A Conversation with Educator & Riverside School Founder, Kiran Bir Sethi
A conversation with Kiran Bir Sethi
By Laura Caballero
Issue 9 Fall 2011
In 2001, Kiran Bir Sethi founded the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. Her vision was to design a school’s curriculum that empowered children to be active in shaping their lives and to ultimately help them be confident and responsible adults.
In 2007, the Riverside students inspired a campaign called AProCh (A Protagonist in every Child). Once a month, the city entrusts its future wellbeing to its children by letting them experience the city’s social infrastructure. As a consequence, the next two parks to be built in the city were planned by the children.
In 2009, Kiran Bir Sethi conceptualized and promoted India’s largest design contest for schools, where more than 100,000 children participated in designing solutions for some of India’s most challenging problems. In 2010, the initiative known now as “The Design for Change” contest has reached 22 countries and over 250,000 children are designing and implementing solutions in the areas of education, environment, child labor, urban planning, among others.
“The Design for Change” contest mission is to empower children, parents, and teachers around the world to be ‘agents of change’; and collaborate to design solutions for a better future by understanding the power of two words: ‘I Can’.
How did you develop the idea of empowerment as a catalyst for change? What inspired you to take these ideas and focus on children?
Kiran Bir Sethi: From childhood, my parents had a very strong influence on me by allowing us to make our own decisions. A typical parent likes to make decisions for their children. For example, I have seen a lot of parents decide which flavor of ice cream their child should eat. Someone will ask the child, “which ice cream flavor do you like?” and the parent will respond, “he likes chocolate.” That’s an example of how a parent will take over their child’s decision. I think this comes from trying to protect the child, but I think there should be a time when a parent steps back and allows the child to make up their own mind and to make a decision. My parents emphasized that we should make our own decisions. It might be not the best decision, but at least it is still yours.
That ultimately had a profound impact on me.
When I studied design, I became more convinced that making decisions is important for wellbeing. You need to feel empowered and you need to feel good about the decisions that you make.
You should not feel guilty or fearful about making decisions and choices. Otherwise, the decisions or the actions that you make are based on fear rather than confidence.
When I got into education, I felt that was the one key ingredient that I had to give to my students: less fear and more competence. I want them to feel that they are not helpless, that when they confront a situation they will not say, “I don’t know.” Children still feel helpless in our current education system. They don’t know if they have made the right decision and they do not know if they are comfortable with themselves. In our school, children are taught early in the process that they are not helpless.
What inspired you to start the Riverside School?
KS: When my son was five and a half, he came home from school one day and he showed me his notebook. His teacher had put a big red line across his homework and he did not know why. When I asked him what happened, he replied, “I don’t know.” He had absolutely no idea why his teacher had crossed out his homework. It turned out that my son had written an essay and he did not write it the way she wanted him to do it and that was her way of telling him that he did it wrong. I told my son that his teacher was the one that was wrong. That event bothered me so much that I started the school.
Explain how the specific education process at the Riverside School helps and empowers children in order to shape “the good life.”
KS: There are five investments or skills that we work on every day at the Riverside School. The first is the social investment. This will help a child be more socially adept. With this investment, we can help students get along with people. Can he or she have a conversation without it resulting in an argument? If there is a conflict, does the child know how to resolve it without fighting, without hitting somebody? Developing social competence skills is very important at our school.
The second set of skills is emotional competency. Can I help the student feel good about who he or she is? Can you understand what makes him or her sad? What makes him or her happy? Can you do more of those things to make him or her happy? Introspection is an important part of this investment.
The third investment is cognitive or developmental skills. When approached with new information or a new experience, the student should be able to develop skills and knowledge to adapt and learn about the new experiences.
The next investment is the investment in the physical child. Can the kid engage in physical activity? We want to make sure that the kids are healthy.
And finally, the fifth investment is spiritual. I want to help a child understand that life is meaningless without sharing his or her talent. I want them to be inspired by the beauty of a butterfly or by the magic of the sunset. They also need to understand that they have the power to heal if they come across someone who is emotionally hurt. These five investments are set in the program in order to help children learn an ‘I Can’ change attitude and have confidence in their abilities to lead their lives.
At what point did you realize that education needs to extend beyond the classroom?
KS:Very early, in fact many of the initiatives we used to do at Riverside School took place outside of the school and in the city. In 2009 we had the opportunity to move things to another level with the Design for Change Contest in India. With Design for Change we were able to show that kids are social entrepreneurs. All kids believe they can change the world into a better place. That year, we were part of TEDIndia and our work was presented to the world. Once that happened, Design for Change reached twenty countries. Since then, Design for Change continues to grow and reach more children in other countries.
What encourages and inspires you to create bigger challenges for your school and expand outreach programs around the world?
KS: I think that it is because the opportunity presented itself and you know that it can benefit another human being. You have to take the opportunity and dream big. I believe if you have the ability and opportunity to reach as many children as possible then you should do it.
Your initiatives are considered inspirational because of your insight that the words “I can” can change a child’s world. What about those words makes you re-examine the educational system in India and want to re-shape it?
KS: Look what ‘I Can’ did to a nation.
Can you imagine the long-term cost to the economy, the loss to one’s wellbeing, the loss in human capital if we have a generation of children that think that ‘they can’t?’ Education should teach us that ‘we can.’
