Higher Ground's Lanterns
Our deepest values at Higher Ground are expressed by our pedagogical “lanterns”: our codification of the Montessori principles that guide all our educational offerings.
VP of Pedagogy
Higher Ground’s mission is to help children to live full lives, empowering them through a suite of educational offerings and resources grounded in Montessori principles: life, knowledge, agency, work, and trade:
- The particular, irreplaceable life that each individual child creates and into which she grows
- The child’s growing knowledge, her lived awareness, of the nature of and causes within her world
- The child’s agency, her recognition and embrace over her authorship over her life
- The child’s work, her capacity to purposefully reshape her world
- And finally, trade, the child’s capacity to reciprocally exchange the full range values—both material and profoundly spiritual—with other humans, each of whom represents a precious individual life, of agency, knowledge, and work, unto himself
Each of these principles is a lantern, both in the sense that it is a value that we want to bring to the world, and in the sense that it is a value which serves as light, guiding our own way as educators. Insofar as the lanterns represent a vision of the good life—the human life fully lived—they are also principles that we aspire to apply to ourselves as adults.
However, Higher Ground as an organization has a need for guiding principles that are specific to its own operation and functioning. The mission of Higher Ground, its primary goal and primary value, consists of creating educational offerings powered by the above lanterns. But the process of achieving that mission, the basic approach of the organization, is itself in need of our understanding and codification.
It is for this purpose that most organizations systematize and sloganize their culture, their fundamental approach, into a set of core values. This essay presents below Higher Ground’s core values in this sense—not the values guiding our educational product development (though they do generalize and are related)—but rather the ideas we explicitly affirm as definitional of our culture.
Though we follow the standard practice in referring to them as core values, such values are really better thought of on analogy with virtues. Virtues are principles of action—such as courage, honesty, or thoughtfulness—that one strives to build deep into one’s character. They become the basic dispositions that one refers to and relies upon in every situation. They are a means of taking conscious control of one’s whole approach to life, keeping it consistent and efficacious, reinforcing and expanding the best elements of oneself.
The achievement of Higher Ground’s mission—the realization of our lanterns in the forces shaping the development of millions of children—is immensely difficult. It requires that we be a specific sort of company. We need to be unbending idealists—who don’t live in the clouds. We need to hold ourselves to exacting standards of creativity, depth, and precision of thought. And we need to embrace with clear eyes, to a person, the demands of the mission and the complexity of the collaboration.
Our mission, in short, requires us to be concerned with the character of our organization—with our culture—with the sum total of our habits and dispositions, with our basic shared approach that we refer to and rely upon as we work to change education. We do not have the sort of mission that can be accomplished by a typical organization, or even an atypical one. It is the sort of mission that requires a group who create a culture by thinking radically, in first principles, about the way that they work together.
1. Practical Idealism
Make the ideal real
The curse of the idealist is to be frustrated by reality, to see so clearly what could be but to be stymied in making it real. The word “idealist” has come to connote someone who is disconnected, unrealistic, quixotic.
The curse of the realist is to lose the spark of the grand cause, to work to effect change that doesn’t add up or mean what it could. The connotation of “realist” is opposed to someone motivated by ideals or principles, gesturing at the inescapable, uninspiring practicality of compromise.
When one’s very language foists a false alternative between dreams and reality, be an iconoclast. Don’t get frustrated and don’t give up on the spark.
Practical idealism is the fusion of a mission-orientation with a focus on outcomes. It’s having a bias to action while never losing sight of the yet-unrealized world. It’s idealism outside the ivory tower. It’s realism without cynicism.
The practicality of the realist is all the more powerful when driven by the fire of the ideal. And ideals exist solely to be realized.
How can one reject the apparent tradeoff between idealism and achievement? The primary means of being a practical idealist is breadth of understanding. It’s knowledge of the means to the ideal. It’s acknowledging the full scope of work that it takes to achieve one’s ideal: the time horizon, the challenges, the stages of partial achievement.
It means, for us, tackling challenges in understanding the intricacies of human development, challenges in building and implementing systems that will help humans grow, and challenges in advocating for our approach in the face of resistance, ignorance, and inertia.
Being a practical idealist is being relentlessly clear-eyed about everything about one’s goal— including the path to get there.
“What you think is going to happen?”
“What we make happen,” says Joseph...
“That’s easy to say,” says Frank.
