Interview with Robert Brindley, director of the American International School of Bucharest (AISB).
The American International School of Bucharest (AISB) has new plans for the upcoming year. After the success of the Early Learning Center, just inaugurated in August, the story goes on, with more infrastructure expansion in store and most of all, with a brand new idea, unique in Romania: to set up a Design & Engineering Center, practically a hub providing a mix of hi-tech, robotics devices for creative learning, food science, sound and materials laboratories available not only for the AISB students, but also for anyone interested: parents, other schools, companies etc. The center has received tremendous feedback in terms of fundraising and support, Director Robert Brindley told us.
How has the idea of the Design & Engineering center come up? Why now? Why in Bucharest?
Why not? Because schools are too slow in changing and the world is changing, how do we make sure that our kids are prepared? We need to make up for lost time to a certain extent. Most schools are traditional, because parents want more of that, for this is the way they experienced education and they think that if their kids have the same experience, they will be successful. That’s not correct anymore. As we did with the Early Learning center, we have to create an environment, to design a building in such a way that it helps our educational process, not just build a building and prompt the kids inside it. So, in order for the kids to be innovative and creative, we have to give them a space that allows them to be creative and the time to sit, think and reflect, get their brains working. Creativity doesn’t come from a book, kids need a place and time to do creative stuff, so we need to change the space in which we function.
I am telling people about our vision, but this is not enough, people must buy into it. This is why we’ve done a lot of outreach to the parents and companies and I’ve received no negative feedback, in fact quite the reverse. People understood that not only Bucharest needs it, but the world around as well.
How much will the Design & Engineering Center cost?
I prefer not to focus on the costs but on the results of it. We have to build it, to outfit it and then we’re going to need technicians to teach the kids and that will mean further costs.
So, for that we have established connections with companies and that’s extremely important for us. These companies can help our kids in their research and development and also in their organizational skills by imposing specific projects and deadlines. We have to challenge the kids by what’s happening out there, so it’s not just about the building, it’s about the links with the people outside the building.
We have a fund raising campaign, but this is not just about raising a certain amount. It is more about engaging people, about seeing how successful we can be when we have to involve other people in what we’re doing.
Romania, unlike western countries or the US does not have an established generosity history, it has been a challenge for us to make people understand that helping the school actually means helping our kids push forward.
Will this be a first center of this kind in Romania?
I believe this center will be unique in Romania, particularly, at the industrial level. I’ve seen centers of this kind in schools in California, USA, in Mumbai, India, where schools are really moving ahead. I have visited a school in the Netherlands, which is doing the exact same thing. The key for us will be the corporate links, making sure the kids really understand the issues they will face in the world today and particularly, the concept of deadlines and commitment. Because no one wants to know out there about ”I am sorry, I am two weeks late”. If there is a delay, there will be usually problems, penalties involved. The kids need to be creative and well organized at the same time.
How and when will the students have access to the center?
Our aim is to keep the center open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Especially since it is not only for the students. Any student, parent, company can come to the center. I would like IT companies to come in the building to teach the kids. We hope to also meet the companies’ missions in terms of infrastructure and programs and be able to show them how this cooperation will be of mutual benefit. This is the key to success.
The corporate level represents a next level for our campaign as we are aware that big corporations must see true value added before they get involved, they must be attracted to contribute. Success breeds success and if they see a building and what the kids are doing they will know their money will be wisely used.
And the deadline would be…
As you can see the AISB campus is currently expanding. Our second stage of expansion is our Secondary School building, a project that has been in the planning stages for the past 12 months and is ready to take shape. It will take around two months to finalize the Design Center plans. Once we do that, we need to obtain all of the approvals from the municipality and that will probably last another six months. I think the tender will probably be in the summer of the next year.
Let’s talk a little bit about the center infrastructure, structure…
The first conversion took place this summer, we outfitted the film & media labs, two technology classes, one robotics lab and one for textile design, so five spaces in total. The other spaces we will put in are a space for Mathematics, probably food sciences, and more to do with the automation, music, sound and of course an area where our students will display their creations.
The basic idea is that our institution is a not for profit one and any money generated is reinvested. This gives us a lot of competitive edge: unlike other private schools which are for profit, our money never leave the system.
One interesting example is the Textile Design class – this class is about how you use fabrics and what you can do with them. Half of the students involved in that course this semester don’t know how to use a pair of scissors, no one has ever used a pin, one in ten couldn’t thread a needle, most of them have never used a sewing machine. A lot of kids these days are not exposed to manufacturing. They are great when it comes to using IT devices, but they have never been trained by their parents on how to use their hands and be creative. All kids are inherently creative but we, the adults around them, are slowly stifling their creativity and if you look at jobs in the next 20 years, what will matter the most will be how you work in a team, how you innovate or are creative and at the same time, it will be a very highly-skilled workforce, so very technical but very creative altogether. Because robots are not very good with their hands, smart though they may be. Robots will replace the boring repetitive work, which is wonderful, but unfortunately most of the population these days works with their hands.
