Interview with Tristian Stobie, Vice Principal of Academics at Atlantic College

Gala Von Nettelbladt (Germany, AC 08-10)

GvN for UnitedWords: Tristian, you are relatively new here at the college. What were you hoping to achieve by coming here, what were your expectations of the students as part of the UWC movement?


My expectations were that students would be very interested in world affairs and international and cultural understanding, very passionate about making the world a better place, very interested in the relationship between academic studies and real world issues, committed to service, (in particular face to face community service) and inspired by Kurt Hahn’s philosophy.

 UW: How did you envision your job as Vice Principal Academic beforehand?


Well, I was aware of the history of the school. I was aware that it offers the IB program; I was aware of the mission statement and its uniqueness in terms of bringing students together from all sorts of different backgrounds, many through scholarships, which is a unique opportunity. They generate an environment where international understanding really can develop… So this school, or the UWCs, have a unique potential for a higher level of international and cultural understanding than perhaps other schools have, because of what I would call an ‘informal curriculum,’ which is a relationship between students learning as much outside the classroom as they learn inside.

 UW: How would you picture or portray an AC graduate?


Well I would hope that they are committed to lifelong service, that their experiences has enriched them and given them the tools they need to make a more effective contribution towards, for example, international peace and sustainability. I suppose that there is a value side to things as well, such having an emotional intelligence, which is an ability to relate to others, to work together in teams. But they also have an intellectual cognitive intelligence, which means that they are able to argue coherently, critically; see many sides of points of view and instead of being narrow minded, be open minded.

 UW: What is your ideal of a United World College?

 Returning to the academic education: I have quote from a talk you gave to the student body on learning skills saying: ‘There need not be any trade off between AC education and the IB score;’ could you please explain this statement more precisely?


Yes, I have been puzzled by comments that I have heard from a number of people on a number of occasions, saying that students here are prepared to sacrifice a few IB points for the AC experience. To me, that is founded on a misconception of learning and what the IB is. The misconception is centred on seeing the IB only as an academic curriculum, and seeing learning as a matter of filling an empty glass with knowledge. In fact the IB content, the actual knowledge that needs to be learnt is not significant compared to the conceptual development and the critical thinking development that is needed to be a successful IB student. So, a student who critically engaging him/herself with world issues and is always debating an argument and looking for multiple perspectives and points of view, should be developing that critical capacity that helps to write better essays. The student would therefore see the two as entirely complementary. I do not see any trade off at all. I find the [trade off] argument to be dangerous because it implies that you have to make that trade off, and you don’t. It does not make any sense to me at all. There are enough hours in the week for students to engage in any student related activities, bigger themed issues and their IB work. 


I would like to look at this issue a bit closer. A student in my house told me  he had spoken to you last week, asking for permission to leave the campus for one school day in order to attend a interview with the charity organisation ‘Save the Children’. According to him, you did not allow him to go due to the fact that “…Academics were more important, and therefore it is crucial not to miss any classes.” Now, isn’t that exactly a trade off situation between the IB and AC education?


Well, I gave him the permission to go.

UW: Yes, but only in the end after a very long arguing process with a very “strong will” on his side.


I questioned it, because I do think questions have to be asked about students being away from school, particularly if it occasionally repeats itself, because the actual time that is spent for teaching here at the college is not particularly high. This is fine, but then you have to get the balance right between the time spent by missing classes and other things…


But would an event like this not exactly support our engagement outside the classroom, and be a learning experience?


Yes, he convinced me that is was a justified case so I was happy to support it. I think you are overemphasising this. My job is to question and that does not mean that I am not prepared to change my mind, I have done so on a number of occasions. But it is important for students to get the balance right, because there is so much stuff that is going on.  You have to look at the margin and the benefit of particular things. Also, you have to look at individuals. Every student has different responsibilities at different times, and as you go through the AC experience the third term is a particularly demanding one which I think relates to something else. This college needs to understand something about the structure of the current calendar. It is not the students’ fault that the third term is such a difficult period of time because the demands are not just academic and not just AC stuff, but it is also involves university applications, SATs and other things, so what we need to do is be more sensible and clever about the way we structure the calendar. I do not believe that it supports optimal learning in neither the AC experience nor the related IB experience, and that is a critical issue to me that needs to be addressed.

