Education in Emergencies

Beginning in early 2016, Quicksand engaged in its second project with the International Rescue Committee: working together to understand and design for education in emergency contexts.

The first phase of our project began in February with an innovation in education landscape review. We conducted desk research to assimilate information across a wide range of applications of Information Communication Technology (ICT) programs and tools in education in conflict settings. This research resulted in the identification of a list of key microtrends in the sector. The microtrends identify technology and media innovations that have already been implemented in education programs or can potentially be incorporated in such programs to impact learning outcomes — from interactive distance learning that takes into account both formal and non-formal learning spaces, to new and transmedia blended learning that mediates the learning process and facilitates teacher instruction. These trends were one foundational method for our team to gain knowledge of how certain programs and tools catalyze impact and have positive effects on education interventions. We examined the microtrends through expert interviews to further understand the nuances that underpin each.

The second phase began in March with the more focused objective of exploring the potential for implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) techniques within emergency contexts. The contexts we focused on were countries in Africa where the IRC had already implemented education programs with refugee populations. Most of the research on the implementation and impact of SEL programs has shown promising results, though these have come from stable and high-income contexts in the western world; thorough longitudinal reports on the potential impact of SEL remain to be seen for children who live in emergency contexts and have experienced armed conflict. Most interventions that have been implemented and measured in emergency contexts tend to assess opportunities and concerns within education in emergencies broadly and do not specifically focus on SEL.

The project’s stance, supported by the preliminary research we conducted, was to emphasize how important it is for children who have experienced traumatic events to retain a sense of normalcy and predictability, and develop social emotional skills. This can be done by consistently attending stable school environments where teachers are mentally healthy and trained to promote students’ well being along with their educational pursuits. The relevance and importance of SEL for children in these contexts make it vital to think anew and innovate for this context. This is the theoretical and practical foundation our research provided us as we prepared to conduct in-context research activities.

The common five social emotional learning competences

In April 2016, the Quicksand and IRC teams traveled to Africa to conduct qualitative research exploring educational content and delivery in refugee settlements. During our time in the settlements, we worked closely with IRC field staff as well as translators and utilized a variety of qualitative research methods including open-ended interviews, participant observation, and elicitation activities like behavior and relationship mapping. We engaged with various stakeholders including teachers, students, caregivers, community leaders, and NGO staff. We spent time observing classrooms and watching engaged and enthusiastic teachers instruct inspired students. We talked with community members in their homes about their thoughts and feelings on their current situation in their host country, and spent one Sunday attending mass at a Methodist church, having the privilege of hearing both Christian hymns, choir songs, and traditional Congolese music before speaking to church leaders about their thoughts and concerns.

The refugee community openly shared and interacted with us in profound and insightful ways that created a perspective shift both professionally and personally. While we had many positive moments, a refugee settlement is a place of impermanence and instability, and we found the living situation was especially dismal for the newer refugees. Everyone we met lacked basic amenities such as adequate clothing, food, and rain protection — and this is to say nothing of the equal lack in reading and writing materials for students and training materials for teachers. Access to all of these things are a basic human right, and our approach going forward after research took into account the entire ecosystem of refugees’ needs, which directly affect their ability to succeed in school and retain knowledge.

We came across many challenges during our fieldwork, and spent considerable time debriefing, analyzing, and synthesizing the field data. We revisited stories and experiences from the field and had open, lengthy discussions about the refugees’ immediate needs and future possibilities for innovation in education. While the challenges and resulting opportunities are manifold, below are some of the key insights and takeaways from our research:

  • Leveraging Existing Strategies:Many communities have existing strategies for maintaining and developing social and emotional wellness that resonate. We must ensure that our SEL approach is tailored to the communities’ existing behaviors, motivations, and aspirations.
  • Social and Economic Infrastructure: Lack of social and economic infrastructure, as well as access to training, support, and materials can deter even the most motivated of stakeholders. Addressing the emotional and social needs of populations in emergency settings necessarily means also solving for gaps in material and economic support.
  • Alternative and Vocational Training: Vocational training is a popular and viable alternative to secondary education that leads to the retention of practical livelihood skills. Both student and teacher stakeholders are highly motivated in seeking out vocational training opportunities and reintegrating those skills and knowledge back into the community.
  • ICT Aspirations: The use of technology in refugee settings is multifaceted — there exists a wide variety of ICT skills and proficiency, and the participants we spoke to have varying degrees of mastery of ICT platforms (e.g., mobile phones, smartphones, computers, tablets). Refugees repeatedly expressed high aspirations with regard to technology use for competing in a global economy, and a need for increased accessibility to the latest technology.
  • Teachers’ Identity and Roles: Teachers have a conflicting sense of identity. On one hand they are seen as extremely valued resources by the community, on the other hand they are termed ‘incentive workers’ and not given the due respect that they deserve and which is necessary to maintain their motivation and active participation in the learning process.
  • Hope and Resilience: Both teachers and children are extremely creative and resourceful. They are sources of innovation, hope, and resilience in the face of extreme difficulties.
  • Diverse Contexts: While the contexts we observed were refugee settlements, the local socio-cultural milieu is vastly different. These differences considerably affect the perception and adoption of secular education, which must result in tailored, adapted approaches taking into consideration both contexts.
Synthesis of field research through affinity mapping

