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Q&A with Matt Bateman: VP of Pedagogy at Higher Ground Education

"The Academy of Thought and Industry supports fundamental skills as well as a fundamental approach to knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity."
Q&A with Matt Bateman: VP of Pedagogy at Higher Ground Education

Matt Bateman, the Vice President of Pedagogy at Higher Ground Education, works closely with the leadership team at ATI on program development and teen support. We sat down with him recently for a bit of background on ATI and to get his thoughts on what makes the school — and its students — special.

Could you start by introducing yourself? Who is Matt Bateman?

I am the Vice President of Pedagogy at Higher Ground of Education. I work very closely with the leadership team at the Academy of Thought and Industry team on program development and program support. I'm very interested in high school education. My background is actually in higher-ed, so I was a college professor. I taught in a psychology department at Franklin and Marshall College. My PhD is from U-Penn. I have a philosophy PhD, so I've taught a variety of science and humanities courses at the college level.

What is it about teenagers that interests you?

It's the age at which you're not an adult as a teenager, but where you're first capable of being an adult in all the particular aspects of your life. The difference between a teenager and an adult is essentially one of maturity. And so the cognitive faculties are online, the capacity for relationships is online, and the capacity for work is online. A teenager can be doing anything an adult is doing, they're just not practiced at it in the same way yet.

It's an incredibly exciting age. It's a foundational age intellectually, socially, emotionally, professionally. Everything that we think of as a core part of our life has roots in childhood, and I'm also very interested in early elementary and early childhood, but a teenager is when it's all there. It's all happening.

What is the Academy of Thought and Industry?

The Academy of Thought and Industry is a network of high schools for adolescents, taking a radical approach and asking, what do adolescents need at this age? What kind of education do they need?

I think everybody basically agrees that it's crazy to have teenagers and adolescents sit at a desk for eight hours a day, doing what people tell them and going through the motions. So, what is the right approach? Like, if you want teenagers to go out and work and get real-world experience, what is the high school experience look like? If we think teenagers are actually deeply, intellectually capable and deeply curious, what does a program look like that engages that and fulfills the teenagers' needs for knowledge, the adolescents' need for knowledge and curiosity but in a way that's fulfilling their fundamental activity as a human being in those ways?

How does the Academy of Thought and Industry prepare children for the 21st Century? What are these skills?

Schools in the 21st Century are things like creativity and literacy in a broad sense — not just the ability to read, but the ability to read situations and different kinds of media. There is a certain kind of resilience, a certain kind of adaptiveness and flexibility or thinking communication skills. Every single thing that's a 21st Century skill is actually a 20th Century skill, a 19th Century skill. I think what educators need to do is to widen their context and think about teenagers in a more fundamental sense. These things like creativity and adaptability and critical thinking, it's not like the information economy, and our modern economy now makes it so that we understand why these things are valuable.

Look at Steve Jobs, who is a great model for, "Wow, what are the 21st Century skills that allowed him to integrate art and technology and create all these things?" But, then look at Frederick Douglas. It's the same thing, and, these are two men who were separated by 200 years. Both of them are fundamentally autodidacts. They taught themselves in a context where the traditional education wasn't serving them for very different ways and very different reasons. But, something is common there. They both had a deep knowledge and perspective on the world in a broad sense. They both were humanistic and understood communication — things that people say are 21st Century skills, but put that through a lens where you're understanding that more deeply in terms of human nature, and that is what we want for children.

How does ATI prepare students for college, or what role does college play for ATI?

That's a great question. As I said before, I come from higher ed. I was a college professor. I've seen it from the other side, and I had really good students who were excellent on paper and who were getting into great colleges, Ivy League universities. And these students were brilliant, but in certain ways, also really ill prepared for college and for life.

I can't tell you how many times I would introduce the coolest thing in the world in neuroscience or in philosophy to a student, and the No. 1 question in the class in a group of 18-year-olds was, "Is this going to be on the test? Are you going to be grading this? Are you going to be assessing this?" Something is wrong with that approach, but I don't think it's like an intrinsic property of being an 18-year-old. I think that something is happening in high school and in middle school, earlier in education to make it so that our best and our brightest aren't equipped to ask the questions they actually need to be asking to live a full life.

A lot of college professors feel this way, and a lot of what good college education does is remediate that issue, rekindling curiosity and critical thinking and reorienting college students in a way that's corrective for traditional education.