 UW: But do you think that giving more time to the academics…


No, I want to correct you there. There is no plan to give more time to the academics. That was one of the considerations. The current situation is not giving more time to the academics but giving more thoughtful distribution to time in the calendar and in the schedule between everything that is happening.


However, do you think that the college’s profile is changing?


I think it must change.

UW: I mean profile as in the values of this place, are we more heading towards the profile of a typical British boarding school?


What I think has to happen, is that the college has to stop looking in a reoccurring mirror and start looking through the front windscreen. I think that traditions are overvalued here, and I do not mind challenging some of them. Not because I want to make the school more IB focused, but because I do not think that the school is actually as well suited for fulfilling its mission as it could be. For example, the mission talks specifically about sustainability. Yet, there is nothing in the formal curriculum that facilitates that. There is an enourmos amount of student effort that goes into various events, like sustainability forums for example. I think there should be more opportunities in the timetable to carry them out so that every student in the college can have the opportunity to take part in it. Currently, students specialise only in one particular service over two years. Some students who come here do not do anything involving Kurt Hahn’s philosophy other than the first week, when they do the First Year Camp. That to me is unforgivable, given that this is a Kurt Hahn school.

 So what we need to do is provide student with much more breadth in terms of the experiences they have, so that there is more sharing taking place. And that is what all the discussions about the new calendar are concerned with. They are not about the IB.

There is a misconception about the IB and the UWC mission if you believe that the two are kind of different in some way. The IB has actually moved on a lot over the past ten years. The curriculum documents that are now being written for the IB, talk a lot more about approaches to inquiry that are much more modern than the teaching styles that are done in this college. We need to bring together the academic experience that students have with the service experience and the activity experience and not see them as three separate things, so that their interrelationship is fully explored and developed.


But how do we connect these three things in our daily lives as we do not have much time here?


We need to organise formal curriculum activities. The students who lead initiatives are fundamental and must continue but they can be helped through structures which support them better. This is all about what I call metacognition. This is the idea of becoming more aware about your own learning and that you are more effective in what you are doing, not just in terms of academics but the whole way in which you operate as a human being. At the moment there is no attempt in the college to address that. I also believe in interdisciplinary understanding. For example, if we had a week focusing on sustainability involving teachers, staff and students, we could have conference engagement groups in the disciplines: economics, geography, environmental systems… that are crucial in order to understand the sustainability issues. Each of the disciplines could refer to this in a class room, leading up to a particular event.

UW: So, is this what you are trying to establish with the “AC diploma”?


Yes, all these factors are brought together in the AC diploma, through restructuring the calendar, and improving the tutors’ support for students. We also have to precisely look at what we want to achieve in the mission and ensure that the curriculum would cover all the aspects named previously.

UW: What would the diploma represent after the two years at Atlantic College?


For me, it is not so much the sheet of paper that you would get in the end. It is the process that matters, not the product. In the end, the sheet would document and determine all the things that you did over the two years. This would include aspects of leadership from the students, initiatives, different service involvements, engagement with learning theories. And I think that with the AC diploma we could formulate a curriculum that allows students to do all that. This would be a great improvement compared to our current situation.

UW: Do you think that this is something that could replace the IB in the long term future, maybe as a “UWC diploma”?


Yes and no. I think that this sounds very similar to the role of the IB at the moment. In my point of view the IB is suitable to most UWC students, especially with its development. And that is what I’m trying to achieve right now. The IB needs to be better combined with the college life.

 –United World College Student Magazine-



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