Our time spent in this context left us with an important and essential question: how can we create a unique and innovative approach to social emotional learning while simultaneously tackling contextual challenges so that SEL programs could be given the appropriate time and space to make a difference? We identified many individual and systemic opportunities in various domains, and below are listed a short sampling of some of the top opportunities:

  • Make SEL relevant within local cultures and take into account local attitudes, and implement SEL programming for multiple stakeholders, not just exclusively for children.
  • Enable children to participate in formal education while moving through remote learning and embedding tools for populations in transit.
  • Enhance individualized integration and instruction so that diverse student needs can be addressed.
  • Expand the role of teaching to caregivers, community members, and especially other students in an effort to bolster peer support.
  • Support teacher growth through a variety of channels from providing basic necessities to ongoing career development and learning groups.

After many discussions around extracting the insights that led to the most impactful and scalable opportunities, we returned to Africa to facilitate an ideation workshop with both the IRC project team and the organization’s local field staff. This phase creatively utilized the insights we uncovered from the first two phases to collaboratively generate actionable solutions. Over several days we worked with stakeholders at every level of the IRC, continually diverging, converging, and narrowing down ideas until several outstanding concepts emerged. During this process two visual designers joined us in the ideation sessions, breathing life into our ideas and capturing the emotion and intent discovered through discussions that can sometimes be missed when recording concepts in paragraph or bullet list form. The most resonant components from the ideas developed were thoughtfully combined and rearranged to create new concepts for further development and implementation. Our three top concepts are:

Graine is a mobile learning experience for a family to grow together. Our concept delivers bite-sized social and emotional learning activities directly to a caregiver’s phone. Graine will pay families to participate in the program and provide SEL content that is usable by individuals with low or no literacy.

Hekima aims to enhance a teacher’s capability and motivation by delivering bite-sized content and behavioural interventions. Continued teaching support will be sent to a teacher’s phone or accessed via a shared device. This will be supplemented with ‘expert’ teaching support either online or in person, reinforced by certification for teachers.

Spark the Rise engages youth as literacy and SEL tutors to create focused and small group learning experiences outside of school. In student learning circles led by youth Sparks, the learning extends beyond the students to include parents and in celebratory moments, the community. Spark the Rise can exist as an extension of school and can involve teachers or be completely separate from it. It will mark student accomplishments, involve parents in their learning and conclude with a community wide celebration at the end of each learning cycle.

Each of these concepts focuses on education delivery by different stakeholders, including teachers, students, and caregivers. The concepts each have a flexible technological component, leveraging current and future mobile phone use, and draw on behavioral science to make interventions that create lasting behavior change and not simply a quick fix.

The challenges faced by refugees in settlements and settings that are both temporary and long-term are innumerable. Some are tangible and material while others are aspirational and exist on a larger systems-level scale. Underlying all of our work outlined above was the tension between immediate needs and long-term change and innovation, a tension we repeatedly returned to during ideation and conceptualization. Approaching refugee beneficiaries and their larger context(s) with an interdisciplinary lens enabled our team to focus not only on our beneficiaries’ immediate needs but also the larger ecosystems they find themselves embedded in, allowing us to leverage existing social networks and cultural norms to lend validity and sustained functionality to opportunities.

An expansive view of design thinking resulted in a rigorous consideration of scales of experience and differing spaces of potential design. We didn’t just take into account the students and teachers implicated in educational systems, but also community leaders and NGO staff — we needed the perspectives of multiple beneficiaries to design something holistic and sustainable. We endeavored to understand beneficiaries beyond their immediate engagement with education, and as evidenced from the numerous ideas that came out of our workshop, there are also ample opportunities to be capitalised on in meaningful, sustainable, and scale-able ways.


Do you have experiences conducting design research in emergency settings? Are there stories of innovation for refugees you’d like to share with us? Did you enjoy gaining some new insight into our process and want to talk about it? Write to us at

Originally published at on September 20, 2016.