Bringing the “I Can” Mindset to Children around the World: An Interview with Kiran Bir Sethi

Kiran Bir Sethi is the Founder and Director of The Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. She is also the founder of Design for Change (DFC), the world’s largest movement of change of and by children. DFC is now in 44 countries impacting over 2.2 million children and 65,000 teachers. Kiran has received many awards for her world-changing work and has inspired millions of children to adopt an “I can” mindset. We consider ourselves very fortunate that Kiran is on our Curriculum Advisory Board at IHE, and it was an honor to conduct this interview over Zoom. Below is a condensed transcription of our conversation.

Zoe: What do you think the purpose of schooling should be?

Kiran: My thoughts on this have changed over the last 20 years since I’ve been in education, and more and more, they’re resonating with the word you use: humane. I’m convinced that’s the entire purpose. I keep saying we’re born human by chance, but we become humane by choice. The idea of the “e” that makes us humane is really the value proposition that we use at Riverside School, which is empathy, ethics, excellence, elevation, and evolution. More so now than at any other time, a lot of us recognize that content is not king. Grappling with big questions, listening to others, sharing an idea, I think this is going to be the whole purpose of education.

Zoe: I’ve felt the same way about the “e” on the end of “humane,” and I love all your “e” words! What motivated you to create Design for Change?

Kiran: We were already doing the work at Riverside. We started the school in 2001 and were using humane principles and design thinking as a framework for student agency for the greater good. Then an opportunity came in 2009. A friend launched an initiative called The Joy of Giving, a festival for India to celebrate the act of giving, and he shared his ideas with me. He said movie stars and the ultra-rich would do it, and I asked, “What about the children? Because if we don’t put that habit and mindset in children about sharing, it’s too late when you’re an adult.” He responded, “Well, that can be your project!” 

I rounded up my friends from Harvard, Stanford, and Ideal to say “Let’s do this,” and we created a collaboration of design and education and crafted the Feel Imagine Do Share (FIDS) framework, which was eventually launched as Design for Change. We translated the framework into ten languages in India – sensitive to the need to make it accessible to everyone – and committed to removing any barriers. We worked collaboratively with NGOs, the government, and schools, cutting across every demographic. The design offered a very inclusive way to contextualize agency for a child anywhere in India. 

The first story came from a little school in Nagaland, in the far corner of India, and we started crying with joy, saying “This is it! Our children are becoming visible by their agency!” Subsequently, I had the opportunity to speak at TED when it came to India, and then my talk went viral. This led us to realize that everything had to be open source. 

Zoe: Could you share a couple of stories of children making a positive difference that are especially moving to you and that have empowered others?

Kiran: We have around 35,000 stories of change from across the world. I’ll tell you a couple. The first is from Taiwan. It’s about Jack, a ten-year-old boy, and Jonathan, his friend. Jack was visually impaired. Jonathan noticed that Jack wasn’t making many friends, and he wanted to help him. So he wrote cards to everyone in his class that asked, “Would it be okay with you if Jack could touch your face and become friends?” Because that’s how Jack could connect with people. About 20-25 people came to “meet” Jack, including Jack’s mother. 

Jack started touching people’s faces and making friends. Then, for the first time, and this was captured on camera, Jack touched his mother’s face. You could see the concentration on his mother’s face, and you can hear the cameraman ask, “Hasn’t he touched your face before?” And she said, “No, I didn’t think it was important!” And Jack is saying, “Mama, you have a small nose.” We could not stop crying. Not surprisingly, Jack made a lot of friends. Three years later, Jack sent me a video saying “I’m now a massage therapist, and I play the violin.” I can’t tell you what a moment that was. 

The second story I’d like to share is from a village in India. Some kids realized that their grandparents were not being respected, so they decided to capture the folktales of their grandparents and write them out so they could have a library in their classroom. They hung string and attached folded papers with all of these stories in their classroom. So simple! Subsequently, people have taken this idea to schools in Dubai, Spain, and Mexico, adding questions like, “What are the games our grandparents used to play? What is the food our grandparents used to eat?” Children have captured the wisdom of their elders in all these countries.

Even the youngest children can make a difference. In Spain, four-year-olds went to the park and realized that when they wanted to put things in the garbage bin it was too high for them. So they decided they wanted to change that. They came back with a small dustbin at their height. The mayor was so impressed that she said all the parks would have all these little dustbins. 

Zoe: I love these stories, Kiran! Has COVID-19 had an impact on children and their “I Can” efforts?

Kiran: We’re actually discovering all that kids can do from home. In the U.S., our partner’s superb initiative called #DoGoodfromHome is encouraging children to use the Feel Imagine Do Share framework during this time. We learned that you don’t need to go outside to make change happen; change can happen wherever you are. Before the pandemic, we were thinking that we must engage with the community, and we must engage with others, but children are engaging with home, parents, pets, and their support team. That really became an opportunity rather than a challenge.

Zoe: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Kiran: I’m more and more convinced that we only have today. If today can be a little kinder and a little bit more compassionate, it’s a fantastic way to live your life.

Zoe: Kiran, thank you so much. I feel like there are so many beautiful gems in this brief time that we’ve had together, and I’m so excited to share your words with our readers. Just to see you again and connect with you is such a gift. 

Kiran: Thank you, and keep doing the amazing work you’re doing with the solutionaries. I love that word!