Monday, March 26, 2012

Riverside School in India

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting an amazing school in Ahmedabad, India called Riverside. Founded by Kiran Sethi, the school bases its pedagogy and curriculum on Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. I've never seen such a successful synergy of multi-sensory learning and school design, creating a truly holistic approach to education. This is a school built on rigor, relevance, and relationships. See for her TED talk.

Kiran studied design at Harvard (her husband is a world-champion billiards player), and when her daughter was ready to start school, she found no suitable place for her. Motivated to give her daughter a world-class k-12 education, and to change India's dismal education options, Kiran decided to design a school from scratch. Starting with one class in a modified bungalow covering less than one acre 11 years ago, the school today boasts almost 400 students from pre-K to 11th grade. Next year it will add its final class (12th grade) and graduate its first students (including Kiran's daughter) to college.

Innovative curriculum:
Three "key stages" mark three developmental stages in learning at Riverside (similar to our elementary, middle, and high school distinction), but what is beautiful is the cross-pollination of ideas and collaboration between students, teachers, and team leaders. I watched a multi-dimensional presentation on the American artist Jackson Pollock, where 7th-grade students expressed his art in different media: with dance, music, food, poetry, and play. The presentation was watched and critiqued by grades 3-6, then Kiran met with the 7th graders after to offer her harsh yet proper analysis. "Respect your audience", she said, and "put mindfulness in your work".

I asked students what they love most about Riverside, and one said, "we get to learn by doing activities and projects". Students are involved in their community in a variety of ways. They participate in projects where they help local NGOs, and recently they competed in a global competition called Design for Change, where students design their own solutions to social problems. Students venture off campus to teach slum children how to read & write, help in sanitation and recycling efforts, and cook and clean at local cafes. The words "immersion" and "persistence" are used often to describe their daily activities. Students don't learn Hindi until 3rd grade (English-only until then).

Innovative design:
Most striking of all at Riverside is the design of the school. The open space, the colors, the mosaic-tile designs created by students, the movable doors and furniture, the playground, and the student projects on display (a chair made of CDs, lights made of plastic bottles, elaborate hats and paper-mobiles, detailed biology projects by 2nd graders...). There are mini-amphitheaters for small discussions in the round, outdoor staircases filled with primary colors and cool breezes, computer and science labs, comfy couches to work alone or talk with others, and plenty of play and performance space to run around, learn collectively, and let kids be kids.

Kiran designed the school with an architect and contractor, but her greatest inspiration came from her students. When it was time for 2nd graders to change rooms, she had to design a new class, so she asked her students if they wanted cubbyholes again. When they responded "no", gone were the cubbyholes, and it became apparent how essential student input and feedback was in the design of school space. Moreover, student needs and learning styles change over time, with age, hormones, and natural growth in family and persona, so keeping the school flexible and organic was and remains an integral part of the school design. The grand idea for Riverside belongs to Kiran, but it's the collaborative effort of her students that have created the final space. What a beautiful idea, that students have a say in their learning environment. After all, this is their space, so shouldn't they have a say in how - and where - they learn?

Learn more:
To read more about Riverside, visit Kiran's next big project is to document (with video and writing) the school and create an open source portal so others can bring these design and curriculum innovations to their schools. If you'd like to put your technology and education know-how to work here, or know someone who would, email And if you're in India, join the likes of president Obama and Howard Gardner and stop by to visit!

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