the work of destruction.

Book of Christmas - Twelfth Night in London(Two images today to make up for New Year’s.)

The illustration offered by Hervey shows the unwitting victims distracted by the bright scenes behind a pastry shop window, and this indeed was one of the key features of Twelfth Night. “During the entire twelve months there is no such illumination of pastry-cooks’ shops, as on Twelfth-night. Each sends forth a blaze of light; and is filled with glorious cakes, decorated…with all imaginable images of thing animate and inanimate.” Perhaps even moreso than the Lord of Misrule, it is this “huge cake, the idol of young hearts, is the presiding genius of the evening.” Though Hervey says no instructions are needed to eat it, he does offer a fair measure of practical guidance for securing and serving these cakes.

The cake is the centerpiece of yet another communal meal and festive gathering, this one overseen by an honorary king and queen of Twelfth Night. These roles do not, as you might imagine, default to the host and hostess of the party but are instead distributed (along with various other Twelfth Night identities) to various party goers. The king and queen may be preselected by the hostess, but as often they are chosen by lottery. In some particularly festive cases, a coin or bean is hidden in the cake, and the unplanned recipients are coronated into their new honors upon finding the prize. Laughter, eating, and drinking follow.

And the drinking is important–as it has proven to be on all Victorian winter holidays thus far–as it provides one last opportunity for both silliness and mischief. The wassail bowl, which has been revisited regularly and shared broadly throughout the season, finds an even broader reach in a Twelfth Night tradition known as “wassailing the trees.” Giving fruit bearing trees their share of the wassail was intended to ensure the productivity in the coming year, as explained in the following poem:

“Wassail the trees, that they may beare
You many a plum, and many a peare;
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing”

Hervey puts the practice in its appropriate perspective relative to the general inebriation of the season:

 The merry bowl which, notwithstanding that it had been so often drained, was still kept brimming throughout all the Christmas holidays, was now when they were drawing to a close actually flowing over; and the warm heart and jovial spirit of the season, not content with pledging all those who could drink in return, proceeded to an excess of boon-companionship, and after quaffing a wassail-draft to the health and abundant bearing of some favorite fruit-tree, poured what remained in the cup upon the root, as a libation to its strength and vitality.

Having completed their drunken fertility rites, the farmer and his workmen return home to find a final bit of mischief from their wives and daughters. They reach the house only “to find [the doors] bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it.” This unwelcome guessing game is a necessary part of the ritual, since superstition holds that unless the entire act is performed in full then the trees will bear no fruit the next year.

This offers a nice final counterpoint between New Year’s and Twelfth Night. On New Year’s, the women were eager to welcome a young suitor across the threshold. Now married, Twelfth Night sees the wives locking their husbands out in the cold. As a husband, I’m glad that not all traditions survive the test of time.

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Creative Schools: What’s Worth Knowing?

Creative Schools CoverRobinson spent the last chapter of Creative Schools discussing how in the triumvirate of curriculum, teaching, and assessment, teaching gets the short end of the stick. Having extolled the value of good teaching, he is ready to move on in the next two chapters to talk about curriculum and assessment respectively. His aim in this chapter is limited (from his perspective) to the very simple task of finding out what role curriculum plays in achieving the broad goals of learning he laid out earlier and imagining what sort of curriculum that should be. Specifically, he is interested in the structure, content, mode, and ethos of an ideal curriculum. Not all of those deserve equal consideration, in part because much of it devolves into a rehearsal of points already made previously (or, if not made, then at least colorfully illustrated). Even so, the sixth chapter is one of Robinson’s most thought provoking yet, perhaps in part because he lays out his theoretical priorities more systematically than anywhere before.

Structure: From Subjects to Competencies

Much of Robinson’s beef with the current curriculum revolves around subjects, the classical designation for areas of knowledge within academics. He laments that art, physics, history, and literature are treated as discrete areas of knowledge considered to be “self-evidently important.” I confess he started to lose me here, because I frankly believe that the information and modes of thinking in these discrete (if not isolated) areas of inquiry are self-evidently important. Yet the hard phrasing of Robinson’s argument conceals (familiarly now) a much more limited, much less revolutionary course.