“Not if you mean it,” says Joseph.
–James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
2. Mission without Martyrdom
Make it your mission
Mission-driven work is expansively difficult. In caring deeply about and working towards a mission, one can lose oneself, and even work against oneself, creating dissonance between oneself and the mission.
The work at Higher Ground is demanding. Whether it’s the demands on a leader who feels the burden of an entire school, the demands on a teacher who must bring energy, attention, and exactness to both her students and parents day in and day out, or the demands on a professional who must maintain mastery over a domain even as it expands and changes in a rapidly growing organization—each and every employee must do not only the direct work, but the work of the work: of reflecting on, romanticizing, and continuously, consciously choosing their work.
Never forget yourself. Guilt, externalization, and wishful thinking makes one a martyr. At the end of the day, your work is about you. It’s your convictions, your values, your choices, and your life— and the fulfilment and joy should be more than proportionate to the effort.
If it ever isn’t—if your work isn’t worth it to you—then change it or stop it. There’s no cosmic reward for continuing down an unfulfilling path—and there’s certainly no cosmic duty to do so.
We want for the children and students in our care that they learn to find and engage in work about which they are passionate, and which is meaningful primarily to them—not work about which they feel anxiety and frustration, and which is meaningful primarily to others.
Higher Ground, both in its organizational character and in its pedagogy, is founded on respect for individual agency. That means a respect of your work and your continuous responsibility for your choice of work. Don’t be a martyr. Reflect on your choice of mission and work—and if there is consonance, embrace the positive vision of the mission, and fully choose and integrate that mission into your personal motivations.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
–Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"
3. The Child in Children
Think in principles by conceptualizing concrete
Montessori spoke of “the child”—the characteristics of childhood shared by all children, about which one could learn, and of which one could generalize universally. In lovingly observing particular little humans, she found their common humanity.
By putting things in terms of “the child”, rather than either any particular child or children collectively, Montessori expresses that distinctly Enlightenment act of seeing the universal in the concretes. It is a view that takes seriously the need to discover and command powerful explanatory principles, as against either redeploying stale, off-center ideas, or treating each case on its own.
Our mission is to impact many, many particular children. Our means of doing it is abstraction: identifying universal causes and methods and codifying them into principles. We reach each particular child by conceptualizing what children generally need. Likewise, we address any particular challenge by conceptualizing it as a type of challenge, one which comes up repeatedly and can be addressed generally. Freshly drawing principles from and applying principles to particulars, repeatedly and over time, is the process that leads to novel and systematic solutions— that creates and enacts the system that is Higher Ground.
It is no small feat to be constantly going back to the beginning, constantly seeking ever-more articulated truths, constantly interrelating subtly different particulars, constantly wordsmithing formulations, designing brands, and architecting systems and processes that crystallize our deepest understandings into impactful tools. But these are the feats demanded of us, in perpetuity.
Theories, scale, systems of thought and industry exist as powerful means to understand and affect particulars. Conversely, our best means for understanding and affecting particulars are these systems of thought and industry. Abstract, conceptualize, and identify truths at the level of principles. Reach children through the universal child.
Seeing things from the higher level isn’t just seeing other people’s point of view; it’s being able to see every situation, yourself, and others in the situation as though you were looking down on them as an objective observer. If you can do this well, you will see the situation as ‘another one of those’, see it through everyone’s eyes, and have good mental maps or principals for deciding how to handle it.
–Ray Dalio, Principles
…No ideas but in things…
–William Carlos Williams, “Paterson”
4. To Care is to Measure
Measure, and push forwards to quantification
We work in an industry where many aspects of measurement are difficult. Educational assessment is not a fully solved problem, and much of what we do to support children—hiring and training educators, creating beautiful environments, designing and updating programs, reaching and convincing people of our message and approach—is not easily quantified.
But “not easily quantified” doesn’t mean unmeasurable. We all regularly rank and prioritize along common dimensions of comparison, sorting things (including children!) ordinally and by approximation. It’s an essential aspect of judgment, an expression of the algebraic connection between abstract thought and what Maria Montessori called the mathematical mind. To understand it to sort, rank, measure, and precisify.
