We sat down to talk with Ms. Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder-Director of the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. Riverside School creates working models of pedagogical practices with a single-minded focus: student wellbeing. The curriculum prioritizes real-world learning as part of its pedagogy such that character and content go hand in hand. Here’s what she has to say about her approach to education.
How did you come to realize that children felt helplessness and that this needed to be tackled?
My personal experience as a mother taught me that the idea of “I can’t” comes in insidiously when children are very young and, unbeknownst to them, they start choreographing their way into pleasing a teacher. So when I would talk to my son after school, he would be given an evaluation from the teacher and he would not even know the reason for his grades. Frustrated, I would say, “Son, how come you didn’t ask?,” and he’d say, “Mama, I don’t know.” It was then that I knew something just had to change. The easy way out was complaining about or to the school or changing which school my son attended. That’s what most people do and that’s why the system has not changed.
Do you think this is a global phenomenon?
It is indeed global. I’ve had the opportunity to visit 30-40 countries and I see it across the board. I think it’s just the idea that the numbers defeat the system. To allow a child a voice is a very messy classroom to have. It’s much easier to make children keep quiet and listen. Teaching doesn’t always mean learning. We’ve refused to challenge this idea. Today, because of this system, our children are markable but they’re not remarkable.
What is the “I can” mindset? Can you share some of your favourite examples from Riverside?
The “I can” mindset can only be understood when you understand the “I can’t” mindset. The latter is the idea of helplessness; of saying that change is not possible. So, the “I can” mindset is just the beginning and is part of the: “feel, imagine, do, share” idea. It starts with the belief system that “I AM NOT HELPLESS”. They are then able to brainstorm a more preferred scenario to the existing one. The “do” is putting in the action and saying that intent is not enough. The next step is “share” which is about telling the world that their idea works and inspiring others to say, “I can”. This is simplified language for children, but it comes from a more nuanced system which is really empathy, ethics, excellence and elevation and these are the 4 E’s that are choices we make in education that take us from being human to being humane. So that’s really what Riverside set out to do. The curriculum gives children opportunities to be more empathetic and to be able to take decisions that are not easy, but right. It starts off right from the beginning, with our youngest children. For example, our 6 year olds recently came up with an audio tour in Gujarati and English for a new reptile park in the Ahmedabad zoo.
Children have curiosity; it is so fundamental to who they are. And that curiosity can be made into creation. That’s really the power of the “I can” mindset and why it’s so fundamental to who we are. For example, the older children work every Saturday for two hours, either with children at the cancer hospital or at an old-age home. We’ve been doing the former since 2008. With the old age home, they realized that the wisdom of the elders was an opportunity for them to capture and so they came up with a wonderful book called “Recipes of Wisdom” which captures the knowledge from the elders on issues of parenting, health, death, love and friendship. They were so moved by what they were doing that they started spending more time with their own grandparents. There is also the city approach; we shut down the busiest streets for traffic and convert the space for children. Thus, the children are putting their imprint on the city saying, “We matter”. Learning has to be blurring the boundaries between school and life.
How do you teach the children real world learning while having regular subjects such as English, Math and Science?
Whilst there are certain learning standards that the Education ministry has determined till grade 7, the manner in which you achieve them is where schools can choose to innovate. Till the age of 13, schools are free to innovate. That’s where we took the liberty to ensure base level learning and knowledge but apart from that, we decided to get our children to be brave, to engage and to interact with the world. They had to do multiple drafts, so it was no longer just writing the one piece. In education, we don’t give them time to refine their work. Here, they have to write a letter to the municipal commissioner in real life and they understood that it does indeed have to go through multiple drafts. They also had to call up and have a presentation with the municipal commissioner and so they had to dig deep. Content and character can and do go hand in hand.
In one sentence, what do you think makes Riverside School’s approach unique?
The idea that our children realize that they are not entitled to this life. That they recognize that they have to earn and deserve their spot on this planet.