What Robinson wants instead of subjects to structure the curriculum is competencies–subject non-specific mental habits or capacities that students should cultivate during the life of their education. He offers eight, again making torturous use of alliteration:

  • Curiosity – I can ask questions and explore the world
  • Creativity – I can generate new ideas and apply them
  • Criticism – I can analyze information and form judgments
  • Communication – I can clearly express thoughts/feelings
  • Collaboration – I can work effectively with others
  • Compassion – I can empathize with others perspectives/feelings
  • Composure – I can establish a sense of personal harmony/balance
  • Citizenship – I can engage with society and the processes that sustain it

There’s nothing new here, as most of these are already the goals of education. If Robinson is promoting change it is only in encouraging educators to be more deliberate in pursuing these competencies and in subtly recalibrating their importance relative to subject-specific content knowledge. Criticism, communication, and compassion are already an explicit and deliberate part of my history curriculum–though framed to my students normally as critical thinking, communication, and cultural awareness. (Heaven help me; the alliteration was accidental.) I pitch these to students and supervisors as cross-disciplinary skills rather than competencies, and I treat content knowledge as a raw materials with which we practice these more basic and universal skills. Perhaps I’m revolutionary, but I don’t think so.

Certainly teachers do not need Robinson to tell them the importance of “collaboration.” Whether or not you engage in collaborative project-based learning (or some other hyped method), teachers have always stereotypically impressed upon students the need to “play well with others.”

Citizenship too is an old (and deeply nationalist) feature of the humanities, and–while I would have been more comfortable with “community” to label it–it is another area that teachers largely don’t need encouragement. As long as students are still mandated to pledge allegiance to a flag every day, you can assume citizenship will stay front and center.

Only “composure” strikes me as too New Age-y or too mollycoddle-y to already be a priority in the classroom. Complains about the stresses being placed on students (never forget those suicidal students in South Korea) and calls, like Robinson’s, for students to “explore their inner worlds through the daily practice of meditation” seem almost deliberately risible.

In the end though, Robison is right to bring these competencies to the forefront of our attention. Even if teachers are already doing most of these things. Even if they are not fundamentally at odds with the current curricular structure. Even if their relative value and relationship to content knowledge is debatable. These are educational objectives that are (mostly) valuable and therefore deserving of attention.

Content: From Subjects to Disciplines

Robinson continues his critique of subjects with a less insightful assault on their theoretically hard borders. He complains that subjects as they are now approached are “edged by clear, permanent boundaries.” No one who has ever taught genuinely believes this; not at any level. I recently sat in on several high school classes, including an English class that taught the history of the Puritans, a history class that addressed applied sciences in the industrial revolution, and a civics class that taught legal processes through storyboarding. However they may look on paper, “subjects” are never taught like they are nations that might go to war if their borders are crossed illegally. They have distinct content and distinct epistemological modes, but everyone recognizes the fuzzy borderlands between them and pilfers across these borderlands with impunity.

But even if Robinson were right about subjects (and he’s assuredly not), his solution is little more than semantic silliness. He proposes instead of “subjects,” the curriculum should have “disciplines.” This would allow for interdisciplinary activities (like those I’ve already described; the kinds that Robinson seems to be unaware are so common as to be mundane). At the start of the chapter, Robinson describes the structure of the current, subject-based curriculum as a hierarchy of math, language, science, humanities, the arts, and physical education. In his revolutionary twist later on, he proposes the following disciplines: the arts, humanities, language arts, mathematics, physical education, and science. Do you see what he did there? Because from my perspective, it looks like he just slightly rearranged the order and spelled out “mathematics.” Only in this disciplinary system will schools have a “framework for what all students should learn in common.” Something tells me if I proposed this change at the next local school board meeting, I would be met with no resistance but a fair measure of confusion.