But, why have that problem? I think solving that is a lot of what the Academy of Thought and Industry is about, is, solving what is actually needed for college readiness. It's not that good college professors want students who are coming in having taken a bunch of AP courses. We do offer AP courses and we do offer a lot of college prep, but what's needed is something much more fundamental, and we do that. At ATI, we support those fundamental skills, that fundamental approach to knowledge, to critical thinking, and creativity. Our students are already doing interesting projects, and ATI gives them the things they need to check the boxes to get into college — test scores, AP scores, things that are actually pretty decent — third party assessments of certain things, even if you don't want to overly rely on them. But, you're not gaming it here. You're actually going into college as an interesting person ready to go.

Can you talk about the Socratic method?

The idea in the Socratic seminar is that the phrase comes from Socrates, so that you're learning to ask these increasingly deeper and meta level questions about what's going on with an idea to get to the bottom of it. And the ideas come from these texts, the classics, the greatest hits in the history of human civilization. Students are learning to ask questions of the text, to ask questions of each other in a way that gets at increasingly deep levels of understanding and engagement. And the guide's role is to kind of facilitate these questions, to kind of step back and to nudge in certain ways.

A big part of Socratic is this critical thinking component — philosophical thinking, intellectualism. How do you develop these skills to generate real understanding? But it's also really important to think about what the students are reading in Socratic. You can do Socratic with anything, and part of what we're doing with Socratic is we take a lot of inspiration from the great books approaches. We have our own kind of take on it, but you are engaging with the greatest hits in the history of human civilization.

There's a knowledge outcome here that you would get when you go to a good liberal arts college or from humanities education at the college level, and it's that you understand intro to philosophy and Kant and modern literary theory. You are prepared to think about trends in the humanities, trends in society, evolutionary psychology, the great debates, classical liberalism versus Marxism versus social versus ... What about disagreements in theories about how we deal with racial injustice? About sexism? There's these trends in the history of thought, and all these things are baked into the Socratic curriculum, so what the students are debating is not just, "Yeah, they're engaging their critical thinking skills in a general way." They're getting this content that's going to let them understand everything in the world through this lens of deep intellectualism, and we're really trying to refine that curriculum and to make it so that everywhere the students look, they see ideas. They see school of thought. They see the debates, and they're in command.

They know how to think about this stuff for themselves, and they're not beholden to getting sucked in to the perspective of some tribe or another or their parents or their teachers. It's like, "Okay. I see the issues here. I see where people are going to disagree, and I know how to think my way through this."

To me, that is what Socratic is about. How do you think your way through these areas of life that everybody else finds confusing or perplexing, because they are complex! It's successful humanities education in this really applicable way that lets you think about yourself and your world.

What are the other programs?

The ATI core courses are Socratic, Math Problem Solving, and Life Design.

Life Design is this course that I think is especially important for teenagers as they start to hit the high school age and get a little bit older. We're really teaching students how to think about their lives in a way that's conceptual and big-picture and exciting, but that's not directive. Each student has to come up with their own life plan. You've got 15 students in the room, which means you're going to have 15 very different conceptions of what the good life is, and so how do you scaffold that process?

There are certain things that are in common to all life plans. You have to start to think longer term. That doesn't mean you know exactly what you want to do in 10 years, but you're setting yourself up so the experiments that you're doing and the path you're exploring are informative for your thinking 10 years from now and kind of help you think.

The name for the course is based on this class that's taught at Stanford called Designing Your Life. The approach is asking questions like, What do I want? How do I get it? What are the experiments that are going to get me more information? How do I iterate on this thing that I want? What does a nonstandard path look like? What does a standard path look like? How am I going to figure out between them?

Life Design is a class where we're really trying to help students think about that. It's got content, but it also has a heavy, heavy coaching component. A lot of the stuff you think about in a very individualized way in relationship to the students' current interests and projects so it's less a class than a supportive coaching structure where we are pushing students to think about themselves in a deep way and think instead about their future in a deep way.

Who are these students, and what is the nature of adolescence?

Our students are high school students. ATI takes students starting at eighth grade and continuing through twelfth grade. They come in to us from many different places, and we meet each student where they're at. The thing in common to students at the Academy of Thought and Industry is that they tend to be a little bit more curious and a little bit more purposeful about where they're at in their lives.

Even if they don't know the answers to what they want, they're reflective about why they are in school and what they want out of the process. That's where we engage. What does the student need academically? What do they need in terms of their personal development, their social development, and how are we going to give it to them?

The structure of ATI is half this core set of classes and then half options, where it's adaptive. You're going up to the world and working. You're taking additional classes. You're preparing for college. That structure is meant to provide both a common basis for all these students while also offering core critical thinking, academic, humanities, and math skills, and that's part of the grounding of the community. That's part of what the community all has in common. While at the same time, we're adapting. What does this particular student need for the path they're on? How are we meeting the student where they are?

What makes ATI special?

