I had the privilege of attending her third session on 14 May 2012, with 70 other educators, policy-makers and researchers - and we were all enthralled.
"The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn't exist in 2004," she reminds us. "We are educating children for jobs that do not exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, in order to solve problems that aren't problems yet!"
We laugh uncomfortably. Point taken. We're all well aware of the difficulties of our task - how do we prepare young people for a world vastly different from our own?
Most, if not all educators acknowledge the need to go beyond numeracy and literacy, to equip students with skills for this unpredictable future. In March 2010, Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE) announced a new framework to enhance the development of 21st century competencies - civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills, critical and inventive thinking, information and communication skills.
Kiran's own list of 21st century skills also includes problem-solving, adaptability, leadership, collaboration, innovation etc - a standard-enough list - but what she did to impart those skills to children has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Riverside School and Design for Change
In 2001, with her knowledge as a designer (she gleefully tells us she was not constrained by formal teacher training), she founded the Riverside School, which became her laboratory for designing classroom experiences - not just to teach academic skills, but to use a human-centered, research-based, practical curriculum to get the students excited about ethics, excellence and engagement.
And engage they did.
"Do you think children can help the zoo?" a teacher asks a group of Grade 2 students. Amidst excited chatter, a tiny girl pipes up with cheerful confidence - "Yes, the zoo is for children, so children can help the zoo!"
Another little boy suggests an audio tour ("to make the animals talk"), and the video shows them getting permission from the zoo authorities, researching, writing, speaking, translating and even talking to potential sponsors. Finally, the project is launched, and we see members of the public and parents plugged into the audio tour at the Reptile House.
We see Grade 5 students rolling incense sticks for eight hours to experience being child labourers, before taking to the streets to talk to adults about child rights. We see Grade 7 students designing and organising an international conference, in collaboration with Stanford University's d.school - over Skype. In 2011, the Grade 10 students designed a new ice-cream flavour 'Ras'mataz', and successfully persuaded ice-cream brand Havmor to sell it as a 'Christmas special'. Kiran tells us of her Grade 11 students, who spoke to a doctor and then set up a sex education site for their peers. The list goes on.
With all these community-based projects, the students learn academic skills, as well as team work, leadership skills, problem-solving, communication and most importantly, they realise that they really can make a positive difference to their community.
"We want them to shift from 'Can I? to 'I Can!'" Kiran explains. "The 21st century skills are not a separate syllabus - it becomes embedded in their everyday life. And when children do good, they also do well."
In fact, her students did so well in mathematics, science and English that they outperformed their peers in the top 10 schools in India, an extra-impressive feat given that Kiran started the school in 2001, with 27 students "who couldn't get into other schools!"
Since 2001, Kiran and the Riverside School have come a long way. In 2009, Riverside launched a nation-wide Design for Change (DFC) School contest, and children in 30,000 schools in India were taught to use the simple DFC framework of Feel-Imagine-Do-Share to activate change.
Design for Change then went global in 2010. Currently, they have reached 35 countries, 300,000 schools, and more than 25 million children, and they now have the world's largest collection of stories of social change by children.
Prototyping and refinement - not failure
Responding to Kiran's experience and the creativity displayed by students in Riverside and other schools in India, a member of the audience lamented that many children in Singapore seem to lack independence, apparently needing directions even when they are encouraged to be 'creative'.
Kiran acknowledged that it was hard to tell children to 'go be empowered' - "After all, what does empowerment look like?" Her suggestion was to focus on visible, accessible, replicable and sustainable examples, because children first learn through replicating existing models and projects; once they learn that, understanding how to innovate would be the next step.
However, she sounded a note of caution - that while children sometimes do not succeed in their attempts, she frames it as prototyping that needs refinement, not as failure. "Many schools don't give the children enough time to refine and redo their project," she pointed out. "We often just focus on finishing the project quickly."
She gave an example of street plays that some of her students put up. "Sometimes they come back and say, no one listened to us!" That discouraging feedback they received then led to further refinement of their plays.
Another example of that was the international conference organised by her Grade 7 students. To test their ideas, they organised a prototype 'mini-conference', invited their parents, and worked on the feedback received. Any problems encountered (eg. sending out the invitations too late) were then avoided when they organised the actual international conference.
The importance of genuine empathy
But the point she kept coming back to was that children need to feel and connect with their ideas, and develop genuine empathy.
Kiran recounted her conversation with a boy she'd just met in Singapore, who said he was concerned for the elderly. They're lonely and have nothing to do in the old folks' homes, he said. "Have you visited an old folks' home?" she asked. The boy had not.
"Or sometimes when you ask young children what problem they feel for, they say global warming... but global warming's not bothering them!" she said, to laughter from the audience. "They just say it because that's what they've been told."
"The kids have to feel it themselves," she reiterated, and it's not about ticking off a checklist of projects, or having children parrot issues that adults tell them about. They have to engage with their community, see the real needs and feel for the issue, in order to develop genuine empathy. This could even be as simple as allowing a visually handicapped boy to touch the faces of all those around him for the first time (a DFC project from the Experimental Elementary School in Taiwan).
Transform, not reform
Of course, much time and patience would be needed for this process, and Kiran acknowledged that this was difficult for educators everywhere who are strapped for time to cover curriculum. In her view, this would require not just reform, but transformation of the education system, its priorities and its curriculum.
It may seem like an insurmountable task - but Kiran has done just that, with Riverside School and its innovative curriculum, the Design for Change global movement, and more recently, her new project to create a new student-centric, activity-focused "textbook that doesn't look like a textbook!" which will be completed in 2013.
And how can this be translated to Singapore's schools?
For one, the Singapore-based social enterprise SoCh in Action aims to spread Kiran's message to many more children through their Design For Change programme, which has run annual competitions, training and public expositions in Singapore since 2010.
And if the key decision-makers in Singapore's MOE are persuaded by Kiran's ideas, perhaps they too will actively seek ways to further embed this real-world, human-centered, design-thinking framework in the children's daily educational experience and curriculum.
I certainly hope so, and it seems likely enough, since the DFC programme complements MOE's new Values in Action framework, and offers attractive incentives, in the form of SoCh in Action's experential reward system and positive media publicity for the children's projects. And of course, empowering children to create positive social change will benefit both the children and the community.
But I also hope that this does not become yet another blind pursuit of awards and achievements, or a race to create flashy projects that merely look good on the children's records. Perhaps then, the bigger challenge is: How do we not only reform, but transform our education system's curriculum, priorities and attitudes? How do we design the children's educational experience to allow them to explore what truly concerns them, and ensure they have adequate space and time to create their own solutions, attempt prototypes, refine and re-do? And how do we stay true to the movement's ideals of cultivating genuine empathy?
Maybe the children have some answers.
All pictures from: SoCh in Action.