Ready for the Real World: How India's Riverside School Graduates Changemakers

At Kiran Bir Sethi’s Riverside School, students take charge. Here’s how...

“When I realized my son was so easily getting into the 'I can't,' it prompted me to just take him out of school,” said Kiran Bir Sethi.

“I saw that happen to my son very early on. At around five-and-a-half years old, he was told by his teacher that he couldn't.

“It was not just one incident. It’s a subversive message that on a daily basis our children get from the ‘system.’ It’s about the subtle-explicit instructions regarding their day-to-day learning when they are told to do ‘as instructed,’ with no room for creativity, choice, opinions... For young children it takes very little to learn this behaviour of compliance.”

Consider the wasted potential: At age 3, 98 percent of children are creative geniuses. But by the time they’re 8 or 9, young students are rule-bound, self-conscious, and view tough tasks as threats to be avoided, rather than challenges to be mastered (or as opportunities to learn new skills). By age 25, just two percent of people still possess their powerful childhood ingenuity.

In other words, creative behavior is unlearned.

“The problem,” according to Beth Hennessey, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, “lies in the fact that the typical school culture, the typical classroom is fraught with killers of student intrinsic motivation,” the type of motivation which not only helps children learn more, but also helps them retain what they learn better.

“Expected reward, expected evaluation, competition, surveillance and time limits all serve to make it almost impossible to maintain a playful attitude and a willingness to take risks,” Hennessey writes in “Cultures of Creativity,” a LEGO Foundation report.

Sethi, instead of teaching her son Raag from home, or enrolling him in another school,  opened her own center of learning: the Riverside School. Twenty-six students joined Raag that first year, in 2001—“a really motley group,” Sethi recalled with a laugh. About one-third of the students were children of friends and family.

Within a year, parents became believers in Riverside's teaching methodology (which has spread to a quarter-million students in 35 countries). “They didn't know quite what I was doing, but they started seeing the results in their children,” she said.

Sethi, a graduate of the Gujarat's National Institute of Design (and Ashoka Fellow), embedded design thinking into the Riverside School's curriculum.

“I started seeing what wonderful things it did to children's well-being,” she said. “Children were growing up with a creative confidence. They were OK with uncertainty, and were able to respond to it with optimism. They were not helpless.

“Academically, my children were outperforming those in the top 10 schools in India.”

Every grade at Riverside, now a K-12 institution staffed by more than 50 teachers, engages almost 400 students with real-world opportunities because Sethi—who still teaches full-time—believes that learning doesn't just happen in school. In fact, her students spend about 40 percent of their time outside of Riverside's walls.

“A lot of the lessons that happen in schools are left open-ended and unfinished.” Sethi said. “Students don't know why what they're learning is important. They become pessimistic. They say, 'That's silly, or 'none of this matters’.

“Let's just chuck the whole thing out and start from a completely fresh template.”

This year, Riverside seventh graders worked with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to design new trash bins for city parks. “They had to go study the human interactions in the park,” Sethi said. “They had to be able to observe how people deposit garbage, and what were the standards of cleanliness.

“It became a two-month-long project on mathematical thinking, driven around volume: how to calculate it, and understanding shapes.”

Riverside third graders designed an itinerary for visitors from another state in India that wanted to spend a week in Gujarat. The young learners met with travel agents and determined the top sights and sounds that tourists ought to take in, while staying under the client's budget.

Tenth graders in business studies received training to be entrepreneurs, and were asked to come up with a new flavor for the city's ice cream factory. “It was Christmas, and the company wanted a new flavor for a promotional event,” Sethi said.

“They had to learn how to make ice cream, and develop the pricing and marketing strategy. Students then pitched it to the managing director, Pradeep Chona, who finally bought it and launched it on February 14.”

The Havmor Ice Cream company donated one rupee from every sale of the limited edition treat, “Ras'mataz,” to a citizen sector organization chosen by the students.

In a world where knowledge is a commodity and creativity is the No. 1 “leadership competency,” Sethi challenges her staff to bring lesson plans to life and celebrate new ideas. Teachers encourage students to “feel, imagine, do, and share,” in turn empowering young people with an “I can” attitude and an appetite for exploration.

“That's how learning happens at Riverside,” Sethi said—where common sense is common practice.

Raag is currently a student at Champan University in Orange, California, majoring in education and classical guitar. He teaches at Riverside during his breaks.

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