Portrait Series: Interview with Kiran Bir Sethi, Design for Change & The Riverside School

To hear more from Kiran at the #LearningPlanet Festival:

Jan 24, 09:30 – 12:00 CET: The GPS- The Pioneers video session

Jan 24, 11:30 – 13:00 CET: Megaphone- What if youth could ask for new rights?

A trained graphic designer, Kiran Bir Sethi comfortably uses the language of design – iteration, prototype, design specs – to develop not only curriculum innovation but also community-based social programmes.

After graduating from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (India) in 1989, Kiran successfully ran her own graphic design firm for over a decade. She moved into education when she founded The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India in 2001, which is now viewed as a laboratory to prototype “design processes” that enables “transformative” student learning experiences.

Kiran is also the founder of aProCh—an initiative to make our cities more child friendly, for which she was awarded the Ashoka Fellow in 2008. In 2009, she received the « Call to Conscience Award » by the King Centre at Stanford.

In 2009, Kiran launched Design for Change (DFC), which uses a simple 4 step design framework – FIDS (Feel, Imagine, Do, Share) to cultivate the I CAN mindset in all children. Today, DFC is the world’s largest movement of change – of and by children and is in 60+ countries — impacting over 2.2 million children and 65,000 Teachers.

What are your wishes for the #LearningPlanet community and for Design for Change as part of it?

We cannot do this alone. There has always been discussion about collaboration, but it doesn’t really emerge into action (due to time, distance, etc). 2020 has flipped this, however; the year really spotlighted the desperate need for effective collaboration- there is so much good work with people with good intent. It was a year of preparation, a year of understanding how to forge greater alliances, and let go of personal agendas. We are in a state of disarray, and COVID has highlighted the need for compassion and also the inequity in the world.

If we are to reach the 2030 agenda, it is imperative that we collaborate for the greater good. At the Riverside School and Design for Change, we believe in walking into the room with an open heart (vs. an agenda) and also in collaboration. This is a place from where you can serve and have the greatest impact.

How do you celebrate learning in your own organisation?

Loudly! The celebration must be joyous, loud, and visible! It exudes and radiates so much of what is possible. We are a learning organisation vs. a teaching organisation; you have to be and then you will do. You are forever a work in progress. It’s ok when you don’t know everything, and that is a perfectly wonderful place to be. We believe in a culture that celebrates that act of learning; where people come first, compassion and empathy will drive the next step.

Also, on January 18, the Riverside School will be celebrating 20 years! It has been a great journey thus far, and it’s exciting to reflect on such a global story and impact. The team was constantly energized and recognized early on that the voice of the child would drive the program.

What are a few takeaways from 2020 that you will take into 2021?

I take away the real possibility of what can be: not the ‘what is’ but the ‘what if’.

At Design for Change, children’s stories became our ‘can’tagion and partners in each country worked on the ‘what if’ mindset. They celebrated joyously, loudly; this is what we chose to do on a daily basis to keep hope and optimism alive.

We need to let go of any of the didactic, passive learning methods across the world. On the other hand, we must embrace and hold on to the heart, and the act of feeling good to do better. You cannot teach it if you do not experience it; education has woken up to that concept in a big way. Hopefully, this becomes a fundamental way of learning.

How do you feel about the upcoming #LearningPlanet Festival?

The Festival is a great time to meet old friends and new friends, and a fantastic opportunity to cross paths online to see where we all are today. My hope is that by the end of the Festival, we translate concepts found on white papers to small, tangible, collaborative steps, whilst waiting for the big steps to happen.

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