Michael Strong leads students toward independent thinkers and doers
The Academy of Thought and Industry is our network of high schools, with locations in Austin, San Francisco, Manhattan, and St. Louis. Bobby George, Director of Content at Higher Ground Education, sat down recently with the founder of ATI, who serves today as the Director of High School Development and Senior Pedagogical Advisor for Higher Ground Education. Meet Michael Strong.
What do you do at ATI?
I’m the founder of the ATI program. It’s based on a model I created six years before in Austin, Texas. I created it because I love learning and I want students to enjoy the love of learning and to be profoundly connected to the most important ideas in their lives and in the world at large.
Where does the name Academy of Thought and Industry come from?
I’m a great believer that we should be thinkers and we should be doers. I first published a book called “The Habit of Thought,” then my second book was titled “Be the Solution.” I’m a big believer that thinking and doing are complementary activities. We want teens to be great thinkers, and we want teens to be great doers.
How do you apply this philosophy to the program?
So, part of our program is heavily intellectual. I have a classic great books background where we read and discuss the ideas often in classic texts, some contemporary texts, as well as a math program that’s designed to cultivate thinking. We want our students to be thinking of history, economics, biology, chemistry. We want them to be really thinking about ideas: justice, truth, love, betrayal … what is the world about? We want them thinking, and we want them doing. We want them engaging in entrepreneurial projects, creative projects, and research projects.
We had a student this semester who did a research project on why the pumas were gradually going from the western to the eastern part of the United States. He found a 30-year lag between the extinction of eastern pumas and the western pumas basically taking over the eastern habitat. Why a 30-year lag? It was detective work, and we want students to do in whatever they’re going to do — create marketing videos, published articles, companies, websites, software, anything! And we see these as complementary skills. The more you think, the better you do. The more you do, the more you understand how thought interacts with real world.
Can you talk about Socratic?
Absolutely. Socrates was a Greek philosopher who was really just a Greek citizen, who walked around asking, “What is the truth? What is the good? What is the noble?” Now, we ask these questions, too. Our students sit in a circle with a text they’ve read, and we ask questions, like, What is the main point of this? What is the article saying? What is the intention of the author? How does this relate to that which is good? Do you believe that the author is valid? Then different people ask questions to one another, like, Bobby, why do you think that? Jane, why do you think that? Is it based on the text? It’s not? What evidence do you have? We want them constructing meaning from the text and their lives in real time.
Most of the time, students really enjoy it. They enjoy thinking, talking, arguing. And it makes texts meaningful. Most students do not connect themselves with what they’re reading. This is a way to get them really to connect with very sophisticated intellectual material that most students would not imagine reading on their own. But if you know we’re going to talk about it, we’ll read something. In a way, it’s sort of a book club in a formal systematized way that adds intellectual rigor so that they are constantly expanding their horizons.
So often, people think that old texts are not interesting, and they’re simply wrong. There are humanistic fundamentals — love, betrayal, truth — that are there. We read Plato’s Gorgias this year and he talks about whether it is better to suffer injustice or do injustice. I asked our students after discussing that general theme, “Would you be willing to turn your friend in for a hit-and-run, or would you rather be somebody who is hit-and-run and not turn them in?” These sort of justice and injustice conversations sound big and abstract, but there are daily life decisions based on justice and injustice. So we connect the themes in these texts with the living realities of the students in ways that are morally and intellectually powerful. As a consequence, they realize that these ideas are alive today and that they were originally explored very long ago.
How does ATI prepare teenagers for the 21st Century? What are these skills, and are they exclusive?
Really great question. So, in the past, most professional roles, most roles were based on instructions and following an algorithm, if you will. Now the computers and robots are going to completely take over any task that can be done algorithmically. We need people who are creative, who take initiative, who have sophisticated interpersonal skills, who are entrepreneurial. Whether or not they’re an entrepreneur, they need to think of opportunity. So we need young people who have the ability to make meaning to creative new initiatives, to identify missing gaps in whatever structures are out there.
There are things that computers are not good at. So whether it’s design, whether it’s engineering, whether it’s writing, whether it’s law, whether it’s software — whatever it is, we need people who can see fresh visions that were not simply taught in a training program. In some ways, we need to create original thinkers for all roles in society, which sounds extreme, but, again, anything that does not require some degree of either original and/or interpersonal sophistication is going to be taken over by robots and AI.
You inspire so many people in the field of education. Who inspires you?
So I was certainly inspired by Plato, Emerson, William James. There are a number of those thinkers who are very much alive for me. I also love John Taylor Gatto. I love people who see the open-ended possibilities in education. I’m also very fascinated by the whole start-up culture of people who envision a new possibility and work really hard — often failing, but that failure is part of it. I just love the start-up ecosystem.
