When Students Design Their Education
At Riverside School in India, students graduate prepared to tackle future challenges as citizens in a highly globalized world.
When Kiran Bir Sethi set out to start a new school in Ahmedabad, India, almost two decades ago, she didn’t have an education background, a teaching staff, or the backing of investors: She just wanted to provide a better education for her young son, whose creativity and independence, she felt, were squashed by rigid schooling.
“For the longest time, education has made the parent the primary stakeholder. When you put a child back front and center, they will shape the story,” said Sethi, reflecting on her own background as a design professional and the design thinking process she used to create the school. “Our children became our designers right off.”
With Sethi’s determination and commitment to child-centered teaching and learning, Riverside School launched in Sethi’s home in 2001 with 27 children and five teachers; today, the school occupies three buildings across a 600 square yard tree-lined lot and serves 400 pre-K–12 students, ranking among the country’s top-10 schools based on student achievement in mathematics, science, and English on the national benchmark ASSET exams.
To Sethi and Riverside teachers, the school’s mission is “not to be the best school in the world, but the best school for the world.”
Instead of receiving the rote learning and teacher-driven instruction that remain commonplace in India’s 1.5 million public and private schools, Riverside students are treated as key stakeholders in their education. Through project-based learning activities and simulations that mimic real-world challenges, Riverside students develop independence so they graduate prepared to tackle future challenges as citizens in a highly globalized world. Though the school is private, the student population is intentionally diverse, with nearly half of students receiving some form of financial aid to attend. There are no admissions tests or other screenings.
Enrollment400 | Private, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
Free / Reduced Lunch13%
“We want to get them to believe, ‘I can do what I want to do, and I can be the person I want to be,’” said longtime teacher Phoram Desai, who coordinates the primary grades academic program.
Riverside’s “I Can” approach to education is spreading far beyond the school’s tree-lined campus. A citizenship challenge and curriculum called Design for Change builds agency and empathy by guiding students through a problem-solving process; it’s currently used in more than 60 countries and thousands of schools, according to Riverside. In recognition of its leadership, Riverside was designated a changemaker school by the Ashoka Foundation in 2015.
Community Comes First
Riverside’s strong sense of community is regularly reinforced through daily gatherings called Congloms, short for conglomerations, which bring students and teachers together for the school’s version of a morning meeting or circle time.
Congloms are brief: They can last from 30 to 45 minutes and involve a single grade level, a division, or the entire school—sometimes they’re even led by students. The focus differs, ranging from games and celebrations to discussions that encourage students to reflect on social and emotional, spiritual, or newsy topics, like body image or upcoming elections.
Teachers say the activities provide an opportunity for students and staff to get to know each other and build closer relationships, while encouraging students to speak up for themselves and listen to their peers—skills that will be valuable as they graduate and become adults.
“We’re in this journey together,” said Niall Walsh, a 12th-grade teacher. “Congloms help grow an individual who is going to go out into society and solve problems, understand themselves, and connect with others.”
The joyful atmosphere does not come at the expense of academic rigor. Client projects, for example, use hands-on, project-based learning opportunities to build students’ skills in design thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. Teachers at every grade level plan lessons by deliberately mapping content learning goals to real needs in community that students can relate to.
And often, “clients” drop by to meet students in person. Second graders, for example, studied habitats, camouflage, and adaptations, and then interviewed an army officer to learn what type of uniform he would need in different environments. Using cloth samples, cotton balls, sand, and glue, students designed uniform prototypes suitable for the officer to wear in the snow and in the desert. The officer returned to critique and provide feedback on their designs.
The goal is to show students “the connection between their learning and real life,” explained Bhavika Chandnani, a second-grade teacher. “Everything they do and learn has a relevance behind it. Where are they going to use it in real life?”
Students as Change Agents
To encourage children to become engaged citizens, Riverside teachers plan immersive experiences that put students into unfamiliar—and sometimes difficult—roles.
For a unit on child labor, fifth graders participated in a two-day simulation making incense sticks to appreciate what it would be like if they had to work in a factory. The work was dirty and taxing. The conditions were dimly lit and crowded. Usually kind teachers turned into demanding taskmasters, barking orders and even limiting water and food until students reached certain quotas.
One boy said he began his first day expecting to have fun, but by day’s end, with his face smudged with soot, he empathetically said, “I’m very sad. My back is aching. It’s like stepping into their shoes and feeling what they do.”
In the teacher-guided reflection that followed the experience, students discussed actions they could take to influence change in their community. In the past, students have put on street plays to raise awareness of child labor, organized game days for children living in slums, or supported the work of nonprofit partners that address child hunger.
“When the child goes through that experiential learning, I see them building empathy and having gratitude for their own lives,” said math teacher Itchha Chainani. “I’m proud I’m creating citizens who are changing the world.”
Schools That Work
Riverside School is a 400-student pre-K–12 private school in urban Ahmedabad, India. It was founded in 2001 by Kiran Sethi, a designer, who saw an opportunity to improve local schooling for India’s children, starting with her own. Adopting a user-centric vision and utilizing a design-thinking approach, Sethi and her cofounders put students at the center of the endeavor to create a new educational program that emphasizes relationships, projects, and a global citizenship perspective that teaches students to do good while doing well. The result is a highly engaged community of learners who realize it is their privilege and obligation to solve real problems and make the world a better place for those who come after.
- For 13 consecutive years, Riverside has ranked in the top 10 schools in India, in the national benchmark ASSET examinations conducted by Education Initiatives.
- Since 2013, 98% of Riverside students have gone on to four-year colleges.
- Designated a Changemaker School in 2015 by the Ashoka Foundation.
Edutopia wishes to thank Teach for All for helping us discover Riverside School.