The more meaningful feature of Robinson’s proposal lies in his argument that all should be valued equally and treated with due seriousness by the education system. As an educator in a second tier discipline (more now in Common Core than ever), I certainly want to see the humanities elevated to the level of English (not to mention math and science), and I can even get on board with token equality for the arts. But I probably would have balked originally at the idea of making PE an equal discipline to academics. Yet Robinson makes a strong point–strong enough to temper my thinking (mark this down as a significant moment)–that students are not “brains on legs.” Though he does not make the argument explicitly, given the various crises of obesity and sedentary techno-dependency being faced by students, teachers, and parents alike, PE should have more urgency now than ever. Conceived truly as physical education–that is learning about one’s body and how to care for it rather than learning about who is the easiest target in dodge ball–PE really should have “essential and equal roles with other disciplines in a balanced approach” to education.

Mode and Ethos: Shuffle, Repeat

The back half of Robinson’s chapter loses both its systematic structure and its effectiveness as he lapses into a series of anecdotes in support of familiar items from Robinson’s favorite playlist: students are natural born learners (remember that golden oldie), they need freedom to be creative (a more recent refrain), and groups > people/projects > desk work (though he never bothers to integrate those mathematical representations into his writing–a product of his subject-segregated schooling, I guess).

In the end, the familiar conclusion of the chapter reinforces the degree to which Robinson continues to over-promise and under-deliver on his revolutionary rhetoric. Competencies are important. While I leave the chapter unconvinced that they should be elevated above content knowledge, I found his categorization and description of those competencies useful in focusing my own stress on interdisciplinary skills. Subject (discipline?) parity is also important, something I would have nodded at before but which Robinson has increasingly convinced me deserves more vocal support. But most of what he wants is already being done, not because we’re in the midst of a revolution but because teachers are commonsensical creatures who already know what works even if sometimes only intuitively. It may not be as intense as Robinson wants, but turning up the volume is not the same as reinventing music.


This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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A Very Victorian New Year’s Day

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, hoping to see Victorians in their “strikingly exhibited” and “peculiar character,” what Hervey calls “a people in its undress, acting upon its impulses, and separated from the conventions and formalities of its every-day existence.” That sort of historical voyeurism is the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


New Year’s Day is far and away the least significant holiday of the winter season if worth is to be judged by how much attention Hervey lavishes on a day. For Hervey, the first day of the new year merits a meager four pages, most of which are filled with the history of past practices no longer in fashion in the late nineteenth century. Of those that do remain, only three are worth mentioning. The first is the New Year’s greeting, a pleasantry observed even by the least pleasant members of society.

It is a day of universal congratulation; and one on which, so far as we may judge from external signs, a general expansion of the heart takes place. Even they who have no hearts to open, or hearts which are not opened by such ordinary occasions, adopt the phraseology of those whom all genial hints call into sympathy with their fellow-creatures; and the gracious compliments of the season may be heard falling from lips on which they must surely wither in the very act of passing.

In addition to greetings, the day is a day of giving gifts. Unlike the day after Christmas, when gifts are given by the rich to the poor, New Year’s is the day when friends exchange gifts with one another. Even this, though, is a tradition less pronounced for the Victorians than in the past, less popular for Londoners than Parisians. The final custom, like much about New Year’s Day, is actually a product of New Year’s Eve festivities. On New Year’s Day, “the strong excitements of a happy spirit drive the weary head [of the youngsters of society] to an earlier pillow than the young heart of this season at all approves.” (Don’t worry; they’ll recover in time for Twelfth Night.)

There is little here to draw connections to the present, as the Victorians had yet to invent the department store sale. But I guess the absence of traditions is link enough itself.

(Sorry. Hervey didn’t even give me a print to include with this entry.)
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A Very Victorian New Year’s Eve

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, hoping to see Victorians in their “strikingly exhibited” and “peculiar character,” what Hervey calls “a people in its undress, acting upon its impulses, and separated from the conventions and formalities of its every-day existence.” That sort of historical voyeurism is the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


In Victorian England, the final day of the year is marked by “few outward observances” but significant reflection and emotion:

This is the last day of the year, and the feelings which belong to it are of a tangled yarn. Regrets for the past are mingled with hopes of the future; and the heart of man, between the meeting years, stands like the head of Janus looking two ways.

