Packing a Punch is her middle name – Enter Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder Riverside School.

The founder of the world renowned Riverside School in Ahmedabad, a TED India Fellow and an Ashoka Fellow, Kiran teaches her kids the valuable lesson of “I Can”. She is also the pioneer of aProCh – which stands for “A Protagonist in every Child”. Currently working on the Design for Change Global Platform, she has a diploma from NID. She has recently been chosen as one of 12 Thought Leaders of the World – an Innovation Knight for the i4P (Innovation for Peace) Society, New York. I had the grand chance of interviewing her for Twenty19, read on to know how she packs in quiet the punch in whatever she does.

Ma’am I think the wait to get your interview has paid off even before we start. It’s definitely fireworks back here @Twenty19, and as tradition goes, Please tell us about your childhood, schooling, college and family background?

Kiran: I was born and brought up in Bangalore. I come from a family of designers. My Father was the first machine tool designer in India, so I had a fabulous childhood. I went to Bishop Cotton Girl’s school, did one year at Mount Carmel, following which I went to NID Ahmedabad. And have been here since. And well, during those days, to say how I was, I was Fabulous! J I did everything in School, I was the captain, I was interested in extra curricula, best actor, best at elocution, best dumb charades and good in academics but not much of a sports person. I used to love all that and had a great time. Even the years in college, I was actively involved in all activities. A bit of info, I got in to NID right after my 11th, and that happened as I had topped the entrance exam. (She was too modest about this). Interestingly though, I had wanted to become a cardiac surgeon. I was pursuing science in 11th, had even managed to get an unheard of score of 99% in zoology. My sister who was at NID back then, told me to take the exam just like that, then I got shortlisted and while at the interview, I realized that yes; this is where I want to be. It was a sudden shift.

When one chooses a career, they see growth, they see money, may be philanthropy, however, you sought to revolutionize the schooling curricula, what instigated you to follow this route, what was the turning point in your life that made you take the plunge?

When I graduated from NID, I started my own design firm. I was designing restaurants, corporate identity and then, my son was born. My interest in education was starting to grow. It so happened that one day, my son comes back from school, all confused as to why the teacher had put a big red dot in his notebook. It hit me that the teacher had completely removed choice from his vocabulary and it was just not good enough for me. I said I can do a better job, I had no idea how, but I just believed that children had to enjoy growing up because I had such a fantastic time growing up and I wanted my son to have that feeling. So I started my school! I’m telling you I was just mad back then, thinking why did I do that, but I just did.

We have read so much how the Riverside’s curricula focuses on the child’s development from all angles, we want our readers a simple take on what makes it’s alma mater unique, what dimensions of learning are most focused upon like character building, extra-curricular or academics ? What’s so different?

The simple thing that’s different about Riverside is that I believe we have put common sense into common practice. That was the biggest difference. I feel common sense is so uncommon in today’s day and age. The other thing that sets Riverside apart is design thinking. I come from a design background, a lot of what I have done is to pursue that line of thought about what really is the problem that needs solving because in most education establishments we take for granted that certain things exist and here we do a slightly more creative job. One of the unique things, we don’t have periods like in other schools, and most of the learning happens on field, not in the classrooms. It’s real world learning. A client will come and give the children a project and they would have to design for the client. For e.g. The City Zoo gave the grade 2 students a project to come up with their Audio tour.

When you highlight how cities are becoming more inert to the presence of children, what problems do you see that makes you rectify them via the learning at your school?

This was a concept for me that started in 2007. I had travelled to Italy where there’s a district called the ‘Reggio Emilia’. They have a very rich program for young children, called the ‘Reggio Emilia Approach to Education’. One of the key ingredients of that is how the municipality becomes a part of the education system. The municipal corporation actually runs the schools, which means the city actually participates in the education. This was in 2007, and I had started Riverside in 2001.Back then I used to take my children out to do street plays, get them involved in services of the city and generally people would say that “Arre Yaar, children are nuisance factors, they should be seen not heard”. That was one approach I needed to shift. So back from Italy I thought our cities needed to be lot more child friendly. There wasn’t a single safe street for children to move around in, so much so that even the parks were not child friendly. That definitely needed change. So I took this idea called aProCh, which is making cities child friendly, and went to the Municipal corporation , the NID, the IIM and said, “ look we need to do something about this“. I was adamant and shameless and you cannot get work done by being polite yaar. I said I wanted the street, but the police commissioner told me “nahin madam we can’t” but finally we got it. That was in 2007. And now every year, we have the child friendly zebra crossing. So you have to be persistent. Change does not happen overnight. It is not easy. But I believe what has to be done, has to be. We now do it in the street, in the parks in Ahmedabad, the city’s now being known as the first child friendly city and that’s important for a city to have. And for the parents of my school’s kids, the fact that they don’t come and tell us to stop all this, it’s their way of showing support. It’s fabulous.

