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The ‘I Can’ Revolution of Schools

Sometimes you come across something that is so awe-inspiring it leaves a lump in your throat, it makes you feel like you want to stand up and take over the world; you connect in a way that you didn’t think was possible. Well, when we found this school, this is exactly how we felt.

In our quest to show you some of the most ground-breaking and innovative schools in the world, we’ve found something which takes learning to a whole new level like we’ve not seen before. The whole ethos behind the Riverside School in India is about believing in kids and empowering them with the ‘I can’ approach to life. If we believe in kids, then they believe in themselves. If we set them tasks where they take control, we can be astounded at what they can achieve, and once you’ve read this, you’ll know exactly what we mean.

This ‘I can’ philosophy was the brain child of Kiran Bir Sethi who created the Riverside School in India and as we said, her philosophy is about teaching kids the valuable life lesson of ‘I can.’ Kind of sounds simple right? I mean don’t we tell our kids everyday that they can achieve stuff that they didn’t think was possible? We sure do, but letting them act on it is a whole new kettle of fish. The school allows kids to take local issues into their own hands, lets them lead other people and believe it or not, even educate their parents, and their communities.

Kiran uses a word that sums it up awesomely – contagious. As she said in a TED Talk, “Laughter is contagious. Passion is contagious. Inspiration is contagious.” The ‘I can’ bug fires up passion, inspiration and guess what, it’s contagious. So giving this gift to children can only bring out the best in them. Just imagine the possibilities it can unleash in a child.

Kiran started Riverside School in India over 10 years ago to infect kids’ minds with the ‘I can’ bug, and she has certainly done that. There are classrooms where students learn about language, math and science skills, but the school is not just about a classroom; it’s about making sure that learning is about the real world, it’s not about what your teacher told you, it’s about what you learnt, how you learnt it and how you are able to make changes as a result of that. These kids come home from school with the attitude that ‘I did it, I made a difference.’

So it sounds revolutionary, but how does it actually work?

As we mentioned, there are traditional classrooms where skills are developed and they’ve got some amazing programmes that the kids can get involved in, all to lead them to the final goal of being empowered to lead change.

These kids are given real life experiences that can leave a lasting impression on them. One example was about teaching them about child rights and what they really mean. They got their Grade 5 kids to sit and roll incense sticks for 8 hours…they learnt what it means to be a child labourer. After two hours their backs hurt and they were uncomfortable. Did the kids enjoy it? No. But you know what it did; it transformed them and their way of thinking. They believed that they could go out and change the world. So off they went out into the streets and convinced people that child labour is a complete ‘no-no’. The look on their faces each time they got their point across was priceless. This kind of experience just cannot happen in a classroom alone.

What about other curriculum subjects?

Parents were keen on the idea of creating good human beings, but they still wanted their kids to be proficient in math, science and English. They wanted grades, and they got them. With the ‘can do’ attitude kids don’t just do well, they excel. They benchmarked their grades against 2,000 schools in India and Riverside children were outperforming the top 10 schools in India in math, English and science. So, it worked.

But what next?

Kiran Bir Sethi had a dream to take her philosophy outside of Riverside and infect more kids with the ‘I can’ bug.  So she set out, with all the kids, to take on Ahmedabad in India. They went on a mission of epic proportions. The kids walked into municipal offices, police stations, the media and businesses. Their message was plain and simple; “When are you going to wake up and recognise the potential that resides in every child? When will you include the child in the city? Basically, open your hearts and your minds to the child.” Now that is something to be admired. And giving these kids the power to do that builds unbelievable skills on all levels.

Did their mission work? It sure did. Since 2007 every single month the city closes down their busiest streets to traffic and the streets transform into one big playground for kids. Pretty awesome if you ask us. So they’re spreading the bug…first their kids at Riverside, then 30,000 kids in Ahmedabad. But next on the list was India. They designed a toolkit, translated it into eight languages and sent them out to 32,000 schools…100,000 kids in total. Their mission was to give each child a challenge; to let them choose an idea of something that bothered them, then to take a week and change a billion lives. Seems quite unachievable. But these kids did it. Stories came in from all over India where affecting change, from loneliness, to potholes, to alcoholism and even stopping child marriages. You see, empower kids and they can achieve anything short of miracles.

What about daily life?

Daily life for these kids is clearly not about hitting the streets every day and as such they do still learn in a classroom. Firstly Riverside are firm believers in everyone being a stakeholder, so to speak, in their child’s education. It’s about uniting parents, teachers as well as connecting kids in the school to kids of different age groups, so that everything works in harmony. A big part of daily life is assembly where all the kids come together and discuss what is of value to the community and everyone takes part. It encourages bonding on a deeper level. They also do normal assessments to see how a child is progressing, have ‘conglom’ sessions where teachers and students come together each morning to build trust and respect for each other, have buddy programmes where older kids and younger kids interact, have committees, camps, a programme where kids present their ‘findings’ or what they’ve learnt to an entire hall of people and even a programme where the kids can invite speakers to talk on different subjects. The kids even do internships in real business situations where they have to apply their knowledge and pull from their resources.

Their programmes are wide and varied, and we could have you reading for hours and hours, but we’ll stop here and hope that this gives you some idea as to how revolutionary this schooling approach is. Imagine if this kind of learning opportunity was spread across the world…we would certainly be raising amazing leaders in the next generation.

Want to get fired up, watch Kiran Bir Sethi’s TED talk here http://www.ted.com/talks/kiran_bir_sethi_teaches_kids_to_take_charge

You can also find out more on their website http://www.schoolriverside.com/

About the Author

Lisa Steyn (51 Posts)

I’m a marketer by profession and a writer by nature. I discovered writing as my passion years ago, and have loved every bit of it, particularly writing for families in order to help them have fun and improve their lives. I’ve travelled the world extensively, lucky me! To make me happy put me next to the raging sea, or the calming mountains, and to get me firing on all cylinders send me on a wildlife safari!


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