Tackling barriers to secondary education using Human-Centered Design


Firelight is working with a small cohort of Malawian partner organizations that interact with communities, students, teachers, local leaders, and government officials. The initiative uses a human-centered design (HCD) method to develop innovative approaches that improve transition, persistence, and exam pass rates for students in community day secondary schools. As this initiative launched, one lesson became very clear: human-centered design requires a complete shift in thinking about a problem, and this shift takes time. The organizations chosen for this initiative were initially evaluated based on their track records of thinking creatively and addressing problems innovatively. Nevertheless, it is still a difficult task to break free from what you think you know about a situation, a field of study, or a group of people in order to truly listen and understand the people that you are trying to serve. HCD requires that all assumptions be dropped and diverse voices be heard. It takes time to observe, to listen, to create potential solutions, and to test those solutions with the end users.

In order to bring HCD thinking to this project, Firelight enlisted the help of Professor Dan Orwa from the University of Nairobi. Dan has formal training in design thinking from Stanford University’s d.School, has partnered with Stanford professors in teaching Liberation Technologies, and regularly mentors Stanford graduate students as they engage in development projects in the slums of Nairobi using an HCD approach. Dan was excited about the idea of bringing HCD to address barriers to secondary education in Malawi, and in February 2015 spent an intensive week training design teams from seven NGOs in HCD. In order to avoid preconceptions and promote creativity on the design teams, Firelight asked each organization to bring a five-person team that included no more than two staff members; the remaining members could consist of traditional community leaders, teachers, students, parents, or local government officials.

These design teams brought a great energy to the training. The training took participants to secondary school classrooms to learn from the people this initiative plans to serve. Dan commented that the teams were so engaged in the training that they were reluctant to break away when the day was done. They were learning a new methodology, one that they hoped had the potential for a complete paradigm shift in addressing the challenges facing secondary schools in Malawi. Dan often teaches HCD over a sixteen-week course, and these teams were aiming to grasp the core principles in only a week. This training ignited their enthusiasm that the challenges could be overcome through innovation, but one week of training was not sufficient to create the necessary mental shifts. Instead, they took home their energy and ideas, and through two-month planning grants from Firelight they continued to use HCD in their communities to develop new ideas to address known problems.

During this two-month planning period, the design teams spoke to students, teachers, and local leaders, visited schools and households, and often had to repeat the steps of HCD many times to more specifically define the problem they were trying to solve. Also during this time, Dan had a chance to spend two days with each organization and helped them as they came upon obstacles in their design thinking. According to Dan, HCD is a difficult process, and often groups fall back on traditional methods when they become stuck. He was there to help them get unstuck, to answer questions that arose in their design processes.

After Dan’s visits, the groups prepared to share their ideas at a second workshop in June. There they shared their processes and proposals. Four of the groups with the most promising innovative plans were selected for Firelight funding.