Me, too. What makes ATI special?
ATI is much more focused on how to develop the student than forcing the student into a particular mold. One of the things I think we do really well is take a very broad range of students and create a program that’s personally meaningful and effective for them. We can do a great job with creatives, entrepreneurial students, intellectual students, students perhaps who have learning differences, or who have had some challenges. If they want — if they’re committed to taking some ownership over their learning — then we can take them very far.
In your mind, what are the key differentiators? When someone comes to you and says, “What makes ATI different?”
In many schools, students try to do as little learning as possible to get the best possible grade. I find that to be a completely unhealthy and fraudulent system. We’re focused on coaching students for external excellence. So we use the college board SAT and the college board Advance Placement Exams as external benchmarks of excellence so we are in a position to coach students toward those tests. There’s no negotiation over grade. It’s in the student’s best interest to work with us so they are well-prepared to do well on those exams.
We also coach students for world-class adult professional performance. We want students to publish real articles, we want them to sell real software, we want them to create things that somebody would want to buy. We want them to have externally valid measures of success, whether it’s SAT/AP academic, or professional sorts of success. That’s very different than, “What’s on the test? What do I need to do to get a passing grade?” or “What do I need to do to get my A?”
What’s your measure for success?
Maria Montessori said her best measure of success is the students’ work as if she were not there. I love that one. So, differently, are the students actively engaged on their own? Have they internalized this? Are they self motivated? Do they have a sense of purpose? Are they going somewhere? Do they see why it’s really useful to crank on the math right now because, this is what the rewards are later? I want them to own their education. I want them to own their learning. I want them to own their life, their habits, their attitudes, their sleep schedule, their nutrition. I want to switch from a culture where teens are mostly passive receivers of whatever is being told to active creators of their own lives for the better.
You could be doing anything you wanted to. Why are you here doing this?
I love working with teens and watching them grow. Now, there are some teens who come with great challenges, and there are teens who are rockstar amazing from the get-go, but when you focus on the teen, on the learning, on the whole human being, you see amazing things happen with them over time, with all of them. And it’s incredibly gratifying. Now, I know a lot of people who are depressed all the time because they watch the news, from whatever perspective. But if you work directly with human beings and change them for the better, it revives one every day.
At ATI, you walk in this door and there’s such a vibrant feel of community and compassion and passion and interest. How do you foster this type of environment?
Great question. So, community is really important to us. I don’t think you can be a healthy capable learner if you’re not feeling safe, trusted, respected. And, it takes a long time to build community. “Lord of the Flies” was written by a middle school teacher. (laughs) Kids can be mean! And also, it’s not the norm in our culture for kids necessarily to be warm and respectful. There are really nasty places on the Internet where people are really nasty to each other. So we talk about everything, and because we’re a close-knit community, conflicts come up, but we deal with the conflicts.
I would say our community is born in part because, yes, we have conflicts and we address those conflicts — often student to student, sometimes as a whole community. But we do whatever it takes to address the conflicts so we can create a healthy community. It’s a long, slow process, but the rewards are immense.
From a 30,000 foot perspective, what is the core problem that ATI solves?
Most teenagers are unhappy and not really learning and, in some ways, wasting their lives away while damaging their emotional health. We create purpose-driven learning in a healthy social emotional environment so they can learn meaningful things that are valuable for their lives.
It strikes me that, in traditional education, you have the teacher at the front of the classroom, directing, but here, at ATI, you have this sense of a relationship that happens. There is no hierarchy between a teacher and student. Can you just talk to that?
One of the things that students have said to us is that they feel more respected in our environment than any other environment. This also includes students who have been in alternative schools. So we very much respect the students. I call them colleagues, you know… “How is work going with you and your colleagues?” We want the sense of a start-up professional environment where we’re all doing this together. That really fundamentally changes the equation.
On a related note, one of the big concerns with teens today is electronic addictions — social media, gaming. The average American teen spends nine hours a day on a screen, which is horrifying. So much of our interaction is in some ways an antidote to the existing addictions, reviving the sense of interpersonal relationship and communication as fundamentally human life.
Yeah. Do you mind if I check my Instagram real fast?
There we go! (chuckles)
What is your hope for the students? When you close your eyes and think about the success that ATI has in 20 years, what is it?
A happy, purpose-driven life. The ultimate success from an education program can’t be known for 10 to 20 years. We want students to go on and not only succeed at what they want to do, but live a rich and meaningful life that gives them great satisfaction.
What are the values you hope to inspire in your students?