We are constantly told that we should be quiet, we should not have an opinion, and we should not have an idea and then, we wonder why our children are not creative or imaginative. This is what happens when you tell a child that ‘you can’t’. ‘I Can’t’ has a huge price with a real human cost. In a country of billions of people there are two hundred million children who go into school but only eighteen million actually graduate. Of those who graduate, nineteen percent of the eighteen million children cannot get a job because ‘they can’t’.
This is a staggering number and a big issue. A nation cannot continue having an education system that tells its children ‘you can’t.’
‘I Can’ means that we have to re-imagine and re-design the entire program, from the beginning. There is a lot more work that needs to be done from the side of the teacher. It is a huge price to pay if a teacher feels ‘I can’t’. A nation cannot afford to pay this price any longer.
Innovative design thinking is transforming the educational system, as we know it. Children are adding strategic value to their education and they are making a significant social change in their communities. How are the children able to do these things and how do they uniquely transform the education process as they grow and learn?
KS: Within the program, the child evolves into a person who believes in possibilities. Look at a child from birth to two years old; they go from crawling to standing in those two years. The kid does not believe that this is an impossible feat; he or she just does it. In those two years, a parent gives them constant motivation, ‘Come! Come! You can! You can!’ The moment a child starts talking and moving, a parent starts saying to them, ‘Don’t go! Stop! Sit down! Keep quiet!’It is ridiculous! Children are so vulnerable at that age, but if you look at their potential and the power that they have, they are so fearless. When they fall, they drop, they roll over, and they put their hands on to everything. Then we start putting fear and doubt in them. We consciously destroy their confidence with ‘mothering’. The reality is that we do not ‘mother’ them, we ‘smother’ them. We are destroying our children with words like ‘you can’t’. Design for Change is one way to let children, parents, teachers, and society understand that the power is there. It just needs to be ‘shaken up’, it needs to be moved. Children need to believe that they can make the world a better place.
You use the words “contagious” and “infection”, in a positive and inspiring way. Why are they part of the new vocabulary of personal action and responsibility and how do they become part of the transformative shape of the Good Life?
KS: You will ‘infect’ something only with what you have. If I have a cold, you get a cold, right? I am hoping that those teachers who are in front of our children are ‘infected’ or have passion, so they can ‘infect’ our children with passion. Unfortunately, most people in the teaching profession are bored, listless, and uninspired, so most of our children grow up mirroring these traits.
‘Contagious’ is a very powerful word. We need to ‘infect’ our kids with passion, with energy, and with laughter. They need to see that learning is fun and challenging.
I think we owe it to our children to ‘infect’ them in this way. It is the ‘I Can’ bug.
How does this learning environment support a student in the journey for “the good life”?
KS: The Riverside School curriculum teaches them that doing well is not enough, they need to do something good. Students asked themselves, ‘can I help someone in a better way today than yesterday?’ The idea of doing ‘good’ is important. Life is meaningless if they are not helping others, or they are not using it well if they are not helping others. The children have to engage with causes, and social issues. That is very important in the Riverside curriculum. They need to understand that they can ‘infect’ people around them.
If today you are better than yesterday, then, that is The Good Life. If today I have learned something from yesterday, that is leading The Good Life.
Finally, how has your background as designer helped you in this journey?
KS: I design every day: from the idea to the communication materials.
The design process allows you to see where the real problem is. This way we do not solve the wrong problem.
Change cannot happen unless we are able to identify the real problems.
Design thinking allows you to allocate and identify human behavior and human centeredness, and focus on discovery of these principles.
By integrating these aspects of design it has helped me tremendously on this journey to empower children as agents of change. The children now know that they have the ability to shape their own lives.
• Acknowledge what is in front of you. Opportunities for change are everywhere. Re-think and Re-shape.
• Collaboration is vital to be able to create an outstanding outcome, not just a ‘less bad’ solution.
• ‘I can’ is a powerful mantra: it nurtures innovative design thinking.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Reach not only teach
Re-examine deep-rooted systems
‘Infect’ people around you with a common vision
Champion the empowerment of children
Disrupt processes that stall progress
Kiran Bir Sethi’s Bio:
Kiran is the founder/director of the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. She was trained as a designer and has a degree in visual communication from National Institute of Design (NID). She is also the founder of ‘aProCh’ – an initiative attempting to make our cities more child-friendly, for which she was awarded the Ashoka Fellow in 2008. In 2009, Kiran was also presented with the ‘Call to Conscience’ award from the King Centre at Stanford University, for the citizenship/liberation curriculum that Riverside School implements.
Kiran was invited to be a speaker at TEDIndia. She was a symposium member at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Italy – looking at Design for Social Change. In May-June, 2010, she was a Keynote Speaker at the M.I. Symposium in Beijing, China, alongside Dr. Howard Gardner. In July of the same year, Kiran was a Speaker and Panelist at a Conference titled “Where Do We Go from Here: Achieving Global Peace with Justice in a Sustainable Environment?” at The Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute, at Stanford University.
Most recently, Kiran was invited as part of 12 global thought leaders to become an Innovation Knight for the One for Peace initiative. Currently, she is promoting the world’s largest “Design for Change” contest, spreading the Riverside’s School philosophy.