ATI is a radical program. The families and the students who come to ATI have to be willing to take a risk. I think you have to be willing to say, "The standard boxes that everybody checks in high school — get on honor roll, get a good score on the SAT, join student government, have some sort of charity project, be in a varsity sport — that is not actually the thing that results in a successful life."

For some people, it does. For some people, it helps, but fundamentally, this is not the solution to the problem in education. What teenagers need is a way to ramp up toward being adults intellectually, socially, and in terms of their work, and that is what ATI provides. It's like direct practices for adulthood, and it's education rethought so that students can be provided with the structure they need to ramp up very quickly to be really successful instead skirting around it and trying to overly operationalize it.

What would you summarize the key differentiators for ATI?

The key differentiators for ATI are in the name: The Academy of Thought and Industry. These two components, thought and industry, and what it takes for both.

Thought is intellectualism. It's being able to see deep ideas and how they shape your world, your life, the life of the others around you, society, and really taking that kind of liberal arts education seriously in its best form. It is being able to engage in both understanding and disagreement with others.

Industry is shaping your world. It is this sense of career but also, What actions are you taking? What things are you doing? You're building a life for yourself. You're shaping the world. What does that look like? Are you getting an internship? Are you doing a film project? And, also, it's not a school project. It's a film project you're doing in school. Are there things you need to learn before you get into that world? What are they, and how can we help you with them?

I think those are the things that teenagers need while also an integration of the two into a life that's meaningful, fulfilling, one that's full of fulfilling work and relationships, and where you're really responding to these things, you're motivated to do these things. It's thought and industry, mind and body, and it all comes together in one person and in one unified, fulfilled life.

What inspires you about the students?

So much. When I was a college professor, I saw that college students aren't really that different from high school students. They're a little bit more mature, but, whatever you love about humanity, it's possible to see in a teenager. You haven't kind of gone down the path of mistakes and screw ups and, you know, wasted potential. But, it's all there, and teenagers know it. They know it's all there. They know that the future is open to them.

It's also terrifying. They're almost insecure about it at some level, but it's in some ways the most exciting time to be alive. When you think of these times in civilization, like in ancient Greece or in the Islamic Golden Age or the Enlightenment period, when everything old was new again, that's what being a teenager is like all the time! (laughs) I try to keep that alive in myself, and it's harder for me now. I like engaging with teenagers for whom it's just the natural state of being.

What are the core values you hope students walk away with?

That's a great question. Part of what we want is not for students to adopt particular values. We don't have a set of values that we want students to adopt, except at a very high meta level. So the values are all almost structural. We want students to care about who they are and to care about the life they are building for themselves and to see that as important.

But you have to choose what that looks like, and every life is different, so we are very non-prescriptive about it. Are you going to be an artist? Are you going to go down a fairly standard path? Are you going to go down a very nonstandard path? We think that what we offer supports students, no matter what they're doing.

Being able to work hard and to love it and to find meaning in the work is a value we want all our students to be able to engage with and have those kind of meta skills. We want students to be able to iterate an experiment and have a baseline knowledge of where it all came from — what is the history of civilization, where do I fit in to that, and how do I ask these questions? There are different narratives out there about where we are in history, so how do I decide between them? And, this is something I think is badly lacking in society today, but can I disagree with others and draw value from that disagreement?

These are all skills in a certain way, but they're also values. It's a commitment to living a life of action that is guided by thought and in a way that's fearless, but what that looks like is up to each student.

Can you talk about the relationship between the teachers and the students? How is it special? How does it build a sense of community unlike another program?

We hold very high standards for our students. We're asking a lot of them. We're asking them to do adult level work. We're asking them to read the great texts of civilization and to debate them. It's a very demanding program, and what enables that is a culture of trust and a culture of benevolence. Students have to feel like they can take risks. They have to feel like they can fail. They are going to fail. They're going to say something in Socratic that they're embarrassed by a week later. Why are they embarrassed? How do you get underneath that? They're going to get an internship or do a startup and then fail or get fired. Great, how do you turn that into a learning experience?

It takes a really special culture to support that, and a lot of what our teachers are doing -- in addition to being content experts and experts in coaching students through the particular things we want them to learn and through these processes that make up our school -- is creating this community, being really warm, being really welcoming, problem-solving social issues and making sure this is a place where students want to come and want to take risks.

Is there any unique advantage that ATI has over other schools as far as their ability to recruit teachers?

I have been astounded by the kinds of people who are applying at ATI to be educators. The number of people who were professionals or were academics and who were thinking, "I've always wanted to get into education, but I've always been afraid of getting into traditional education. This is what I've been looking for, this kind of serious approach to adolescent education, where you really treat the teenagers more seriously and in an elevated way."