The four values of ATI are reason, virtue, industry, and knowledge. It sounds esoteric, but rationality has given us all of the wonderful conveniences that we’ve done. Science is fundamentally, math is fundamentally, and constitutions are based on rationality. We want students to develop a sense of inner-driven excellence, where it’s not externally motivated for reward or punishment, but it’s a sense of, “I’m trying to become a better person for my own sake.”
As for Industry, it’s doing stuff, getting stuff done, making stuff happen, actually creating a product or creating a company or meeting your deadline.
And, lastly, Knowledge. We want students to have a rich knowledge of all the intellectual frameworks that make up the world. We want them to be informed citizens, informed adults who are making decisions based on knowledge, rather than guessing or ignorance.
Who are the students at ATI?
Our students are exceptionally diverse. In some ways, most might be thought of as round-peg-in-square-hole, but we’ve had rockstar intellectuals, we’ve had a 12-year-old who’s taken two AP exams. We have dyslexic students, for whom reading is a challenge, yet still incredibly creative and motivated to do good work. We’ve had world-class athletes who like the flexibility and personalization. We’ve had entrepreneurs who actually are running companies when they join ATI.
We want students who already have some sense of purpose. They don’t need to be all the way. Sometimes, we get creatives who just know they want more freedom to spend time developing their talent. So as long as they want to own their education in some sense and they’re tired of completely being passive recipients, then they’re a great candidate for ATI.
And, who are the parents?
Now, remarkably, many of our families are themselves entrepreneurs or creative professionals. It’s not an accident that Elon Musk started his own school. People who are themselves in a position of having to create value in a marketplace know this sort of ability to solve new problems is critical. For them, a passive form of education is damaging to their children in the 21st century. So the entrepreneurs and creative professionals broadly construed are the kind of people who “get” ATI instantly.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since founding ATI?
There’s a process of change, where sometimes even the students and parents who love the idea of ATI take a while to develop the ability to own their own education. If the agency might be thought of as a habit, we want them to have agency. But if they’re coming from an environment with little agency to one where there’s much more agency, it can take months — maybe a semester or more — before they really start feeling empowered to own their education and take off.
Can you talk about your vision for ATI Online?
We believe there’s a huge demand for intellectually vibrant and socially interactive classes online. The vast majority of online education is, again, passive, following the traditional model — maybe there’s a little Q&A with the teacher, but one of the secret sauces of ATI is the rich, interactive environment. It takes us a lot of time to train students to behave respectfully in such an environment, but we want to see ATI Online with some of our students then have larger populations who learn how to have constructive, intellectual dialogues so they can learn together in an engaging way.
Teenagers love to talk other teenagers. Other teenagers matter more to them than we adults will ever matter to them. And that makes sense. So we want to provide that rich peer-to-peer interactive experience that we provide at our brick and mortar campuses.
Do you think you can replicate online the communal experience you have here?
I’ve led online Socratic discussions. We’ve had online advanced placement courses through ATI. We can replicate it. It does help to train the students in how to interact or to seed the interaction with some students who are experienced with it, but we will cultivate a network of people who are really superb at interacting in a healthy way. I would say one of the things our students really love, after they’ve gotten good at it, is learning how to have healthy respectful conversations.
In Life Design, one of the tasks we wanted to teach students is interpersonal skills. No student is interested in an interpersonal skill. But, are other people annoying? Yes, other people are incredibly annoying! Okay. (chuckles) Now, let’s figure this out. So you can see they often don’t realize that having a really beautiful, constructive, and mutually valuable dialogue requires some practice and skillsets they might not already have on day one.
Why do you enjoy this work?
I love the world of ideas, and connecting teens and ideas is endlessly delightful. People are sometimes alienated from ideas. For me, an idea is, What is the right thing to do? How do we learn to trust each other? How can we decide what is just? It’s a real human conversation. There is a famous saying that some people talk about other people (gossip), other people talk about events (that’s okay), and then other people talk about ideas. How do we figure out what is the truest way to understand a certain situation? What is the most morally positive way to understand a situation? How do we recognize nobility and beauty in ourselves and others in the world?
For me, ideas — the true, the good, and the beautiful — should inspire our life in a daily way, and it should at least be part of our conversation. One of the most gratifying things is when I hear that families are talking about ideas at night, that our students had a conversation about ideas and they’re talking to their parents over the dinner table at night. Most teenagers come home from school and after the parents asks, “What did you do?” the teenager says, “Nothing.” That’s the teenager-parent relationship all too often. So when I hear that we were reading Plato or Confucius or Lao Tse or Gandhi, and they go home and are talking to this with their parents, I’m delighted. And the parents are delighted.
