Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder of Riverside School & Design for Change, India | 2018 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Nominee
You were honored with the 2018 Vital Voices Light of Freedom Award It's incredible when you start with just a small idea, and now it's become a global movement.
Actually, when you put it that way, it really sounds incredible. But you know, I never set out to change the world. I'm a designer by profession. I graduated from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and I was loving my life. I was designing restaurants and theme parks and genuinely believing, yeah, my life is going to kind of live out with this career. And then I became a mum and my whole life changed. So I believe the moment I held my son in my arms, I knew there was this, this moment of deep love and a promise that his world would recognize his name.
I think what happened was that when he went to school, he was all of six years old, and I think that's when I figured out that's not only my son, but this is the life of so many children across the world, but I'm going back to that memory. I remember going to my son's school and thinking that his teacher will love him just as much as I did and she would know his name and she would tell me lovely anecdotes about him.
So I went and asked. I said, can you tell me about my son? Who does he like to hang out with? What is his interest? And she just looked at me with this really bored teacher expression, which I have seen so many times, but she asked me what is his role number? And I thought to myself, my God, my son doesn't even have a name. He's just become a statistic. Just one of the children going to school in India. That was just not good enough for me. So unlike being a parent who would maybe change the school or complain about it, I thought I could do a better job. I wasn't setting out to change the education system because that was just not on my mind. It was just about changing my son's life. And then I started from home, in 2001 with some 25 children and five teachers and that's it.
I started learning from the children and as a team we started recognizing that when in education you don't worry so much about the what - but the who and the why. And so much of children's lives and education around the world, they are told what to do. But I think the idea of listening to our children and being informed by them, to then suddenly shape the work that we did just was amazing. And I believe that's what the world needed and I think the distilling of that information into a simple framework- feel, imagine, do, share, which I believe is like a formula, a superhero formula to unleash the I can superpower was the need of the hour. So when we launched Design for Change in 2009, giving this particular formula to the world, it just went viral. And today it's in 65 countries.
Why has Design for Change gone viral? Is it the timing? Is it what was missing for people all over the world? We're not talking about just in India, we're talking about the entire world is saying, I want this. Give it to me. Why?
I think the reason it went viral, and I'm thinking about this 10 years ago because that's when the movement was launched, I think there was this deep need to move away from valuing our children as just being marketable. You know, because all of my education and I believed academic success was always considered as success and children's wellbeing was not being recognized. And I think what happened was there was so much of this lack of empathy.
I keep calling it the crisis of compassion that the world was experiencing, that we were encountering a sort of this fear of the other. We were encountering intolerance and the idea that it was seeded in schools is what I think people started recognizing that if this is seeded from schools, we can also seed humanity and empathy. And I think the fact that it was so simple, it was just simple four steps and the act of listening to a child rather than telling a teacher that you have to be a PhD to learn this. I keep seeing a teacher as a living curriculum. She has everything in her to be able to seed humanity into a child. It just needed a little structure. And I think the structure was so simple and so accessible and the language of it was so easy to consume that it, I believe that's what made it go viral.
"We want everybody to join us in this massive movement because it's really going to springboard the ‘I Can’, a mindset now. It's no longer a project. It's a mindset that we feel for every child on the planet. "
What I like about this is the simplicity, as you said, when you call it a toolkit, it's really a simple toolkit that anyone - if given the chance and given the time - can implement. You say, “when children can do good, they do well”. Talk to me a little bit about that.
I'll give you an example just at my school at Riverside, I think so much of the curriculum which people keep asking, what do they do? I think their whole body is involved in the doing, but the doing is not just an act of like a project. The idea of who it's for and who it's with is the defining difference. So when our children are engaged with looking at you know, what it is that bothers them doing real client projects, solving real world issues - rather than just feel good project. They are reading more, they are engaging more, they are questioning more, they are collaborating more, they are problem solving more, all of the skills we ultimately want to teach them. The fact that it is not reduced to a textbook, and that life becomes the learning environment, is a completely different game changer.
But we do it in the same 200 days at which most schools operate. So this is not something beyond the curriculum. This is the curriculum and the Riverside children have been outperforming the top 10 schools in India, in math, science and English.
Tell me a little bit more about ‘I Can’.
When the child starts to understand that this is true of themselves. Because that's one thing that’s missing in the world, right? Is understanding and a connection and empathy and it starts from that young age.
If you just do a little bit of research about the milestones of children and you recognize that at the age of eight they they understand that they are not alone in the world and they, their presence and their identity shaped by whom they engage with. And at that point, if we do not use it as an opportunity to see empathy, the understanding of the other, finally the world doesn't become safer for them.
I mean if we are making children fearful of each other in school, they are going to encounter these peers in life. The world is not becoming safer if you make our children fearful of each other. So the first step of feel, which is part of the ‘feel, imagine, do, share’, is that particular understanding that I'm not here to compete with you, I'm here to complete you. And in that wonderful understanding, children get a sense of comfort that I'm not here to constantly push my way through life. That the idea of recognizing who I am and therefore who you are becomes a fabulous way to kind of look at the world as being on the same team. You know, and that's really what's important and that is fundamentally in education and that's what you have to take the time for.
So once you, you inculcate the idea of empathy and then you give them the opportunity to collaborate with each other. And that's again, an important tool. That's what they're going to have to learn in life. The idea that they are a team in this - that working as a collaborative team - means that you have to engage with each other's personalities and traits and talents to be able to shape a better future. That's the imagine. And then the action point in each group, you will find that different people would have different competencies. I am a storyteller, somebody is an accountant, somebody is what we call the people manager. So the idea that each one comes with a deep I can superpower to the team means we can. That's the beauty of the actual implementation of the action rather than leaving it as a feel good idea.
We, telling children that you are not helpless, change is possible and you can drive it. So, in the action component comes the do.
And then finally the sharing comes the whole idea of storytelling. The idea that as humanity, one of the biggest things that keeps us together, our stories, right? We shape our future, built on the stories we've heard in the stories we will create. And that's the beauty of what the shape is. That I'm not just listening to stories told to me. I am creating stories to be told further. That's I can.
I can equals we can equals the world.
Talk to me about the Vatican. What's about to happen?
Yes. We are extremely excited. In, 2017, this particular ‘I Can’ formula, was adopted by the Vatican and blessed by the Pope himself to take it to all the schools across the world. And I think that's very, very profound because you're essentially saying that this particular model that has been vetted and that there's a proof of concept that children are able to engage with life and make it better is now going to become a default mechanism in over 200,000 schools across the world, which is fabulous.
I think even better than that is the opportunity to take these children from 100 countries from all faiths. This is not a catholic story anymore. This is a story about children across politics, across, I mean, just dissolving all of these demographics, gender, politics, geographies, and we're bringing 8,000 children from 100 countries to be hosted at the Vatican to show the world what our children are today, that they don't have to be richer, stronger, 18, to make change happen, they're doing it today and the world must wake up and take notice because the data they will give us with shape actually the I can future. And I think that's really, really important. So I'm really excited. We want everybody to join us in this massive movement because it's really going to springboard the ‘I Can’, a mindset now. It's no longer a project. It's a mindset that we feel for every child on the planet.