It is mostly upon these solemn reflections that Hervey casts his eye. In fact, though he promises mid-way through his chapter on New Year’s Eve to turn at last to those “customs…which belong to an English Christmas season” (as he promised in his preface), the principal custom seems to be quiet contemplation. About “treasures which may have been lost or gained” in the preceding year. About those who have died this year and been laid “in the narrow house” of the grave. About the irresistible passage of time in general.

In the very midst of the house of mirth, a shadow passes through the heart and summons it to a solemn conference. The skeleton who sits at all feasts, though overlooked at most from long habit, gets power on this day to wave his hand, and points emphatically, with his “slow-moving finger,” to the long record whose burden is “passing away!” The handwriting of Time comes visibly out upon the wall; and the spirit pauses to read its lessons, and take an account of the wrecks which it registers and the changes which it announces.

This melancholy looking back should always be balanced, according to Hervey, with a more sanguine looking forward. At the end of this dark passage, Hervey paradoxically claims of New Year’s Eve that “perhaps no night of this merry season is more universally dedicated to festivity.” Men leave their families to gather together in groups and, as with apparently every Victorian winter holiday, “copious libations are poured to [the New Year’s] honor.” These celebrations are a mask for Hervey. He confesses that he chooses his wassailers carefully on this day, preferring to associate with those who understand that drunken folly might conceal sickness of the heart and wisdom, that they all may comingle “producing a mixed sensation which is full of luxury and tenderness.”

Book of Christmas - Seeing in the New Year

However high-spirited the pre-midnight festivities may be, the English know that the precise moment at which the New Year dawns is never a merry one. As the midnight bells draw near, “a hush falls upon these assemblies” and the men rise to watch the clock intently for the precise moment when the old year passes away and the new year reveals itself. Then the bells ring and the men respond with a cheer, but reflecting his somber stance toward the holiday, Hervey suspects that “the shout which rises from the wassail
table, in answer, has ever seemed to us to want much of the mirth to which it makes such boisterous pretension.”

The Scots, Hervey notes in a lengthy detour, greet the New Year with even greater suspicion. Like the people of the English countryside and Christmas Eve, the Scots believe that New Year’s Eve is a time when spirit roam the earth and must be held in check by the careful protections of pious people. On a slightly less eerie note, they also have a superstition about the moment the year changes over that attaches special significance to the person who first crosses the threshold after midnight. A lucky lass will find that a current or future paramour has made a special point to wait just outside the door until midnight and seize that lucky moment for himself.

There are still many places of the northern kingdom, in which the youth waits impatiently for the striking of the midnight hour, that he may be the earliest to cross the threshold of his mistress, and the lassie listens eagerly, rom the moment when its chiming has ceased, to catch the sound of the first-foot on the floor:

“The first foot’s entering step,
That sudden on the floor is welcome heard,
Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair;
The laugh, the hearty kiss, the good New Year,
Pronounced with honest warmth.”

Considerable importance was formerly, and probably is still, attached to this custom. The welfare of a family, particularly of the fairer portion of its members, was supposed to depend much on the character of the person who might first cross the threshold, after the mid-hour of this night had sounded. Great care was therefore taken to exclude all improper persons; and when the privilege of the season is taken into consideration (viz., of the hearty kiss above mentioned), it is
probable that the maidens themselves might consider it desirable to interfere after their own fashion in the previous arrangements which were to secure the priority of admission to an unobjectionable guest.

So now as then, New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection and anticipation, for drowning regrets in alcohol, for staring at the clock (though not silently anymore), and for stealing a kiss at the stroke of midnight. Unlike with good Victorian Scottish girls, however, it seems now that the fact of the kiss is increasingly more important than the character of its bestower.

