Matt Bateman

Conventional or Progressive Education: Why the 20th Century Still Oscillates Between the Two


During his 15-minute talk, you can hear Dr. Bateman discuss and explain:

  • His philosophical take on the science of education, as well as the work Higher Ground Education and their Think Tank (Montessorium) do in education;
  • His philosophical - rather than an educational or historical - take on the thesis of Dr. Maria Montessori;
  • A synthesis of the two schools of thought in education: Conventional and Progressive;
  • Where Montessori fits in. “It’s wrong to think of having to choose” he says, and wonders whether Montessori may be the perfect balance between these two.
  • Matt is enthusiastic about connecting with any “teacher grappling with these precepts and to partner with pretty much everyone I heard speak here today.”

Bateman defines "Prepared Adult" as: Someone who (a) is concerned with achieving real knowledge, including getting at the truth, and (b) has a capacity to find joy and meaning in work. It’s a lot more than that, but those are the two most essential ingredients of living an independent (and interdependent) life. And a truly depressing portion of people are seriously compromised in one or both areas.


While studying for his B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College, Matt worked in the Child Development Center researching the nature of early personality development in children. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied the history of thought in philosophy and psychology, as well as conducting research in cognitive science. 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.

As Vice President of Pedagogy. Dr. Bateman acts as a key representative of Higher Ground’s educational philosophy, writing position papers, engaging with researchers, giving lectures, and engaging with the larger educational community.


Just a little bit about me. For those of you who don't know me already, my background is in higher ed. I have a PhD in philosophy. I managed to talk my way into a cognitive neuroscience lab during that process, and I ended up being a psychology professor for a few years at Franklin Marshall College. And and I mean my philosophy work, I was trained as an intellectual historian. And so as much as I love. Deeply love and respect the scientific work that we've heard about today. Part of what I bring and part of what I brought to Montessori when I found Montessori eight years ago is who is this philosopher like who nobody ever talks about? I mean, I I've done a lot of work in developmental psychology, philosophy, education, and I hadn't I mean, I had heard of her, but didn't really know anything about her until eight years ago. And so I did what I do, which is I read all of her books and her epistolary and. And that's that's the perspective that I bring to to higher ground to this organization that I'm in. So just a little bit about us. We are a five year old organization, an education group. There are no higher ground schools. So we're kind of higher ground is like an umbrella organization and we have Guidepost Montessori schools, which are early childhood infant through elementary programs in the US and in China and elsewhere. We have 80 academy of thought in industry, which is our adolescent programs, our middle schools and our high school.

So we've got eight of those programs now. We have prepared Montessori, which is our Montessori training institute. And then we have something brand new, something that's going to be kind of more publicly released in a month or two, which is Montessori. Um, Montessori which is our think tank. And that's really, really where I live. And we have 80 schools we are opening at this point, about 30 schools a year. I think that that will accelerate pretty naturally to 40 or 50 schools a year. We'll see if we can get it faster than that. We currently have 1500 or so students in partnership as part of what we've done for our for our COVID pivot as we try to partner with public schools like students in the Detroit Public School System, we're training about 1000 teachers a year right now in our credentialed diploma course and other trainings that we have professional developments. We've got 5000 or so a year engaging with us in some other capacity. Our programs are infant through high school, so we do start at somewhere between six weeks old and three months old, depending on the regulatory conditions of the place that we are. And we go up through through 18 years old. Our focus is I mean, this is a moonshot organization. It is big Montessori everywhere, high quality, Montessori everywhere. That is the mission. There's a focus on infrastructure and scale we've heavily, heavily invested in.

We have a warehouse in Texas where we gather we order massive amounts of Montessori materials, package them so that they can be deployed in a school, quickly ship them out. We have kind of school finance and capital financing projects to kind of scale up our sites. We have an amazing programs team that's done really incredible things to to kind of seed program quality at different schools, I think. I mean, we're hyper, hyper focused on program quality right now. That is the challenge to solve is school culture, school, school quality, program quality. I mean, that's part of why we've invested so much in training and we're we're a startup, so we are a for profit venture funded organization that we're we rely on our capacity to make a profit, to draw additional investment, to open additional schools. We're on part of being on this hyper growth model is showing that we can make money and we use that money. I mean, we turn around and use that money to fund our program quality initiatives and our training and all the things that we think it's going to take to bring Montessori to scale. It's different. It's explicitly and openly different. You know, the whole approach is very different than. Or academic or ed school or traditional educational reform models. And we're hoping that that difference adds to adds to the change and accelerates that change. We think of ourselves as disruptors. We want to be people who do with Montessori what Whole Foods did for organic food or kind of come in, come in, in the side kind of in creative ways by kind of working with parents and educators in different ways to kind of disrupt things in the way that Uber disrupted the taxi industry like that is that is our explicit mission.

