Design Thinking in Education
How Children and Adults Shape the Value System at Riverside
Published on November 4, 2021

Visiting Riverside, as we did to capture so many inspiring scenes for Happiness at School, one hears many refrains. A key one: that they seek to instill an ‘I CAN’ mindset in their pupils.

What is ‘design thinking’ in education all about? What is the vision that they are meant to feel empowered to create – the focus of this I CAN mentality?

First, a Design Thinking curriculum takes a cue from design by involving problem-solving for the real world. A well-designed object has a deeply functional relationship to the world, as well as coming into final shape through a process of making and improvement – iteration.

For the classroom, Riverside creates ‘prototypes’ of real problems. Each iteration creates an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the last one and improve.

As will be clear from the shorts on our platform, a large part of this process is the use of empathy – or putting the students (and often adults) involved into the shoes of the ‘end-users’ of the prototype.

So, when problems are posed like, “How can we create a classroom that allows for better access to nature?” students and teachers work together to create a workable solution by evaluating the proposal and changing it when problems are discovered. It is not meant to be a linear process. Participants may return to any part of the solution at any time to tweak it.

All of this is done by thinking of themselves as the users of the ‘product’ and thinking about what they would most like. As a good designer does.

The HUMANE Framework at Riverside

Where does this design philosophy come from? In 2001, Riverside founder Kiran Bir Sethi quit her job at her design firm, renovated a building on the edge of town and recruited a small group of teachers who believed in her ideas. From just 27 students from preschool to first grade for the first batch in 2001, it has now grown to 400 students and curricula up to twelfth grade.

Riverside has been working for 20 years to put student well-being and quality of learning at the forefront of ever-evolving methods.

The very action Sethi took conveys the practical drive to ‘improve on a previous design’ in the method outlined. It was dissatisfaction in part with the rigid state education system that drew Sethi to take what she was most sure worked from her design background – where empathy with the user of a product and constant improvement were key – to implement Design Thinking, which the HUMANE framework helps articulate in the classroom.

Starting with the Design Thinking stages, we move out into the social world. How exactly can we get growing kids to think usefully about social problems? To acquire practical skills and values that they really know how to apply?

Riverside and Sethi summarize the HUMANE framework / technique as one of:

Feel, Imagine, Do, Share.

The four points emphasize active participation on the part of the student. Watching this in the classroom is a convincing and transformative experience.

In each case, the communication, kinetic rhythm, self-checking and practical power of this process are visible, audible. If you are an educator, you may well want to explore the films yourself and see how their patterns can work for you.

Riverside’s Vision of Action and Movement

The I CAN vision was a reaction to mainstream teaching methods in India. As Kiran Bir Sethi says, “children start from crawling… then move to standing to running to thinking to laughing and just when they are telling the world ‘look at me I can’, we send them to school” – where, of course, all too often, they are stopped.

How does it work? From running and told to sit down. Instead of thinking and talking they are told to listen… Riverside, by contrast, aims to allow students to become active agents of their own learning processes. Sethi wants her students to start by questioning the status quo and realize that they can be the ones to solve problems, realizing “[we] are who we are waiting for.”

Riverside’s educators believe that, since their core values are strong, they can make students participants in how those values are adapted and applied.

So, as we discovered, the children have become collaborators in all aspects of the school. Mental and physical agency abound. They designed the uniforms, they were ‘clients’ to the architect and are empowered to believe that “this is their space” – that they should think about how to design it best for their learning.

The striking social confidence – and mutual respect – of many students at Riverside testifies to the efficacy of the ethos.

As defined by the school, The I CAN mindset has three pillars – make the pupils aware, enable them and empower them. As we found, design thinking unlocks powers of empathy in young minds – as they move out from a child’s perspective, focused on identification with the family and their own needs, the requirement to carry out the ‘iterative’ process together with thinking through the POV of the other has remarkable results.

What results can we see already?

It has been noted by many parents and observers that Riverside students graduate with a sharpened sense of the problems of the world around them. They have also been enabled with skills and knowledge that will help them solve these problems and have been empowered to build a more equitable and sustainable future. The success has been noticed.

The I CAN curriculum that started here – propelled by the related Design for Change movement spun out of Riverside in 2009 – can now be found in thousands of schools across 60 countries.

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