Disillusioned by an education system that seemed not to care for the children that went through it, Kiran Sethi set up what has been lauded as one of the world’s most transformational schools. She tells POOL how the Riverside School in Ahmedabad has designed an alternative model that focuses on student well being as much as learning.
I am a designer, but when I became a mother, my interest in education was sparked. It was really the bleak experience my son was going through that prompted me to take him out of school. When he was five years old, he came home one day, upset because the teacher had put a big red line across his homework and he did not know why. I decided I could do a better job. The mindset of a designer allows you to be optimistic about life and one of the key constructs of this is that we are not helpless and we can drive change. So I took him out of school and my journey to setting up The Riverside School began.
When I started the school 16 years ago, I didn’t have a three- or five-year goal. I just lived for today. When I started, I had no ambitions to be the best school in the city or the world - all I wanted was to get a better education for my son. Over the years Riverside has designed, implemented and shared a unique user-centered curriculum that is providing schools with an alternative model that focuses on quality of learning and student well being. The practices have been recognized worldwide and the school has regularly been honored for its academic achievement as well as its unique philosophy of ‘Doing Good AND Doing Well’. We have a true 21st century model, with our students consistently outperforming the top 10 schools in India.
The right approach
In 2007, we started ‘aProCh’, an initiative to make Indian cities child-friendly. It started because of the needs of my children at Riverside. When we asked the students about playtime at home, they said they couldn’t go outside because it simply wasn’t safe. A lot of our students don’t have gardens or parks to go to. After school, the kids would have to stay within four walls watching television instead. I thought, “How can Ahmedabad not care for its children? How can it not have been designed for childhood?” Now every year, the busiest street closes down for traffic, and parks open up every Sunday with activities such as storytelling and drama - all for free. It started as a Riverside project but now we have the support of other schools and the whole community, including businesses, the police and local government.
Learning to lead
The idea is to lead, not with positional authority but with moral authority. Like in any domain, one needs to earn credibility; to be worthy of the space one has to constantly be on the journey as a learner.
Among the lessons I have learned are to burn your trophies every year; not to rest on your laurels; start with the question ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’; and to always go back to the user.
I keep saying the ‘who and why’ will determine the ‘what and how’. I have also learned some lessons from Gandhi. One should have role models who can help you stay focused when you might want to drift. I have been extremely lucky to have been surrounded by my 4 G network; which is Gandhi, Howard Gardner, Geet and Govinda – and each for very different reasons!
Designing for change
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