I mean, I would say that 30 to 50 schools per year is pretty it's like the bare minimum baseline that we need to kind of meet something that would satisfy us. So that's, that's us. And feel free to ask me about us or get in touch. I would love to partner with pretty much everybody that I've heard speak. So we're doing lots of things and we're not. We're a company that says yes to a lot more than we should, and that's on purpose so that we can we don't know what's going to kind of spark the big changes that Montessori and we're trying to kind of explore and figure it out. The thing that I really wanted to focus on today is our education or our educational thesis. Or kind of philosophical historical thesis about Montessori. And it's a little bit different than. I'm going to go over it pretty quickly. It's a little bit different than I think the narratives. I think I don't know if it's different than the narratives that we've heard today or if it's a complementary narrative. But I just wanted to get it out there, connect with you guys over and get your thoughts if you have any.

So the thesis is something like this. So if you look at the big history of education for the last 2000, 3000 years, really the last 2000 years since Rome, there's two schools of thought in education. There's what we would now call conventional education, but what for a long time was just education, which is I mean, the core ideas in conventional education are there's stuff that is an important to know. And what that stuff is changes with the time. But the idea of the kind of abstract pedagogy that there's stuff that you need to know whether it's Latin because you've just been acquired by the Roman Empire and you need to be able to understand the laws and engage with the people and the economy, whether it's the medieval quatrieme, the original liberal arts curriculum, whether it's whatever they're teaching you and the Prussian model or the early American traditional model, great books, STEM education. Various advocates now have direct instruction, might argue for something well around it, but but the idea is there is a there's a trunk of the tree. It's important to learn the stuff that's going to help you in life. We're going to teach it to you. It's very knowledge focused, skills focused. In the 19th, early 20th century, you start to see in a big way in school, in the education space, not just philosophers talking about it like Locke and Rousseau, but in the education space you start to see a pushback against this model, which we can call progressive education.

Do we? The Open Classroom, the Dalton Plan today, unschooling Reggio and Steiner. I would put all of these in that bucket. There's others to Rousseau, Locke, some of the early American skepticism about institutional schooling. You can you can find this on Ben Franklin's autobiography. This is another thread. And it's much more it's much less focused this thread on like, what is the stuff that you need to know and much more focus on process, motivation, agency, the kind of curiosity of the learner figuring out what the student is and what they need to learn in the future and what's going to motivate them and make it interesting. And as a result, there's a de-emphasis on knowledge. And what you see, what you see is a kind of, we think, a kind of swing between these two poles. So in the 20th century, there's been like a conventional rebellion against progressive education where it's like, no, there's something really wrong with the progressive thesis. Like, it's crazy that children can just learn naturally. That's like a romantic view of children. You need to have something more centralized and more teacher, more teacher directed. Reading the classics is important. There is a canon, and then you get progressive pushback against that. And there's this oscillation back and forth and you even see it in particular. I mean, I think you see this in basically every good educator is like we want to do I.B. but we recognize that there should be project based learning and people are trying to integrate these two threads. And historically, part of what's interesting, part of what's very interesting to me when I got into Montessori is that. Montessori does not fit in to this picture that easily. She is obviously a real critic of traditional education. She's one of the original and most compelling critics of conventional education. And conventional educators do not like Montessori. But Montessori did not get along with progressive educators either. I mean, the American progressive establishment. Dewey and his students really in the early 20th century really rejected her very, very strongly. Montessori, when she first came to the US, was a flash in the pan. I mean, it was less than ten years. And Montessori has her own criticisms of progressive education. She's very critical of play based education. She's critical of Dewey and his idea of Democratic schools. She was critical of some of what Parkhurst did in her model. She's critical of people who just think that you can leave the child, be and give the child freedom and that that's enough. She thinks that there's more thought and intentionality needed for that. And I don't think this is just a social issue. This is this is an ideological issue. I think that there's real disagreements here. Different people have interpreted this in different ways. But there's a real tension. And I'm just going to skip the slide. This is some.