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Creative Schools: The Art of Teaching

Creative Schools CoverHere at the halfway point (and climax?) of his book, Robinson considers the other half of the classroom equation: teachers. Lamenting the fact that the standards movement has made faculty curriculum deliverers rather than teachers (he likens them to FedEx employees for state standards), Robinson argues that an overemphasis on curriculum and assessment has left no room for excellent educators to practice their craft–their art, in his estimation. Of all his chapters, I have found the least to object to in his praise of teachers and the art of teaching. This may have something to do with the fact that I’m already familiar with some of the social science research on the relative importance of good teachers in classrooms. (Harry Wong summarizes it nicely: “Research consistently shows that of all the factors schools can control, the effective teacher has the greatest impact on student achievement.”) Perhaps it simply has to do with the fact that Robinson’s praise of teaching is so ideological and so inoffensively universal that I don’t mind that it lacks the rigor of a strong argument.

And it does, to be sure. He is still aggressively anecdotal. He is still inconsistent in his relationship to testing–having decried the suicidal educational culture in South Korea a few chapters earlier he now praises the country for the “very high bar” set for teachers there. (High standards apparently kill students and grow teachers.) But really, who’s going to argue with this: “Good teachers create the conditions for learning, and poor ones don’t.” No one. And teachers themselves are certainly going to find comfort in the addendum: “Good teachers also know that they are not always in control of these conditions.”

So let’s review for a moment what it is that Robinson believes good teachers do to create these conditions–or rather, what they would do if only the standards movement would allow it. With heavy-handed alliteration, he offers four points:

  • Engage: good teachers promote student engagement with the material, focusing on student motivation before content (curriculum). He makes the point with another folksy aphorism: “[The teacher’s] job is not to teach subjects; it is to teach students.”
  • Enable: good teachers enable their students to learn by knowing which tools, which lessons, which approaches will work with which students. Much of this is built on personal knowledge, “understanding where [students] come from and what is going on in their lives during all of the hours when they aren’t in school.”
  • Expect: good teachers have high expectations for students, willing growth and achievement into existence. (My tongue-in-cheek, power-of-positive-thinking phrasing there notwithstanding, the data is with Robinson on this point as well.)
  • Empower: good teachers encourage students to take risks and to think for themselves. Rather than setting boundaries on learning, good teachers see their primary task as knocking down those barriers that might get in the way of students (who as the last chapter taught us are natural born learners).

After an interminable series of stories that is surely meant to be inspiring but was mostly exhausting, Robinson finally gets around to explaining how we get teachers like these. The answer is better training. It needs to happen at the college level, where a more rigorous program needs to strike a better balance between apprenticeship and theory/history. It needs to happen at the district level, since studies show (or at least the one aggregate study he cites) that cost-cutting on recruitment and training yields only poor teachers, prone to burnout. Perhaps most controversially, Robinson argues that it needs to take priority over subject matter expertise, suggesting that expertise is “usually” but not “always” important and that “it’s never enough.” I won’t quibble here, since he suggests that he’ll tackle the subject more later on in the book.

But I’m no good at not quibbling at all, so after affixing a throaty “amen” to the above suggestions about improving training and untying teachers hands, I want to talk for a moment about Robinson’s definition of creativity. It probably wouldn’t be worth addressing–there are a mountain of imprecisely or problematically deployed terms in the book–except that creativity lies at the heart of the book (it’s baked right in to the title) and of Robinson’s career. He’s “written a lot about this theme in other publications” but he wont “test your patience with” all that here. (In other words, he kindly declines to show us his creativity credentials, preferring to brag briefly about their size and leave the rest of your lurid imagination.)

Here’s the definition Robinson offers:

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.

