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Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

The first thing we noticed about The Riverside School was the space itself. There’s a large open area with offices on one side and long flat steps leading to a multi-purpose space on the other. There are open staircases and curved walls. This is a school that is so fiercely dedicated to the ideas of student voice and collaboration that even the school’s architecture has been designed around them. There is a circular well with seats descending into the ground. A ‘giant seven’ bench works as a surprisingly perfect collaboration space. A stand-alone circular brick room with large windows is used for class meetings and discussions. Students and adults traverse the space with comfort and purpose. Everyone here seems to feel like they are home.

Along the edges of the open area, there are boards that celebrate the school’s history and accomplishments. Riverside is consistently ranked in the top 5 schools in India, and its various national and international recognitions are too numerous to mention. Pictures show that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are just two of the many prominent people who have recognized its successes. The founder Kiran launched the school to even greater international fame with a TED talk she delivered in 2009. The day we visited, we met a group of educators from Hong Kong who had spent the past week at Riverside generally having their minds blown by what they were seeing at the school.

Riverside School meeting with Kiran

The founder, Kiran, leading a class discussion

After we were settled and offered coffee, a pair of 5th graders, named Adi and Sraj, took us on a tour of the campus. We peppered them with questions, and they answered them with confidence and poise. They explained that they liked Riverside because they got to experience what they were learning, “At other schools,” said Adi, “they are only like ‘read this or read that,’ but here they make us feel what happens. Like if they are learning about pollution, they just read books about how much garbage there is. But us, they will make us go to the places where pollution is happening and see.” Sraj chimed in, “Here we have experiences. We go everywhere.”

I asked them what they thought the most important thing they learned from Riverside was. Adi didn’t hesitate, “To be together.” “I think I’ve learned how to work as a team. How to collaborate,” said Sraj.

riverside school giant 7

Elizabeth with Adi and Sraj in the ‘Giant 7’

This sense of community also made an impression on the team from Hong Kong. They explained that back home, there is a very competitive academic culture where everyone is focused on their individual scores. By contrast, Riverside doesn’t even give quantitative marks until 8th grade. There is feedback, but it’s personalized and not comparative. As one teacher explained, “We are not competing with each other. We are completing each other.”

This idea of growing as individuals through being part of a strong community is reinforced through reflection from the earliest years. Even in Kindergarten, students will sit with their classmates and reflect, one at a time, on what values they best exemplify and why. Each student has a strength selected for them from the class values: polite, caring, helpful, or responsible. Personal and group refection is woven into everything that students do at Riverside. A high school student who approached me said that he liked the school because there was more of an emphasis on being a ‘citizen leader’ than an ‘academic leader.’

riverside school students

At Riverside, students can be seen collaborating everywhere.

There is also a strong emphasis on empathy. Students have gone a day without food, had limbs tied down, rolled incense sticks, and gone through a variety of other experiences to better empathize* with the plight of other people in India. Perhaps most dramatic is a tradition upperclassmen go through just before exams. While the rest of the students in the country are focused on cramming for the most important tests of their lives, Riverside students are told to take a few days to look inward and get perspective on the world. They spend a day with ‘bag pickers’ salvaging recyclables from trash heaps, and time meditating, and they generally try to put their lives and exams in a greater context.

Riverside’s approach does a lot to build intrinsic motivation and investment but it is not a complete antidote to teenage pastimes like procrastination. I was grounded by a scene I saw in a physics classroom**. A girl student was on the defensive. She was explaining, with a bit of frustration, that she wasn’t ready with her project because she hadn’t been able to contact her partner. She detailed the ways she had reached out. The teacher then looked to the boy the girl had mentioned. “Is that true?” asked the teacher. The boy admitted it was and explained that he wasn’t by his phone. “Do you really think that excuse is going to work, when you had over a week?” The scene went on like this for a couple of minutes, the rest of the class in awkward silence. The teacher laid out the ways he could have been more proactive. She was upset, but it wasn’t just because he was unprepared, it was because he had failed to live up to the freedom and responsibility he had been given.

So, there’s a no nonsense undertone that anchors the empathy, collaboration and reflection work that Riverside does. The no nonsense attitude is necessary, but it exists in a context of responsibility rather than compliance. It’s certainly not the main reason Riverside consistently outperforms the best schools in the country on the national exams. Riverside’s main insight is proving that when you focus on character and community, academics tend to follow.

  • Will

*The empathy in these experiences is not an end in itself but rather the first step in the Design Thinking model that informs much of what Riverside does. Students end up actually doing something about these issues. We’ll write more about that later, but you can get a glimpse of it in Kiran’s TED Talk.

** I was walking around unchaperoned. The Riverside administration literally told us to walk into whatever classrooms we wanted. It was the first time that’s happened to us on a school visit.

Quotes from the boards around campus:

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Riverside School quote 4

Riverside school quote 1