Kiran Sethi ‘Teacher as a Designer’


I’m actually a designer
by profession. So born and brought up
in Bangalore, and then came to the NID
to study, so I graduated
as a visual communicator. That was in 1989, and I think 1990 I started my own
design firm at home. All my design that I did
even as a designer was around experience, how do you generate an experience
that is enriching. That exactly was what-
then when my son was born and we went to school,
that experience he went through. Now look at the product
that schools are, a product of a school is a building,
it is the fancy furniture, it may be a swimming pool
that some people will see, it’s a product. It’s the textbooks
that you will see. That isn’t experience. Nobody talks about the experience
that the child will go through. Everybody says: we have a science lab
and we have a swimming pool and we have air conditioned spaces. They will not talk to you
about the experience, if the child feels safe,
will he be comforted, will he have an experience
that will challenge him. No talk about that happens
in education. So my son’s experience
is terrible, and it was having a hugely
negative experience for me as a mother. Then my interest really in education
processes started in 1996, so I started to wonder
what can education be like, what can an experience
for my child be like. So really my story
is the story of a mother. It’s not a story of an educator, it’s not the story of any person
who wants to go change the world, nothing like that. This is
the simple story of a mother. So this new school started
and the people I really liked. I thought they were young
and enterprising and they wanted to change
the world. I put my son in that school and then I used to go
and teach creative thinking. And they were looking
for a principal, and then in a year they asked me
to become the principal. So there were
all these young, naive- none of us had an education
background. They were from IM,
I was from NID. We had no idea,
but we just knew that every day
when a child comes to school they would leave with an experience
that was better than yesterday. That was the only thing
that defined us. Can he walk into this space
feeling energized, have less anxiety
and more anticipation? Can that be his story? That went on well
for a year and a half, and then we all actually left, and I went back
to my design practice. That was the year 2000. And on December 6th or so I woke up one day
and said I’m starting my school. I started practicing,
I started doing up the school, I started designing the curriculum. And when we started in 2001
26 people joined me as parents. And right from the beginning I remember this thing with design
was very clear. Parents would come and say: “you’re not teaching
nursery rhymes”, “you don’t have exams,”
“you don’t have a timetable”. But a lot of my thinking was:
does it make the learning better. So I started questioning, and luckily since I came
from a design background and not education,
I didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have to worry
with what was right, so it was my school. I couldn’t care less about
what anybody else thought. I said my school, I’m not going
to compromise on anything. In every other space you have
to look at somebody’s situation and somebody’s ideology, and you try to force feed
your idea. I said chuck it,
this is mine, I will do what I think
is right. And of course I didn’t naively
get into that. It was design of course
that came in. So I get asking:
do children learn well with these 40 minutes things? Does it happen?
Does learning happen? So a lot of it was around
questioning, because I taught.
I still teach every single day. But I was teaching every moment,
every day and testing it for myself,
observing my kids at play, observing my kids at work, and what is making
this child learn. There is a design to the timetable. You don’t just arbitrarily design. There is a design to the culture
that the school will embody. There is a design to the experiences
they will have. Design was a very, very
huge element, and over the years it just became
more refined. I then realized that
the youngest kids, and again this is by design,
the youngest kids, the first interaction they have
with the world is the school. Look at the form
of the interaction. If the school looks completely
alien to their homes they have a huge disconnect. These younger children
needed to feel that their first space that
they walk into is like a home. If you look at key stage one,
key stage one is like a home. It’s got things
you can yell at each other. There is a bathroom in every grade.
It had to be warm, it had to have spaces which
literally looked for a child like a drawing room.
There had to be places that the child could go out
and play, like a safe play area. By design I actually replicated
elements of my home into that first building. The design kept going back
to the user, it had to be user-centric. It had to get the user
in terms of height, in terms of movability. Most furniture
if you look in schools, is so heavy you can’t shift it.
And so by default children are only sitting
in one particular form. They either are sitting
one behind the other or they don’t move their desks,
and it’s a foolish design. You can’t get the kids
to talk to each other. So by design we had to create
furniture that was easy to move, that could offer
different formations and that could then be at the same
ergonomic height as the kids. Finally when we came
to this building, the children became the clients
of the architect. And then this whole thing
of swivel chairs, the whole idea that learners
at this age have to move. I think one of the key things
you’ll ask is whether the teacher asks you
why might this be useful. Most teachers don’t ask you
that, they’ll ask you:
“what should I teach?” We don’t pause.
We don’t observe our children. One of the key things
of design thinking is observation, just slow down.
Don’t rush into doing. Doing will all come. Over the years
we started realizing one of the key things
that I wanted the school to be – I wanted every child
who left this place to recognize that
they’re not just doing well, but they have to do good.
And for me, that drives, and that has actually become
the key central focus, can our children do good
and do well. And that means
that a lot of the choices we have done at Riverside has meant that they will spend
a lot of the time outside Riverside, they will be
the ones who will be leading- they will be understanding
that they have a role to shape the world
and make it better. That became important.
Design is all about that. Design is the ability
to make the future better, or to make an experience better.
And I think in my case I wanted every child
who left Riverside to believe that
they have the tools to understand first that they are
aware of how the world exists, they have the tools to shape it
and to make it better.

7 thoughts on “Kiran Sethi ‘Teacher as a Designer’

  • February 10, 2013 at 1:49 am
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    Nothing more inspiring than seeing a school who cares more for the children and less for the adults. Most schools worry about parents and directors. Its time schools wake up and make design schools meant for children, not adults.

    Reply
  • October 2, 2013 at 7:17 am
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    i hope to see many more schools as such in coming years…''RIVERSIDE ROCKS''

    Reply
  • August 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm
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    This beautiful woman is really MOM of the YEAR!! She took her toolbox as a designer and gave her children and our hope for the future through education.

    Reply
  • May 8, 2015 at 1:26 pm
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    Genial!!

    Reply
  • May 4, 2018 at 4:57 pm
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    This has been the voice talking to me since childhood.

    Reply
  • September 23, 2019 at 3:35 am
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    Which school is this? Can I please know ma'am.

    Reply

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