Headmaster of Oak Meadow Montessori School On Education Reform

By David Li, translated by Alice Liu

In June 2011, I visited the Oak Meadow Montessori School which is located in the town of Littleton, MA. Although locals from the town know the school very well, they may not be familiar with the history behind it. Dr. Maria Montessori was a distinguished Italian doctor and educator from the late 19th century. Dr. Montessori founded a “multi-sensory learning” teaching system which has had a profound impact on early childhood and elementary education. Schools established based on the Montessori philosophy are called Montessori Schools.

Headmaster Dave Stettler welcomed me in the entrance of the school, and made a cup of coffee using the coffer machine. He had been headmaster for Oak Meadow for the past six years and would leave for another position soon. In his office, Stettler talked about education philosophy of the Montessori Schools and commented on the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Reporter: Education reform is a current hot topic, how do you view traditional education?
Stettler: Traditional educational methods can be viewed as “tea pot – tea cup” style of teaching. Knowledge is like water, being held in the tea pot (teacher), and to be poured into the tea cup (student). Traditional educational methods believe that adults know how to teach the knowledge to children and established examinations as assessment of the result. Traditional education is a product of the Industrial Revolution where the settings of school is established like the assembly line in factories which emphasizes efficiency. This situation has not been changing much in the past one and half century.

Reporter: Please tell us about the differences between Montessori Schools and traditional schools.
Stettler: Montessori Schools and traditional schools differ in their founding premise and the goal of education. Montessori Schools are not using the “tea pot – tea cup” teaching system, we emphasize on providing an environment for all round development of students, which can be described as a “Gardening” system. Every student is a sapling, teachers’ responsibility is to provide with them fertile soil and a thriving environment.

Reporter: What are the pros of this “Gardening” system?
Stettler: For example, there are 20 students in a classroom learning subtraction. In traditional schools, teachers will set a 10-day learning period. However, some students may learn it on the first day, some may have not yet learned even after ten days. In Montessori Schools, students who have learned on the first day will move onto the next stage of learning. However, in traditional schools, they will waste nine days.

Dr. Montessori realized that every child has his or her own unique way of learning. Children tend to learn about new things using their hands, they also differ in the ability in learning new knowledge. The learning process is important, not the result. Multi-sensory learning process can enhance students’ understanding of knowledge and develop their creative talents. In the past 20 years, Dr. Montessori’s theory was proved by studies of neuroscience.

Reporter: Would you elaborate on your previous statement, “The learning process is important, not the result”.
Stettler: For example, when teaching the algebraic formula(a+b)^3, traditional schools will teach students about algebraic operations tips that they will soon come to the correct answer: a^3+3a^2b+3ab^2+b^3. However, in this way, the students will not understand the mathematical and geometric concepts of the formula. Some students may even loss their interests in algebra due to this. On the other hand, Montessori Schools use sets of teaching instruments in teaching which allows student to understand the concept of this algebraic formula, then induces them to arrive in the correct answer. We can see that traditional schools maybe more efficient, but students have lost a valuable learning oppertunity.

Reporter: Do you have the teaching instrument with you?
Stettler: This is my favorite teaching instrument (Stettle pulled out from his drawer and put onto the table a box that contains several pieces of wooden blocks ). Here are two cubes, length of the smaller one is a, length of the bigger one is b. There are also six cuboids, three of those have a volume of a^2b, another three have the volume of ab^2. And now we put them altogether into a big cube, with the length of a+b and a volume of (a+b)^3. Students start to learn about this teaching instrument in kindergarten and develop an understanding of the mathematical and geometric concepts. When they reach the stage where they have to learn algebra, they will be able to use this instrument to reach the correct answer of the cube: a^3+3a^2b+3ab^2+b^3 under teachers’ guidance.

Reporter: How do you view the current education reform?
Stettler: It is the education sector’s consensus that traditional education need to be reformed. A new trend of children oriented education is on the rise. There are approximately 12 private Montessori Schools in Massachusetts. The City of Boston and Cambridge is planning to build public Montessori Schools. Modern society and economy need to train a large number of creative talents, however, traditional schools are not doing this. A children-oriented education emphasizes on the overall development of children, it does not focus only on test scores. The method allows the student to understand their roles in the society and encourages them to think about their responsibility in communities.

Reporter: What is your comment on the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother?
Stettler: I didn’t read the whole book. From the excerpts and reviews, my feeling is that, Amy Chua while writing the book did not expect it to cause such a controversy now. I think some statements in the book were somewhat exaggerated by intention to generate discussions. Appropriate encouragement and discipline over children is necessary but it should be carefully handled, otherwise it will lead just to the opposite. Children should have the room to develop freely in their own way. Let’s look at the “gardening” metaphor again: a tulip seed will never grow into a rose no matter how hard you work on it.

Reporter: According to reports, girls earn better grades than boys. How do you see this issue?
Stettler: In the past 30 years, a lot of focus has been given onto female education in the sector. Through its hands-on learning system, the Montessori Schools increase its attractiveness towards boys. I feel that boys adapted to the Montessori Schools environment very well.

After the interview, Stettler points to the farewell cards from students displaying on the wall and said, “I will miss them and treasure the six years that I spent at Oak Meadow Montessori School.” In the coming Fall semester of 2011, Mr Stettler would take up the post as headmaster of the 108-year-old Fessenden School in Newton, Massachusetts.