That process of increasing exactitude—the steady push towards formalized measurement, data collection, and quantification—is vital. We work in a complex organization to further a complex mission. In this context, the only way to keep it all integrated, the only way to actually know we are having an impact, the only way to diagnose problems and to create new solutions, is to be quantifying the different dimensions of our work. The alternative is vagueness, unreliable intuition, problematic diagnoses, and disconnected solutions.
Measurement is key evidence of our own performance, evidence we badly need for our own self-guidance. And measurement is a capacity, a skill set, a body of knowledge. This value is an exhortation towards valuing that capacity itself.
One should know where one is falling short and where one is excelling. One should know that one is getting out more one is putting in. One knows by quantification the shape of one’s work and one’s returns on investments. And so one must work on measurement, on quantification, on gathering and systematizing quality data.
“I take the term [the ‘mathematical mind’] from Pascal...who said that man’s mind was mathematical by nature, and that knowledge and progress came from accurate observation... [I]f we study the works of all who have left their marks on the world in the form of inventions useful to mankind, we see that the starting point was always something orderly and exact in their minds, and that this was what enabled them to create something new.”
–Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
5. Unbreached Trust
Build the foundation for teamwork
Collaboration with great minds is the ultimate amplifier of work. But it brings with it its own challenges. Do your part to ensure that it is an amplifier and not a drag. Be vulnerable, give feedback, and offer and expect greatness.
Above all, countenance no breach of trust.
Trust is widely recognized as the necessary condition for successful relationships, and with good reason. Collaboration takes place atop the bedrock of confidence shared by each collaborator with all others.
What is less widely recognized, and what must be actively taken up as a guiding principle, is that maintaining and building trust is a certain kind of work, one for which each person has responsibility.
First, strive to make yourself trustworthy: be vulnerable and visible in your work, roll out the red carpet for feedback, offer your consistent best, and communicate clearly and reliably. Making oneself into someone who can be dependably depended on is an enormous value in collaboration, creating positivity and efficiency across shared complex tasks.
Second, actively ensure that you trust others: when you find yourself wondering whether trust has been damaged between yourself and a colleague, own it. Don’t let it slip by unspoken and become a new normal. Raise it in conversation, diagnose it to its root, and restore the trust to totality. In certain relationships—like with a parent at our schools—it is easy to see the what and the why of taking responsibility for breaches of trust. With one’s colleagues, it is easier to miss the point, to let bygones be bygones, to convince oneself that one is being professional in letting certain things slide. Let this value be a reminder that a small breach of trust will grow, that tough conversations enormous dividends, and that overcommunication is rarely a mistake.
Trust is built slowly. Trust is destroyed quickly. Trust can make complex things possible. The absence of trust can make simple things impossible. Trust powers relationships, businesses, nations. Trust is as precious as it is fragile.
6. Open Kitchen Autonomy
Identify ownership and create transparency
A productive division of labor in a complex, integrated, fast-moving organization requires both a high degree of autonomy and a high degree of transparency.
Autonomy enables one to take ownership over projects and domains, to judge and act quickly, and to independently drive key outcomes. A culture of autonomy demands that one continuously clarify issues of ownership—not that one necessarily takes more ownership oneself, but that one is inquiring into who owns what, especially when it isn’t clear.
Transparency allows for integration: giving insight into your workflow, your priorities, and your methods enables feedback, broader institutional self-awareness, and additional opportunities for collaboration. It demands that one ensure that key aspects of one’s work are accessible to and are seen by one’s colleagues.
Autonomy without transparency creates silos, unhealthy compartmentalization that is inoculated from proper feedback and prioritization. Transparency without autonomy creates a diffusion of responsibility, an unhealthy reticence towards action and a failure to efficiently achieve outcomes.
Conversely, magic comes from coupling the two. What does this look like in practice? First, proactively identifying ownership: knowing who is the owner of a meeting, a decision, a project or a domain as a prerequisite for proceeding. Second, proactively conveying one’s work through both summaries and keeping relevant teams constantly looped in. If there’s something that your doing that does not quickly appear on our collaboration tools (email, Teams, and so on), then transparency is there fading into opacity.
Open kitchen autonomy combines a drive towards ownership with a drive towards transparency. By combining an ownership mentality with a continuous broadcasting of one’s scope of work and work itself, one helps to create a culture of mutual awareness across the organization. This is no small feat, interlocking a growing number of exceptionally talented employees in a way that allows for the organization as a whole to become more nimble, not less, even as our overall scope and scale expand.
Meet the Author
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.