Creating Innovators
Gladwyne Montessori uses 100-year-old skills to master 21st century education
by Daniel Sean Kaye

In 1962, a group of mothers seeking a Montessori education for their young children founded The Children’s House, a small preschool housed in a rental space in Rosemont. Five decades later, the school, now called Gladwyne Montessori, educates children from 2 years old to middle school in 13 classrooms at its two-building campus in Gladwyne, including the historic Merion Square School building.

Gladwyne Montessori has always been committed to teaching Main Line children using the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, who focused on self-directed learning, mixed-age classrooms and hands-on school work. Today, these integral tenets of the Montessori method are being identified as critical skills students need to master for college and career success in the 21st century.

Pediatrician Katie McCarthy is the mother of three girls currently attending Gladwyne Montessori (ages 3, 6 and 7). This year marks her family’s sixth at the school. Long familiar with Montessori education, McCarthy was well aware of the critical importance of early-childhood development. “Our girls, at such young ages, have the self awareness, sense of responsibility and leadership skills that many adults do not have,” McCarthy says.

Critical-thinking skills—the ability to collaborate, communicate, think creatively and problem solve—have been part of Montessori education for more than a century.

These same critical skills are highlighted in “Re-Imagining Learning,” a report by the MacArthur Foundation, which cites the need to shift away from teacher-directed classrooms, where the emphasis is on content and teaching to the test, to student-centered classrooms, where participatory learning engages students’ passions and interests, while at the same time developing skills and competencies.

More than the three R’s
“Globalization and technology have created a whole new world,” says Abbie Miller, head of the school. “In this knowledge economy information is free and easily available. As a result, the focus of education, which has always been on teaching content, has to change. We’re seeing a major shift in the conversation from what we’re teaching to how we’re teaching. Students need new skills, in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic. They need to know how to work with people of other cultures, build language abilities and learn how to communicate and cooperate better.”

Children as young as 3 years old learn the continents of the world in Gladwyne Montessori’s Primary program, and the study of other cultures is woven throughout the curriculum using hands-on lessons including flag studies and map puzzles, and Spanish classes beginning in kindergarten. In the Elementary program, fourth grade through middle school students culminate their yearlong cultural studies with a class trip to Williamsburg, Va., where they study colonial times, and to England and Wales where they study the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

“We have the same children for three years, so we have the chance to get to know them as people,” says Gerry Hartnett, who has taught the Elementary program at Gladwyne Montessori for 31 years. “We can use their interests like a springboard, not just for academics but for social and emotional learning, too. We’re here to guide them with things that are new to them, and we work with the families so we’re all part of a working unit.”

“Our experience at Gladwyne Montessori has exceeded all expectations,” McCarthy adds. “I can’t say enough about how thrilled we have been, and each year we continue to be more and more amazed with our children’s growth and learning.”

Hartnett says the fact the Gladwyne Montessori curriculum was designed around child development helps with the strengths and weakness of children at different ages.

“At 6, the student becomes more interested in the larger world,” she explains. “They want to share, learn from others, talk and move around, so we encourage them to work together. We find out what interests they have and build lessons around those interests. Our approach is to teach the body of information to the children through their own interests.”

It’s all about fostering a student’s curiosity, Miller says. “They need to know how to apply today’s information to tomorrow’s problems—to be adaptable, resilient and think critically. And more than anything, they need to be curious. They need to be curious to ask good questions.”

Miller says that focusing on “teaching to the test” and providing specific answers based on memorization does not prepare children for life. “We need to get out of that. We need to encourage them to ask ‘what if’ and to think outside the box. We need to create innovators.”

Gladwyne Montessori teachers are given the freedom to adapt their lessons to the interest and curiosity of their students. A group of 5-year-old students might find an interesting seed pod on a nature walk and spend the afternoon researching where it came from, polling teachers and students about what they think it could be and breaking it open to see what’s inside rolling a reading, math, nature and science lesson into one collaborative activity.

“We need to start rewarding collaboration, bring in more project-based work and inter/multidisciplinary work so children can see how to look at problems from many different standpoints,” says Miller. “We have to show that trial and error is a good thing; that going out on an academic limb is something to be encouraged. They don’t need more sitting at desks doing worksheets. Brain research says that hands-on/contextual learning retains the information better and longer.”

Learning and Community
Gladwyne Montessori encourages learning simply for the joy of learning, not for grades, but for the fascination of the subject, says Miller. “When teachers do this it shows children how to be successful independently. This leads to what might be the most important concept we have here—a deep respect of each individual child. We’ve created a nurturing environment for learning and this is especially important for middle school-age students. This is a difficult age, so we show them they are being listened to and respected. They then feel a freedom to pursue education and learning.”

Gladwyne Montessori middle school students are given ownership for much of their studies. They participate in Socratic seminars discussing readings of articles and original materials and learn about business by running their own micro-economy. This year middle school students are responsible for collecting and managing orders for a weekly pizza lunch that staff members and Primary and Elementary students order for delivery. The students tally all of the orders, collect payment, input information into an invoice application on their iPad, place the order, assemble the meals and deliver them to classrooms.  

“They definitely gain a sense of ownership of their community,” says David Shin, head of the middle school. “It’s also a great math lesson and an opportunity to work on their communication skills talking with teachers and their problem solving skills such as dealing with late deliveries and extra slices of pizza.”

Teaching children about their roles in their community is an important aspect of education at Gladwyne Montessori.

“From the earliest age and continuing throughout school, they are shown how to respect each other, work with one another and to create a balance in their lives between independence and interdependence,” says Miller.

Toddlers in Gladwyne Montessori’s Stepping Stones program receive early lessons in grace and courtesy by learning to cut fruit, place flowers in glass vases and help set the table for snack time. By elementary and middle school, students frequently work in small groups on research projects, participate in formal debates and help establish rules and expectations for the classroom community.

“I often say, academics aside, I would send my girls [to Gladwyne Montessori] for the character development alone,” McCarthy says. “The knowledge of oneself and notion of personal responsibility and accountability, in addition to living with grace and having respect of self, others and the environment that is nurtured and encouraged, is the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life. The long division they were doing in kindergarten is just icing on the cake.”

By embracing the Montessori method and an adaptable manner of teaching, Gladwyne Montessori has created an innovative spirit. And with its new middle school, it allows more of its students to build upon the crucial lessons they have already embraced in the Primary and Elementary programs. There may have never been a better gift for the 21st century than this.

Gladwyne Montessori
920 Youngsford Road
Gladwyne, PA 19035
Phone: 610-649-1761