PAT WERNER, Head of School Emeritus
JILL SKILTON, Director of Communications
An obvious goal for an elementary school is to prepare its students for the next steps of their educational careers—in our case, high school. That’s easily quantifiable—our students have gone on to graduate from a variety of high schools, from area public schools to some of the country’s most selective private schools. We’re accustomed to hearing familiar adjectives when high school teachers and admissions directors describe our students. They tend to use words like “independent-thinkers,” “confident,” “respectful” and “open-minded.” We often hear that our students are comfortable seeking help from teachers and are eager participants in classroom discussions. Our graduates are able to craft an argumentative thesis statement, to simplify an algebraic expression and to conjugate an irregular Latin verb in three indicative tenses. As far as high school is concerned, our graduates are in omnia paratus—ready for anything!
Yet we have far more important goals for our students—goals that extend beyond high school—and our Mission Statement defines them.
Our students learn to recognize their individual and collective potential, develop thoughtful approaches to learning and choose paths to responsible and fulfilling lives. Students at WMS have a strong understanding of who they are and believe in their ability to contribute to the world in positive ways. Our graduates see life as filled with possibility and have a grounded perspective to find meaningful ways to grow and learn throughout their lifetimes.
We know our students will become adults in a world radically different from the one in which many of us grew up. Their lives will be full of surprises, demanding dexterity and perseverance. In our minds, there is no greater responsibility to our children than to prepare them for this unpredictable future. That is exactly what Washington Montessori School has been doing for more than a half a century.
We begin developing these skills from the very beginning with our youngest students in the Young Children’s Community. Dr. Maria Montessori declared that education from birth to 6 was the most important in a child’s life. “Children taking in knowledge now retain it for the rest of their life,” she asserted in her book “Absorbent Mind.” Recent neurological research confirms what she claimed a hundred years ago—children’s brains are most dense in their first few years of life. Beginning at age 11, brains undergo a process neuroscientists call “synaptic pruning.” Connections that have been used regularly become stronger; connections that haven’t are eliminated based on our brain’s “use it or lose it” principle. The science proves quality early education is of utmost importance—more important even than high school or college.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who both hold post-graduate degrees from Stanford University, repeatedly attribute their entrepreneurial success to their early Montessori education. Another Montessori alumnus, Jeff Bezos, developed the business plan for amazon.com after graduating from Princeton University. He, too, credits his success to his early Montessori education. Video game pioneer Will Wright attended Montessori school and is an advocate of the philosophy. “I went to Montessori up to 6th grade and at the time I didn’t really think much about it,” he said. “But then later I realized that was the high point of my education. From that point on everything was pretty much downhill.”
Though our alumni might not go as far as to say “everything else was downhill” after their time at WMS, they agree that their early Montessori experiences shape their adult lives. “If I’ve had success, upon reflection, it’s tied to my time at WMS,” said one alumnus who is now a portfolio manager at an international investment bank. “The personalized and independent education fostered the development of my whole brain, not just the areas where I was naturally inclined. It gave me building blocks to be successful at the next levels of education and the confidence to stretch my comfort zones.” An alumna who is a Naturopathic doctor said this of WMS: “The educational methodology of Montessori combined with the supportive faculty and community give a student a lifelong ability to be a risk-taker, in the best sense of the term. Many of us WMS graduates are not fearful of unconventional views or approaches to life and life’s challenges. This attribute has been a driving force in my ability to choose and create a career.” A journalist and author who graduated from WMS relied on his Montessori education when called upon to design the prototype of what is now the Saturday Review section of the Wall Street Journal Weekend. “Knowing how to move forward, when there’s not an off-the-shelf solution, when there’s not a roadmap, is what a school like Montessori teaches kids.”
It’s not lost on us that alumni, especially those who are several years out of school and into careers, remember and remark on the big impressions they took from WMS. That’s exactly what we were working on while they were here. Yes, we made sure they knew the world’s biomes and the governments of ancient Greek city-states, but these lessons were more than learning exercises.
“Because of their visibility, the Montessori materials tend to be overemphasized in relation to the other elements in the Montessori method,” explains Paula Polk Lillard in her book Montessori: A Modern Approach. “They are not learning equipment in the conventional sense, because their aim is not the external one of teaching children skills or importing knowledge through ‘correct usage.’ Rather, the aim is an internal one of assisting the child’s self-construction and psychic development.” (Dr. Montessori used the word “psychic,” in the context of one’s psyche, or one’s mind and soul, and the development of one’s personality.)
While Ms. Lillard is referring specifically to the materials of a Lower School or Lower Elementary classroom, (think pink tower and bead frames) her explanation is accurate for the work our older students in Upper Elementary and Middle School complete as well. The 8th-grade Greek city-state project is a great example—and an assignment alumni fondly recall. After learning about the history and culture of ancient Greece, students are challenged to work in small groups to create their own historically-accurate, but fictional, Greek city-states, complete with all the institutions needed to ensure thriving communities—economic, religious, political and philosophical.
The project ends with a “Summit,” which is called after a “catastrophic event: affects the entire region.” Representing their own city-states, students must negotiate, problem solve and work together to rebuild their communities. Students spend the afternoon negotiating on behalf of their city-states. They, of course, rely on their knowledge of ancient Greece—from its politics to its natural resources—but they are building skills that will undoubtedly prove more important in their adult lives than knowing the natural resources of ancient Greece. Skills like working in groups, assessing complex situations and solving problems across multiple disciplines are just a few skills our students are strengthening when they work on this type of assignment.
Experts in the corporate and scientific sectors agree our world is on the cusp of dramatic change—“The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as the World Economic Forum calls it, “will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” People are living longer in a more globally-connected world with more information at their fingertips than ever before. “When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.” Invariably, the skills identified as required assets in a changing world focus less on mastering specific bodies of knowledge and more on cultivating a breadth of competencies.
So, just what skills will be most valuable to future employers and professions? Research conducted by the Institute for the Future (an independent, nonprofit strategic research group dedicated to identifying emerging trends that will transform global society) identifies 10 skills needed for a changing world. The skills identified as important for future success align with the goals we’ve always had for our students. Their report goes into details about each of these skills; you can read the entire report online.
This report concludes:
To be successful in the next decade, individuals will need to demonstrate foresight in navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of organizational forms and skill requirements. They will increasingly be called upon to continually reassess the skills they need, and quickly put together the right resources to develop and update these. Workers in the future will need to be adaptable lifelong learners.
The report continues with recommendations for educational institutions. They recommend including experiential learning that gives prominence to skills such as the ability to collaborate, work in groups, read social cues, and respond adaptively to challenges.
Though we’ve always believed in our methods, this report lends solid evidence that the WMS approach is best in preparing students for a changing world. Grounded in the Montessori approach and the belief that all children have the innate desire and ability to learn, we foster academic excellence through the development of responsibility, self-esteem and self-reliance. Our students benefit from a personalized program, dedicated teachers and a carefully-considered curriculum that inspires them to become creative and independent thinkers.
We feel that the desire for excellence is enhanced by an atmosphere of care and concern, and that the combination of these two values is the essence of our school. Though there is an informality about our school community, lack of formality should not be confused for lack of authenticity, or for that matter, lack of structure.
Our goal of encouraging children to be lifelong learners stems from viewing individual fulfillment as a source of ongoing vitality, and the achievement of one’s best as deeply satisfying. We provide opportunities for children to experience a sense of accomplishment, and to begin to understand that learning, creating and evolving should always be part of their lives.