At Higher Ground, we advocate for and practice Maria Montessori’s “whole child” approach to education—not in the sense of a special focus on social/emotional skills, but in the sense of holistically looking at a human life as a unified arc of development. Knowledge, character, motivation, and a whole range of skills are all ingredients in an individual life. If some of these ingredients are missing, a human life will tend to be less fully realized—have less success and purpose and meaning and growth, be less connected, have more compartmentalization, require more remediation.
To focus on any particular subset of developmental desiderata in isolation is to lose sight of the whole. The whole is the individual life, fully lived. It’s to grow into understanding, into the exchange of deep values with others, into the work of choosing and building a life for oneself.
Montessori held that, fundamentally, education is “an aid to life”. “Education”, she wrote, “is the help we must give to life so that it may develop in the greatness of its powers” (1946 London Lectures, Lecture 1, p. 6). We agree. Education is the systematic mechanism of support for developing fully lived human lives. Higher Ground exists to create and provide radical programming, programming that is rethought from first principles of development and learning.
Doing so means transcending false alternatives in education:
- It means seeing the imparting of foundational knowledge and the nurturing of agency and motivation as aspects of one process—not as competing priorities, but as both or neither. A fully lived life is expressed in integrated values, grounded in a deep understanding of the world that guides and motivates meaningful work and deep relationships. Knowledge, skills, agency, and mindset are all tightly coupled. What a growing student needs more than anything is a pedagogy that treats them as such.
- It means systematically and scientifically treating all of the important inputs into a developing human, both those that typically occur during the school years and those that occur extremely early in life. We’ve known for over a century that much of one’s core person is developmentally grounded in the period before kindergarten, and the elementary years and adolescence represent distinct phases in human development with distinct needs. Education in support of a fully lived life sees every phase of development as an opportunity; it starts at birth and follows through all the way to adulthood.
- It means having a philosophical view on the good life, one that is universally inclusive and consonant with human nature. It means taking a stance on what is fundamental and indispensable to a healthy process of development. And it means embracing the perpetual, active thought required about human nature, human development, and the links between.
What does it look like, the life fully lived? From the starting point of the individual life and drawing from Maria Montessori, we aim to understand the central aspects of human life, those that are deeply fundamental and fully general, to consist in several parts:
- Knowledge: a lived awareness of the nature of one’s world. Impactful human action is guided by contact with the world’s causal structures. This sort of knowledge of causes, built from evidence and continuously applied, is a major achievement and important for every life. “To become conscious of the essential help given by it, to feel how indispensable it is to achieve perfection, success, and therefore the joy of the spirit; this is the greatest urge to study.” (FCTA C, p. 87ff)
- Agency: a recognition and embrace of oneself as the author of one’s life. Each individual has the profound capacity to conceive of a life for herself. This capacity is a responsibility that oughtn’t and can’t be delegated. “Life is based on choice, so they learn to make their own decisions” (CSW v. 7). “The constant work which builds up their personality is all set in motion by decisions. … A voluntary life gradually develops with them…” (SAE 7, pp. 184ff)
- Work: the power to effortfully shape and build one’s world. A full life is one of constantly setting purposes, of putting forth the effort to achieve them, and of drawing spiritual satisfaction from doing so. “The little child who persists in his exercises, concentrated and absorbed, is obviously elaborating the constant man, the man of character, the man who will find in himself all human values, crowning that unique fundamental manifestation: persistence in work.” (SAE 7, p. 179ff.)
And finally, the social concept that integrates and connects individuals:
- Trade: the capacity to reciprocally exchange the full range values—both material and profoundly spiritual—with the full diversity of other humans, each of whom represents a precious individual life, of agency, knowledge, and work, unto herself. “Not only are these children free from envy, but anything well done arouses their enthusiastic praise. … There is among the children an evident sense of community. This rests on the noblest feelings and creates unity in the group.” (AM 22, p. 231) “Man has accomplished a great feat in establishing a near-perfect system of exchange, similar to the circulatory system of the human body. … The issue…is to do everything possible to help mankind become conscious of this reality by the revelation that ties of interdependence and social solidarity among the peoples of the earth already exist, real and strong.” (SRL 2, p. 16)
Each of these “lanterns” is a major aspect of the life fully lived, and each relates to the others. One authors one’s life by directing one’s mind and actions towards understanding, towards purposeful work, and towards rewarding relationships. Each individual must choose to work to build her knowledge for herself—including knowledge of herself and others. Work—the effortful pursuit of values—is involved in all aspects of achieving one’s chosen life, including one’s mind and relationships. And the profound value that others represent—and the dignity with which one must treat others in order to access it—flows from each individual’s independent need for self-authorship, for independent knowledge, and for his chosen work.
A commitment to achieving these lanterns at all levels of programming is our core value proposition for developing humans. Each one represents a stand taken on what it means to get education right:
- Knowledge and agency are typically seen in education as trading off with one another. To the extent one focuses on providing students with important knowledge, it is by overriding their agency and holding their hand through a curriculum. Insofar as one focuses on nurturing student agency and ownership over their learning, it is by at least partially relinquishing a curricular structure and allowing students to choose their own way. In reality—in human nature—there is no tradeoff or priority. There is just a pedagogical challenge of supporting both without compromise.
- Work is typically underappreciated in education. The acts of setting and understanding a goal, the pursuit of a goal across time as manifested in stretches of concentrated effort, the interaction with the world and the cognitive integration of the feedback that follows from it, and the serene inner discipline and genuine, earned confidence that comes from being able to shape one’s world—this process is absolutely core to the good life. Learning to do and to love work in a general way is a critical part of development and therefore of education.
- The notion of individual lives interacting with one another by trade, by the asking and offering of profound values, is a framework of social development that both protects individual flourishing and unlocks the value of others, of cooperation, of intricate interdependence. Too often social development is treated moralistically, or even politically, in a way that subtly interweaves guilt into the child’s social experience. The full life is full of mutually beneficial relationships that are grounded in the recognition of the deep, common dignity of each human existence.
These lanterns are guiding lights for supporting developing human lives. They are both constitutive of the life fully lived, and the embedded foundation of all of our educational offerings, at every age level.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.