This phenomenon was evident even 20 years ago when robots were included in the car manufacturing process. The production increased exponentially but the impact on the middle class was huge as certain jobs disappeared. We therefore have to be aware of these realities and prepare our students by teaching them the skills they need for the future. I cannot predict their careers, but what I can predict is the skills they are going to need.
Are you anticipating a revival of the manual labor despite all of the progress technology has made?
Absolutely! Technology may have developed at a very fast pace but people still value human attributes, they admire a good house design, good food, so all services such as tourism, communication, marketing or food will become more important. This is why educational systems such as the ones in Germany or Switzerland still value these practical skills.
The idea of a design center gives me the opportunity to challenge you in a debate on the traditional learning versus modern techniques. Is infrastructure crucial in schools at this point?
Yes, and you have to do both. I am firm believer in the traditional learning, sitting at your desk and learning certain things and that’s probably the best way to do it, of course a teacher, a computer, a mentor has to be there to teach.
Whenever you have a less structured environment, structure becomes even more important. You have to be very clear about what you want from the kids. Within the traditional structure is very easy to communicate. When you have a less structured environment, you have to be actually more organized to allow that to happen. In the traditional environment your organization is minimal, sit down, get to work, do it. But a dynamic environment is a much more complex one.
What is AISB philosophy of teaching?
We are student focused. The idea is how you get students to do what they have to do. The traditional model is more teacher-directed. Teacher says, you do this and that, which is fine, but even this model has to be adapted to make sure that whatever the teacher is doing is related to what is actually happening in the students’ loves or they won’t learn. Yes, education may be traditional but how you actually teach must be adapted.
What is more effective in the educational process? Tough competition, always seeking the best results/grades, always being no.1 or approaches aimed at integrating as many children as possible, helping them be part of a team?
A study was recently done on Valedictorians in schools. They were always very successful, but they never became the most successful, because if you want to be good academically, you have to conform and conformity doesn’t breed change.
If you have a student learning in a system which is not compatible with the real world you have a problem: it’s like a green house where you force the kids to bloom early and do everything perfectly but you have to be very careful that within a few years they are not in the green house anymore. If you take a plant from the green house and put it next to a river it will quickly die unless you help it adapt.
You might be first today, but you might be lost tomorrow, for the challenge is not being first, it’s making sure you have the skills that you need and you might be first. Competition is hugely important, but you can’t say that once you are on top, you’re going to stay forever, for you won’t.
Technology is quite relevant from this point of view, as what is fantastic now it’s not fantastic tomorrow.
Do you plan further expansion on the school at the moment?
Yes, we do, but expansion of the AISB is in terms of quality not in quantity.
The size of the school is now right, I don’t particularly want to expand anymore, but I will improve the quality of the education, to provide what is more challenging, in terms of what we invite the students to learn, to make sure that how we change the building meets the educational needs. More labs, more recreational and relaxation spaces, because kids have to work hard, this concept will never disappear and while we have to make kids understand discipline we must also help them love what they’re doing. This way everything we’ll become easier.
Do you think of all other AISB locations in Eastern Europe Romania was more open to host this kind of project?
Romania is a tech hub, so it’s a natural place to do it. But I am here.
If I had been in Poland, I would have done it in Poland.
It’s a combination of personal will and the ideal location. Because we are in Bucharest and because it’s a tech hub I know that I can put the design center off here. So, it’s crucial to take advantage of the synergy. I have fast speed Internet, one of the fastest in Europe, so there are a lot of things that help me build the center.
Do I have parents who understand, am I in an environment that can support what I want, can I get help to do it? If I don’t have that, nothing will happen. But I do, so failure is not an option.
My success is built on others pushing the next person. If we are moving into this direction, I have to empower the kids, the teachers, the parents and corporations.
What staff will the center need?
I need a lot of technical specialists’ support. I need one specialized teacher, we’re going to advertise the position in about three or four weeks. And then I need to find technicians in Bucharest who can operate the machinery, not just collaborators but full-time or contracted employees (I am counting on the companies’ help here), as mentors, not teachers.
The trick for them is not to do it, but to show the students how to do it.
But as I said, I would like the companies (like Microsoft for example) to be represented in the center by a specialist sent to do an internship at AISB for three months and teach our students. This would be ideal!
How would a student who has experienced the learning in the design center at AISB be different from one who hasn’t?
The student who studies in this manner will be more confident. For someone to be successful they need to know they have been successful. It’s like building a success bank: they’ve done something, they’ve created it, they’ve failed at it, because the failure piece is very important, they have had to go back and re-design it and this is how they have become mentally tougher.