NEW YORK—Inside the Montessori School of Dentistry, you won't find any old-fashioned cotton swabs, or so-called periodontal charts, or even any amalgam fillings. That's because at this alternative-learning institution, students are being encouraged to break away from medical tradition and discover their very own root canal procedures.
"At Montessori, we believe dentistry is more than just the medical practice of treating tooth and gum disorders," school director Dr. Howard Bundt told reporters Tuesday. "It's about fostering creativity. It's about promoting self-expression and individuality. It's about looking at a decayed and rotten nerve pulp and drawing your own unique conclusions."
"In fact, here at Montessori, dentistry is whatever our students want it to be," Bundt continued.
Founded in 1981, and tailored after the teaching methods first developed by Italian-born educator Maria Montessori, the three-year academy offers a fresh and innovative approach to learning seldom found at more conventional schools of dentistry.
Teachers—or "roving dental facilitators," as they prefer to be called—can be difficult to spot: They often choose to stay out of the way of their inquisitive pupils, and only make gentle suggestions as to how an infected root chamber should be drained.
"When performing a root canal, there's no such thing as right or wrong," said Montessori educator Vanessa Perrin, who added that she doesn't so much teach her students how to treat an inflamed nerve, as lead them to an open mouth and then stand back. "Sure, we could say to our students, 'The enamel here has completely eroded and needs to be addressed immediately.' But what's more satisfying, what's more dynamic, is to just let them slowly develop an 'impression' of why a patient might be screaming."
"We try to encourage our students to work with their patients in order to determine a successful course of action," Perrin added. "That's one of the many reasons why we don't believe in using any anesthesia during surgical procedures."
According to administrators, the Montessori School of Dentistry strives to present an alternative to the dogmatic structure of other schools. In addition to being able to set their own curriculum, students at the private institution can take a break during long and involved operations if they grow bored or feel uninspired.
The confining and antiseptic atmosphere of tradition is absent even from the classrooms themselves, relaxing environments that are sometimes filled with comfortable, overstuffed sofas rather than dentist chairs.
"If a student is installing a crown, and feels midway through as though he or she would benefit more from, say, seeing where a tooth implant might lead, they can do that here," said Montessori professor Donald Scheneke, who told reporters that he sees the dentist office as a place for exploration and expression, not rules. "In here, there's no such thing as 'absentmindedly drilling through to the lower gum' or 'mistakenly pulling out the wrong maxillary lateral incisor.' I can't tell you the number of times I've seen people give up on the entire dentistry profession just because they were terrible at filling cavities."
Recent graduates from the small, independent school agree.
"Thanks to my professors at Montessori, I feel like I can handle any professional challenge that comes my way," Dr. David Greenblatt, DDS, said as a syringe filled with Novocaine dripped slowly into the back of a patient's throat and down into his lungs. "Or, at the very least, accept that it's not the end of the world if I can't."