Kiran Bir Sethi with Deirdre Faughey

Kiran Bir Sethi. Photo: Kuo Chien-shen

Kiran Bir Sethi founded the Riverside School, in Ahmedabad, India, in 2001. Her school is based on the idea that students learn best when they believe that they have agency (the school slogan is “I can”). The students at Riverside become involved in local issues, research and design their own learning, and believe in their own potential to change the world. The educational model Sethi created, called Design for Change, has spread to over 35 countries in three years. Here, we learn more about the educational process at Riverside, as well as the motivating factors that led Sethi to move from a career in design to her current role as an international leader in education. Sethi graciously agreed to speak with Deirdre Faughey (via Skype) about the formation of her educational philosophy and the personal journey that led to the creation of this innovative school.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me. I love the program that you have at Riverside and I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the moment when you had the idea for the school.

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Actually, I am a designer by profession and when I became a mother I think the interest in education was ignited simply because of what my son was going through. So, it’s a very personal story and my experience with my son’s schooling just bothered me enough to say I would start my school, so it was really that one moment when I just took my son out of school one day because of what he had experienced, and I realized that I would just do anything else but not send him back to that kind of a system. So that’s really where my interest started.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

And what was it about that system that bothered you?

KIRAN BIR SETHI

One day my son came back from school and the teacher had crossed out a particular essay he had written, with big red marks, and as it often happens in early education the teacher never tells the student why they put these marks on their notebooks. My son didn’t have a clue why the work was wrong because he actually, effectively, copied down what the teacher had written. The only thing is he had written .3 as .4 and vice versa, so apparently that was a huge crime he’d made. I saw my son cringe a little with that and I thought my God, this would be terrible if he had to go through school with that kind of experience. So I think that was the first moment of realization for me – that my son had to enjoy going to school.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

That’s wonderful that you were able to take the steps then. From the moment when you had the idea, what did you have to do to open the school?

KIRAN BIR SETHI

I started homeschooling my son for a duration of time. I started travelling around India touring what they call “great schooling establishments,” to find out what is out there that is considered great schooling. So I traveled a lot, I met several people, I went and visited a lot of premier establishments in the country to see what was going on. Of course, I was thinking I would start my own school, but I didn’t have the funds at that time. There was another school that was started in my city, which was again started by these young, enthusiastic, management graduates who had this vision of bringing the best minds back into education, and I remember thinking at least there are good people involved there so my son will be fine. So, I put my son into that school and started teaching there, volunteering to teach Creative Thinking, and the feedback was so good that they asked me to become the principal for that school.

So for a year and a half, all of us, even the people who started the school, were just young, committed, good intentioned, but inexperienced in terms of what we were doing. But we did good work. I think the intention was important. I don’t think we knew enough about what to do in education for things to change, but it was going very well. That’s the tragedy: I think lots of education establishments go through life without thinking about what’s really important. Anyway, all of us left that school because we had ideological differences with the owner, and for a year I just went back into my design field. A time came when I was coming back from a client meeting for design and I said, “I can’t spend the rest of my time making money for people who already have money.” So I had an empty house that was lying vacant and I said, “Okay, this is it, I’m going to be starting my own school!” My son at that time was much older and already going to another school, but my daughter was young enough to be my first student.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

In your own house?

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Yes, in my own house. I started the school in my home, and then subsequently built Riverside, so that’s really how it started. In June of 2001, I had 24 students from different places and I just started.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Wow! That’s an amazing story! I also wonder about the students. You said your own son had an experience in a very different kind of school and I wonder about the students you see now at Riverside. Have they come from other, more traditional school settings? Are they surprised when they get to Riverside? Do they have to adjust to a different approach to education?

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Now, because it’s been 12 years, the entry point is only pre-kindergarten. So the children, they grow with us. A lot of the children don’t really see other spaces, except sometimes we might have one seat vacant so we do see some entries from existing schools. But what I’ve seen is that literally within a month they settle in so beautifully because the approach resonates to them. In some way we all know what learning should feel like, and when we sense it and experience it, it just feels right. So, for the first two weeks they’re surprised because they have to have an opinion, or they have to voice their own perspective – they’ve never been taught that. They have to have a voice. Then they kind of settle in and realize that it’s important and that’s how it should be. So, there’s an initial settling period, but then they just feel that it’s right.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Yes, to me that’s essential. I see it with my own students too. I love also your mission of getting the kids involved in the community and ideas that they are personally interested in. One question I have is whether or not there is anything that would be considered off-limits for the children to study, or unsafe? I was thinking of the young girl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan, and how she was vocal about something and it turned out to be dangerous.

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Actually, I think because India being such a secular country and the largest, most vibrant democracy, we are lucky that we can get our children to explore ideas that are sometimes quite controversial. In fact, the state that Riverside is in had a difficult past because I come from the state of Mahatma Ghandi, where he was born, and just around 11 years ago we had one of the most dreadful riots that broke out between the Muslims and the Hindus. It’s an interesting thing about having a place that is the hub of peace, and having such a violent past also. When we were talking a lot about prejudices and ideals, we did tell our kids, “Listen, we’re going to be talking about some issues that might seem off-limits at home for you. Are you okay with it?” And the beautiful thing is that when you let it go and appeal to the kids, they’re often rooting for it the most. So, we’ve never really had issues regarding what they can discuss, or what they should be or not be. The appropriateness of the timing is what we look at, but otherwise really nothing is off-limits.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

That’s wonderful. So you can let the children take the lead.

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Very often we just hand it over to them and say, “You decide. If you think this is going to be difficult for you at home, let us know.” But a lot of the kids say, “No, this is what we would like to do.”

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I saw on your school website that Dr. Howard Gardner visited your school. I watched a video about his visit and I was struck by something he said. He said that you are the rare example of someone who creates with her whole being, and he called what you have created a work of art, and…

KIRAN BIR SETHI

(laughs) …I call it a work of design.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

(laughs) I was really interested to know more about that difference.

KIRAN BIR SETHI

Because I come from a design background, I am constantly advocating design thinking and saying that design is the intentional act of making an experience better. I don’t leave it just to freestyle expression that is open to interpretation. I think of it as an intentional act. So, we’ve had this discussion regarding art and design. Maybe he was referring to the fact that in my head I think education should be by design and not by chance.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Well thank you so much for expanding on that, and for speaking with me. I really appreciate it!

 

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers CollegeColumbia University. Deirdre completed a Masters degree in the Teaching of English from Teachers College, and a Bachelors degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College

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