The two critical components here are originality and value. Robinson immediately waffles on the first, noting that the idea doesn’t have to be original in the whole world so much as original in the experience and context of the creative individual. That’s fair; if Amad and I both invent a time machine separately and without knowledge of each other, each is equally original in the sense of not being the product of lateral diffusion. But dependency isn’t just lateral. Originality is a problematic concept to begin with, something highlighted regularly by historians of technology who now generally look askance at the idea of “invention.” Where innovation exists it is usually microscopically incremental and highly contingent–on existing technologies, on the needs and priorities of the society, and on the discourses and paradigms of the time. A big view of history suggests that creativity on any significant scale happens with almost deterministic certainty. If Eli Whitney hadn’t invented the cotton gin, no respectable historians believes it wouldn’t have been invented otherwise at roughly the same moment in roughly the same technological configuration. Or go back further: if Og hadn’t figured out that he could train the pig to live in his hut instead of hunting it in the forest, no pre-historian doubts that Grog would have figured it out anyway. Creativity as originality is probably a self-congratulatory illusion.

Yet I actually think the question of value is more problematic still, since value in this context is a concept so fluid as to be either useless or dangerous. Value is rooted in various loci, including the individual and the society. What happens when an individual (like Pol Pot) or a society (like Mao’s China) values things that are sharply incompatible with our values. There was creativity in the killing fields and in the Cultural Revolution. I’m not sure Robinson would consider the slaughter or reeducation of intellectuals and artists to be an act of creativity, but unless he wants to establish (and systematically argue for) a concrete, culturally- and personally-transcendent value, he has to live with creativity being something we only want from our teachers and students as long as it suits our palettes.

Meanwhile, I don’t have that problem with conceptualizing “value.” But I cheat; I have religion. (Does Robinson want some for the public schools? Because even I don’t think it belongs there.) And truthfully, I don’t have a problem with Robinson’s argument about the power of teaching. We need better teachers being trained better, equipped better, valued by society, and minimally constrained when it comes to their craft. But then, who does have a problem with that?


This post is part of a running review of Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. For an introduction and contents of this series, see Creative Schools: Introductory Remarks.
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A Very Victorian St. Stephen’s Day

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, hoping to see Victorians in their “strikingly exhibited” and “peculiar character,” what Hervey calls “a people in its undress, acting upon its impulses, and separated from the conventions and formalities of its every-day existence.” That sort of historical voyeurism is the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


The day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day, in honor of Christianity’s first martyr. It is more commonly–and, for Hervey, more appropriately–known as Boxing Day. The name derives from the Christmas boxes of years gone by, which may alternatively have been boxed gifts given by the rich to the poor, masters to servants or donation boxes in which the rich patronized the gifts contributed by the poor. In either case, the rise of other, more important Christmas festivities crowded these practices out and pushed them on to St. Stephen’s Day.

Book of Christmas - Boxing Day.png

The boxes that gave the day its name persisted into the Victorian era in the form of “a wooden box, with a slit in it, which still bears the same name, and is carried by servants and children for the purpose of gathering money, at this season.” On the morning after Christmas, in London, “every street resounds with the clang of hall-door knockers. Rap follows rap, in rapid succession,” until all those who “come a-boxing” have been satisfied. In exchange for their Christmas boxes, servants and tradesmen are supposed to offer a verse of poetry, the more rustic the better.

These broadsides are usually termed “Bellman’s verses ;” and we quite agree with Mr. Leigh Hunt in his opinion, that “good bellman’s verses will not do at all. There have been,” he remarks, “some such things of late, ‘most tolerable and not to be endured.’ We have seen them witty, which is a great mistake. Warton and Cowper unthinkingly set the way.”

“The very absurdity of the bellman’s verses is only pleasant, nay, only bearable, when we suppose them written by some actual doggrel-poet, in good faith. Mere mediocrity hardly allows us to give our Christmas-box, or to believe it now-a-days in earnest; and the smartness of your cleverest wordly-wise men is felt to be wholly out of place. No, no! give us the good old decrepit bellman’s verses, hobbling as their bringer, and taking themselves for something respectable, like his cocked-hat, — or give us none at all.”

Willfully crude though the poetry is and as annoying as Hervey finds the whole prospect of Christmas-boxing, the English still observe St. Stephen’s Day with more dignity than is seen elsewhere in Europe where peasants observe the day by bleeding horses. In southern Ireland, the poor go out late at night to hunt wren. Having found success, they string up the bird on some holly branches and go door to door singing funeral dirges for the wren. They continue to sing these verses, increasingly foolish and increasingly insistent, until they are induced to go by a contribution “either in money or drink.”

