What led you to create the Riverside School?
When my son was around six, he had a really bleak experience at school. He came home upset one day because his
teacher had put a big red line across his homework and he
didn’t know why. Apparently, he had failed to memorize
and write an essay verbatim as instructed. I decided we
needed a different approach to education. So I took him
out of school, and my journey to setting up the Riverside
began. My background as a designer served me well. The
mindset of a designer is that we are not helpless and we
can drive change.
How would you describe the curriculum?
When I started the school in 2001, I instinctively put
design thinking at the core of the school. So the curriculum is built around the lab idea, with developing
problem solving and creative confidence at the core. It
is now also directly aligned to the vision of the school,
which promises to graduate every student as a citizen
leader—someone who possesses creative competence as
well as compassion. So we have a timetable for developing
citizen leadership—including extended real-life problem
solving and experiential projects that build both content
knowledge and character.
Design thinking is an important part of your
instructional approach. Why is it so central?
Unlike other approaches in education where the focus has
been so much on the “What” and the “How,” I believe that
design thinking puts the “Who” and the “Why” front and
center. So learning based on design thinking becomes an
intentional act—both for teachers and students. Student
learning is not left to chance. And students themselves
learn to work through problems in a way that is deliberate
and empathetic, always keeping the user at the center.
What is the Design for Change challenge?
Design for Change evolved from a national challenge I
initiated for school children to change some aspect of their
communities. The challenge spurred students to solve
real-life problems in their immediate environment, while
building a sense of empathy, confidence, and responsibility. The idea developed into a curriculum that is now
offered in schools in more than 50 countries. It’s based
on a simple design thinking toolset of Feel, Imagine, Do,
and Share (FIDS for Kids). This process gives students an
opportunity to become aware of the world around them,
believe that they play a role in shaping the world, and
then take an action toward a more desirable and
By reports, Riverside’s students perform very well
on standardized academic assessments.
Why do you think that’s so?
I believe that the reason why they perform extremely well
is because we flipped the focus. We say that when children
do good, they do well. In doing good, they have to develop
their social capabilities and skills. Much of our focus is to
get them to engage with life rather than remove life from
their education. In doing that, children are required to lift
their game. They are reading more, they are writing more,
they are speaking more, they are experiencing more, and
all of that results in heightened development of academic
Do you have any advice to offer other educators
on improving student learning?
One insight I’d share is to try to keep faith in the idea of
“It is possible.” At Riverside, a question we constantly ask
ourselves and that every educator should ask is, “If it is
possible, then why are we not doing it?” and, “If we can
do it, why are we not doing it today?”
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for space and
Turn and Talk
with Kiran Bir Sethi, Founder of
the Riverside School, a Design Thinking-
Based School in Ahmedabad, India