We get an incredibly high caliber of applicants to this job, and that makes sense to me. I think what we're offering at ATI is not new in the form we're presenting it, but it's the kind of thing that everybody's talking around. Everyone who's interested in adolescent education thinks adolescents need to be doing real things. Adolescents need to be trusted more. Adolescents can be exposed to these college level ideas earlier. There's a way to approach college application and next steps in life that's healthier.

Everybody knows this, and the question is just, What does it look like? ATI's a stake in the ground that's saying, "This is what it looks like," and that is very exciting to people.

If you could work anywhere, why do you work here?

I'm a philosopher at heart, and there aren't many places and industries and jobs that you can have where the questions are fundamentally philosophical. What is human nature, and where are teenagers at in relationship to it? What is the nature of knowledge and character? How is it that teenagers are building this for themselves in a way that is drawing upon existing knowledge and content? There's this engagement process and this reciprocity between the entire world of civilization and each particular individual and their agency and their authorship over their lives.

Everything about education is incredibly philosophical, and nowhere is that more apparent than with teenagers who are, themselves, philosophical. I can't imagine any other job or any other way I could be impacting people and helping people. This is one of the ways I think intellectuals and philosophers can really help is to think about these issues and to provide structures in which teenagers are free and enabled and empowered to create themselves in a really profound way.

How do you provide a framework by which to have healthy discussions and conversations with disagreements at ATI?

Healthy conversations come through having a shared commitment to the truth, believing that we can get at the truth and believe that every single person in the room has a mind that is powerful, that is capable of being objective and rational, and that it is capable of engaging in arguments that are conducive to the truth.

Once you get all those ingredients together, you get this magic that happens where people really care about the ideas. They aren't worried about disagreeing with one another because, disagreement is one of the ways you get at the truth. Also, it's not about the disagreement, at the end of the day. It's about trying to figure out something together, and even when you disagree, that shared sense of camaraderie is just so powerful.

I think good philosophy classes at the college level have this feature, and good humanities classes have this feature, and this is something we're really trying to systematize and bring to the high school level. And that perspective is different. It's different than the criticism that Socratic seminars and progressive education sometimes get. It's bull sessions. It's students who don't know anything. They're not ready to have an opinion on something, but they all have opinions, and they're all coddled. It's all like, "Wow. That's a really interesting perspective. Thank you for sharing it."

That is not the perspective at ATI. That is not conducive to taking risks. It's not conducive to a warm culture. It's not conducive to trust. It's conducive to trust, it's just like, "Let's get in it and figure it out together, hash it out," and that is the spirit of Socratic seminars.

So, you're a philosopher. Euripides, Spinoza, Kant, and all these people. How do you cultivate that magic of learning for high school students?

The magic of having epiphanies that are at the level of like, "Wow. This is about the meaning of life and society. This is about the relationship of the mind to the world. This is about what ethics is." I think it comes through engaging with great content in a way that's connected to something you care about, and so the structure of our pedagogy is, yeah, you take the classics, but you also take contemporary takes on the classics, and you make sure the way you're teaching it is engaging the students where they are.

There's a way when you're reading the history of ideas, in which you put on your wooden shoes and get into Leibnitz's system. You kind of have to empathize and get into that perspective, but our approach is also that these are living questions. There's intellectual work involved in understanding these ideas, and part of the reason why there's work involved is that they're relevant to your life, and you have to kind of do the thinking of application, the thinking of thinking fresh about the entire history of civilization and what it means to you and how it applies to you.

When you care and you're exposed to people who are really good at thinking about the things you care about, you see that connection. That's what fosters epiphanies.

So, this is your opportunity to denounce Kant for once and for all.

Oh ... Kant?

You do it.

Kant changed philosophy.

It's the starry eyes within us!

The starry skies within us! Kant changed philosophy. There's no intellectual work after Kant that isn't affected by Kant. He saw things in a really deep way. All the great philosophers saw this in some way, but Kant saw it in a way that was particularly applicable in the modern times. He saw the is-ought gap was a big problem, and that the length between experience and conceptual abstract thought was a big problem in a way you have to really grapple with. And he provided a framework for thinking about it.

I agree with a lot of the critics who came right after Kant and his approach. He saw the problems, but his answers to those problems are misguided. They're wrong, and there's a kind of corruption of Kantian thought that still permeates things where all of our ideas theorialate in a way that makes experience really inaccessible, like that's a Kantian idea. He himself was trying to address skeptics, but he made it very difficult to address skeptics.

The same thing is true of ethics. He was reflecting on these ideas and common sense ethics about our sense of duty and obligation, but the way that he did it permanently severed ethics from its consequences, and there's been a lot of people who have written about this. I think the critics of Kant are right, but, that said, I think he was a great thinker, and I think everybody should read him and engage with him.

Terrific. Thank you.