In short, it seems that St. Stephen’s Day is a time when the high born realize a huge debt from the holiday gift giving and the low born slur their way through the streets after a night of wassail and merriment. The form of the observances may have changed in the century since, but the substance seems eerily similar.

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A Very Victorian Christmas

Book of Christmas - PresentsIn 1888, The Book of Christmas was published, a lesser known work of a lesser known poet and critic, Thomas Kibble Hervey. The book was Hervey’s effort to offer a description “of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas season” in late Victorian England. Though I have generally been loath to give anything but a strictly religious thought for the Advent season, my love of the Victorian era is winning out over my disdain for Christmas this year. For the next couple of weeks, I would like to walk hand-in-hand with Hervey through the Victorian season of winter festivities, offering quotes, facts, and comments along the way. It’s the closest I’m likely to come to holiday mirth and merriment at this time of year; perhaps it can add a little historical color to your festivities as well.


“And now has arrived the great and important day itself which gives its title to the whole of this happy season, and the high and blessed work of man’s redemption is begun.” Though he declines to spend much time discussing it in detail, Christmas is for Hervey still basically a religious holiday, a celebration of the nativity of Jesus. It is also a day of tremendous community, when:

 the streets of the city and the thousand pathways of the country are crowded on this morning by rich and poor, young and old, coming in on all sides, gathering from all quarters, to hear the particulars of the “glad tidings” proclaimed; and each lofty cathedral and lowly village church sends up a voice to join the mighty chorus whose glad burthen is — ” Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

With these religious duties out of the way, however, the rest of the day turns to more “secular observances.” Hervey takes these in the order in which they should occur. The first priority (once Jesus is dealt with) is Christmas dinner, the centerpiece of which is the plum pudding–“a truly national dish [that] refuses to flourish outside of England.” Victorians apparently had one pudding tradition that has flourished beyond their national border and that continues on in almost unchanged form to this very day: freaking out that nothing is going to be done cooking on time.

 “Oh! Molly Dumpling! oh! thou cook!” if that clock of thine be right, thou art far behindhand with thy work! Thou shouldst have risen when thou wast disturbed by the Waits at three o’clock this morning! To have discharged thy duty faithfully, thou shouldst have consigned that huge pudding at least two hours earlier to the reeking caldron! We are informed by those who understand such matters, that a plum pudding of the ordinary size requires from ten to twelve hours boiling: so that a pudding calculated for the appetites of such a party…should have found its way into the boiler certainly before six o’clock.

Poor, Molly. We’ve all been there, but Hervey offers her only a few lines of cook-shaming poem–including this gem: “The pewter still to scow’r and the house to clean, and you abed! good girls what is ‘t you mean?” Then he moves on.

While the “good girls” are cleaning the house and fretting over the pudding, good boys take of the next Christmas tradition, giving back to others. In ancient days, this benevolence consisted of hospitality–inviting others into your home for the feast–and the giving of alms. But Victorian benevolence took on a much grander form, motivated as it was by a Christian doctrines that  “contain the principles of all true civilization.” Christianity had come “in gentleness and lowliness and the spirit of peace” so that now it might wield “the civilized energies of the greatest of all the nations to the beneficent extension of its authority–imperishable in its glory and bloodless in its triumphs!” (Remember to say a word about the British empire when you give thanks for your Christmas dinner this year.)

With good works done, the night sees the culmination of Christmas revelries, “the blazing fire, the song, the dance, the riddle, the jest, and many another merry sport.” Not to mention, at least, the meal. Good wishes will be exchanged around and with the liberal aid of yet another wassail bowl. “Mischief will be committed under the mistletoe-bough.” (Hooray!) All in all, not a bad way to observe the holiday, as long as we don’t count the Boer Wars as a Christmas tradition.

Book of Christmas - Old Christmas.png

 

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