And what inspires you specifically about this age range?
Teenagers are in a period of transformation. I once found a middle school book titled “How to Love Me Most When I’m Most Unlovable.” (chuckles) But, you know, they’re in this part of transformation, like going from the caterpillar to the butterfly. And you’re in the cocoon with them, working some things out, but you get to see the butterfly at the end.
Sometimes, it’s hard. I would not say this is always easy. And, sometimes teens go through really hard times of transition during adolescence. But, when one sees them through that period successfully, and sees them gradually mature and become so much more sensitive and sophisticated, and see them become healthy purpose-driven adults, it is absolutely the best thing on earth.
Can you say a little bit about virtue culture?
I think we have evolved to form a culture in which we’re excellent. In any tribe, there is a sense of heroism and excellence and being part of a moral tradition. I think it’s an important part of a teen’s well-being to have some kind of communal sense of excellence. So if it’s being respectful, there’s an endless refinement of how to be respectful with each other. If it’s understanding a text, there’s endless refinement of how to intellectually grasp a text. If it is taking initiative, there’s an endless refinement of how much to take initiative to get it done?
So often, there is a version of character education that is putting a poster on a wall and imagining it will have an impact on kids. No way. Real virtue culture is to create a culture in which moment by moment, interpersonal relationships are informed by the virtues. If the standard is a respectful interaction, and I said something that hurts your feelings and you call me on it — or somebody else calls me on it — I need to acknowledge and apologize. We actually need people in a gentle, respectful way to call each other on things, because that sort of human interaction — peer-to-peer instruction of healthier norms — is what results in a much more powerful subculture of teens that actually have — I would say — happier, better lives.
What role does creativity play in all of this? There’s a history of philosophy, which is about the history, and then there’s philosophy as the creation of concepts.
I’m delighted you said that. For me, I see the Socratic interaction of how do you know what you know as fundamental to creativity. One way to think about it is if we believe some other person has the authority — if the Pharaoh or the professor or the minister or whomever can tell us exactly what to do — we will never be creative.
I would say creativity starts with realizing that we can think for ourselves. Whether it’s thinking about a new product, a new idea, a new research topic, a new genre of art or a new genre of video, once we realize we are empowered as independent thinkers and creators, that’s the sign of creativity in my perspective.
Sadly, creativity sometimes comes across as child drawings, but it’s not about child scribbling. It’s about us taking ownership of our own personal vision and then executing over time with resilience to make a vision based on something that came from within us into something real in the outside world. Creativity is really hard. I see the film producer saying, “Yep … it is!” (laughs)
What about students getting into college or “real life” or whatever comes next?
Our college admission strategy is based on the integrated components of great SAT scores, great AP scores and great projects. People often think project-based learning is squishy. It turns out that if students really do something substantial in the real world, colleges are very impressed.
Colleges would rather see a very substantial real work accomplishment than a menu of student council, varsity sports, orchestra, volunteer work — it all comes across the same. So we cultivate individuality, we cultivate uniqueness, we cultivate passion and commitment to substantial projects, often creative entrepreneurial or intellectual, and combine the external academic benchmarks of SAT scores and AP scores, which give colleges the knowledge that our students are academically capable. Then they love passion-driven creators who have done something in the real world.
Project-based learning is conceptualized as the teacher gives the students a project, and the students do a project in the classroom. We do some of that certainly in our project courses, such as Entrepreneurship Design, Film, and so forth. Ultimately we want our students to produce professional level projects, or, deliverables, really, for the real world.
We’ve had students create websites for an “American Idol” finalist. We’ve had students publish articles in Atlas Obscura, which gets 1.1 million unique visits monthly. We’ve had students write novels, start software companies — students actually providing value in a world that other adults will pay for. So the project front is not something that happens within the classroom. It’s something that is recognized by other adults as a real value as it were in the marketplace. Sometimes, it’s in the research marketplace. It could be in the product marketplace, but it’s in some adult real respect outside of the school context.
Is ATI for everyone?
ATI is for any student ready to begin the adventure of taking their own work seriously.
We sometimes have students who are uncertain about their direction — they might be struggling academically — but I’m a great believer that young people, when motivated, can do extraordinary work. So a lot of it is connecting them to their sense of purpose and training them on how to get things done, like time management, identifying when they’re in a flow state, or understanding the range of possibility well beyond the transitional academic curriculum. We take students who have some longing for ownership, and then we do extraordinary things with them. The one thing we can’t work with is a student who simply likes the system of being told what to do. That is a non-starter for us.
Read more Q&A’s with the Academy of Thought and Industry here.