Designing Education for the Most Vulnerable People

Author: , Design Innovation Lead at the International Rescue Committee

We recently began a project that used human centered design techniques to develop ideas that will create greater impact and scale in literacy and social and emotional learning in crisis settings. Social Emotional Learning is a term used to describe the ability to focus, retain and apply information, regulate emotions, persevere, solve problems, and get along with others. These skills are known to be an important precursor to success in the classroom and yet they are relatively untested in crisis settings.

This project involved developing a nuanced understanding of the challenges of bringing education to refugee populations with very different needs, specifically, a population that is living in fear of attack and highly mobile. While we spoke to communities in Niger and Tanzania, this research is relevant to many other contexts where providers are seeking to create flexible experiences that meet the needs of their users.

We are prototyping a mobile learning experience that will not only move with families but can also empower parents to teach about the things that matter most to them, even if they are uneducated themselves.

The traditional education system for refugees varies but a formal school environment is central to most solutions. The safety and stability a school environment can provide is developmentally and practically important for learning. However, what if school is a danger instead of a safe place, as it is in Diffa, Niger? What if classrooms have 168 pupils and only a single teacher, as it is in Nyaragusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania? These seemingly intractable problems, caused by things beyond any teacher’s, student’s or program’s control, forced us to think of education possibilities outside the normal classroom.

It is a challenge to design for those who lead such different lives from our own. It requires listening and openness to new and unexpected insights. In order to understand the challenges and possibilities for parents, teachers and students, we needed to see the education system through their eyes. We spent weeks sitting in their homes and classrooms, asking about their life, needs and what they care about. We tried to deeply connect with them in order to understand how to design an education experience that would be meaningful.

In the schools we visited in Diffa, Niger, refugees and internally displaced people make up half of the school population. These children and their families have fled their homes in fear from Boko Haram. They are often pushed out of their communities and when they return, they find their former schools emptied of students and teachers. If parents want to stay together they must take their children out of school. Teachers, parents and students are in constant fear of an attack and for good reason, Boko Haram targets schools.

Additionally, many of these refugees from Nigeria speak English and Hausa, their native tongue and yet the Niger curriculum requires teaching in French. While integrated, the school environment is one that often results in frustration and isolation for the most vulnerable students. Students are not alone in feeling frustrated. Teachers also struggle with having such a diverse and integrated classroom. Contract teachers, approximately 80% of teachers in the area, strike on a monthly basis because they aren’t paid on time. Classrooms don’t offer the stability and predictability they need to, for anyone.

Meanwhile parents in Diffa, Niger are asked to contribute heavily to the monitoring and building of classrooms. As one parent said, “the government has left the schools in the hands of poor people and our children.” Further complicating this is that parents don’t see immediate value in what they themselves describe as “western schooling.” The formal education system competes with Koranic education and a parent’s immediate need to make money to survive.

Despite these challenges with the formal education system many parents and teachers saw immediate value in teaching the softer skills that can be easily embedded through Social and Emotional Learning. The Niger school curriculum already included “Moral Lessons” and parents had a deep desire for their children to respect others, be good members of the community and be able to support their family- all things that can be included as outcomes in a bespoke blend of Social and Emotional Learning.

Working together with our colleagues in the field, we analyzed the results of the study and are moving forward to prototype a concept that delivers social and emotional learning activities and financial support directly to a parent’s mobile phone. We want a family to stay safe and together, and support their desire to imbue their child with a sense of social responsibility that can be delivered through Social and Emotional curriculum. By leveraging the high cell phone penetration among parents, we can deliver bite sized content and incentives directly to their phones.

As we develop this education experience, we will simultaneously be prototyping and testing our solution for the youth and students in the Nyarguysu Refugee Camp and our teacher learning experience. Please be in touch with the Air-Bel Center at the IRC if you are interested in helping contribute to our innovative education efforts.

This project was funded with support from the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID).

The responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.



The Airbel Impact Lab designs, tests, and scales life-changing solutions for people affected by conflict and disaster. Our aim is to find the most impactful and cost-effective products, services, and delivery systems possible.

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