Old newspaper articles criticizing Montessori were my favorite objections to Montessori. We will produce a generation of tea tasters, piano tuners, perfumers and dry good experts. Objection to Montessori, which is amazing. I don't think that anybody foresaw that in a hundred years after this objection was given that there would be a significant minority of parents that would be delighted for their children to have these professions. But where does Montessori fit into this picture? Is it like a balance between molecules and structure? On the one hand, agents and motivation on the other hand. And our basic thesis is something is wrong with thinking with the whole framework that thinks about this as a tradeoff. This is not one dimension of top. What you need to do is you need to break it into two dimensions knowledge, skills and structure, agency and motivation. And then when you do this, you can see that what conventional education is is low motivation, low agency, high knowledge, high structure education. That's the traditional model. And what progressive education is, is a rebellion against this. It's low on knowledge, skills and structure and high on agency and motivation. Unschooling is probably the purest example of this. It just says educate. There is no difference between life and education to start that young. And what Montessori is, is it's high on both. It is you could not have a more child centered approach than Montessori. It's uncompromising, like everything happens with the voluntary acceptance of the child. You're inspiring the child.

You're not mandating things with the child. You're respecting the child. The child is creating herself. The child is the driver for an education and it's incredibly structured and people object to it on that grounds. If there's this very precise scope and sequence, it's very academic, it's very culturally focused on Montessori does think that there's a trunk of the tree, that there's a certain way. You need to learn math and there's a certain way to do it. You are not by honoring the decimal system in this concretized way, it is very knowledge oriented and you see the same kind of dialectic in the parenting space where it's like, do you want authoritarian parenting where you have high expectations and structure, or do you want permissive parenting where you never say no? Or Do you want a balance? And in this space, like people, a lot of people have done a lot of really good work to say, no, that's not the right way of thinking about it. You need at least two dimensions. Good parenting is both kind and firm. There's this rejection of a false alternative. It's really worked out. And that is I think that's what Montessori does at the deepest level, at the level of pedagogical principle, she solves this problem. But isn't there is no trade off between knowledge and agency. You can have 100% of both. You can have your cake and eat it too. An early childhood. She works this out. It's a full stack model that others have talked about.

Term them angel they join. Others have said that it's like the practice is so deep. As you get older, the practice gets a lot steeper. The pedagogy. I think that there's something really innovative about about the pedagogy just just on its own philosophically that that you can get a lot of traction from. This is I already said some of this earlier in the conversation. But I mean, I think what what emerges as integrative pedagogical emphases for Montessori. What does it mean to have an agency in education for independence for Montessori that's distinct. And what do I look for in other schools of thought and other educators? When I'm when I'm looking for synergies? It's really three things. One is a love of work, of effort, of production as a foundation, starting very young. But it's a through line to adult life as a source of self esteem and meaning and competence. This is really central to Montessori. Work is a primary. It is not a side point. It is really central to life. The second is actually a love of knowledge. So Montessori as a scientist did. Not only she, she extolled the value of science, not just as a way to get education right, but as something that everybody should be raised on. We need to make children who are truth seekers, who are reality oriented, who have the scientific mindset, who want to get it right, and who can do that and who want to understand.

So what does an educational look like that creates that? And the third is a love of humanity. She was very worried about people becoming cynical about humanity and all sorts of ways, whether that was through their own insecurity or through through just a view that human life is corrupt and unjust and it's not worth it. I mean, this is a this is a problem that I've been thinking about a lot, especially over the last year. And Montessori has incredible things to say about how to inspire, inspire a love of humanity in children without papering over injustices. I have this quote I pasted into the chat earlier. I'm already at times I won't read it, but it's from the appendix, from childhood adolescence, where she's talking about what it takes for a young child to be ready for university and as opposed to what happens when you don't have it. And I just think from the theme of the prepared adult, these are the things you need. You need a love of work, a love of knowledge and a love of humanity. And that that is like figuring out how to do that in a systematic way that respects the child's agency and achieves those things. That's what Montessori did. That's a life's work. That's what I take for Montessori, and that's what I look for in other educators, other non-monetary educators. I'm very, very interested in talking to other educators that are grappling with this kind of framework. So that's all I'll say. I'll stop there.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.