Everyone realizes that our bubbling population steals away the carefree learning schooling should be all about, given the immense competition, what changes do you see coming in this context in the years to come? Surely it’s not rosy for another decade perhaps?

This question for me is one of the most serious problems we have to worry about. What is the future of education or what is the education for the future. And I believe education will not happen just inside schools, it will happen outside as well. Students should have access to the best minds in the world and it will happen. If we do not respond rapidly, we will get redundant as an institution. So we are teaching skills now and not content as content is becoming outdated every two years now. All this will happen much faster in the coming time. Sure our numbers are high with 200 million school going children, but to be ignorant about it, is stupidity. We should realize, children walking into schools now are the workforce 15 years later. We are spreading the education by documenting all our ideas which we follow at Riverside to be implemented in Govt. schools. It is not an elitist concept.

You have emphasized how the presence of children in a social environment can bring out mutual learning, If someone were to say that what can one learn from children, what would you say?

I feel, from your children, you will be taught. At least at Riverside, everything that’s been done has been because of the kind of understanding the children have allowed us to understand about them. All the design has been in collaboration with them. We need to be constantly reminded about how capable and how confident our children are. As we grow older, we forget that and start to think that size has some restrictions, but to be reminded that by the time a child is 6 years old, 90% of all capacity building is done, is crucial you have to know how competent children are.

All your projects like Design for Change, AProCh, constantly strive to push the envelope that you believe students can do, what drives this faith and your views on the competition the entail?

Since I teach full time and I teach my kids, I’m continually humbled by their capacity. These projects are avenues and platforms to showcase how our children could show how competent they were. So, I knew it at Riverside, the parents at Riverside knew it, then we started to get into the city and they started knowing it and then with Design for Change the whole world will know of it. It’s absolute magic what children could be. Personally I teach thinking, language, global Perspective… (So those are a glimpse of subjects at Riverside .. Pretty neat! ). Till grade 7, Riverside follows its own curricula and post that we follow the IGCSE board.

Riverside is expanding, from Bhutan to other locations, Can we hope it to open avenues for even higher studies like universities and colleges, and if it were to what discipline would you pick first like arts, commerce , engg or medicine or maybe innovation here too?

So my children of course don’t want to leave and have threatened me that they won’t leave and told me to come up with universities for them which I have absolutely no desire or interest in. As I feel, we do have good universities in India. We don’t have a problem with what we have. The problem’s always been schooling and it’s our responsibility to prepare school children to make sense of their lives and careers that lie ahead of them. I encourage all my bacchas (She lovingly refers to her school kids) to become entrepreneurs. They will not take someone else’s jobs. They will create jobs.

Exchange programs in your curricula bear similarity in spirit to internships students do these days to get exposure into what lies ahead, to choose their path to follow, what is your take on this aspect?

Well firstly at Riverside, every batch has to go for a week long internship. They have to get selected by partnering organizations, get interviewed and it all starts at grade 5. So yes, internships are important and in 11th and 12th they have to do 2 week long ones. Companies from the design, hotel, architecture and chemical Industry come and pitch to the students. These are professional setups and children have to understand quality.

Secondly in Grade 7, students go to another state in India, grade 8 goes to another country (we took them to Bhutan), grade 9 does a rural exposure and grade 10 does an outbound, a relaxing weekend. Time to fully chill out!


Lastly, putting you on two pedestals, one as a parent and another as an educator, what would you want our generation of college students to take back from you?

I don’t distinguish between being a parent and an educator. I genuinely believe, especially in a country like India, where we need to see a shift with our youngsters, that this generation does not understand the idea of persistence, the idea of staying long enough at a place to make change happen. You guys will have 7-8 jobs by the time you’re 38. And you will understand that because of that rapid shift, no great change will ever happen. It needs roots to make change happen. So persistence is one change I would like to see coming back into our system and mindset. Once we get that along, combined with the digital capacity and the ability to be global citizens, there’s nothing stopping your generation. But if you’re moving too fast, too quick, and constantly in some race or the other, nothing will ever come out. You need to slow down a bit to make change happen. Once you find what you like, I would say, that you stay with. It’ll teach you the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

The Expert Speak series features successful individuals who have made an outstanding impact in their respective professions. Powered by Twenty19, this series aims to bring out their influences and insights which can be shared with the students to guide them towards making the right career choice. You can nominate an expert who you want to be featured here.

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