A Question of Design

Take two scenarios.

Classroom A and Classroom B- schools I visited on my travels a few years back.

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Classroom A is a government run primary school in Mombassa, Kenya. The average pupil teacher ratio at the time was 133:1 (yes, you read correctly). This is only half the class in the photo- a group of pupils who were coming in for some extra tuition in the run up to their final primary school exams. While numbers are large, there are signs immediately that this is a classroom: school desks, text books, notebooks, school bags, blackboard, teacher at the top of the class, uniforms.  Note too that this is a primary school and the majority of the students are in their mid-teens.

Now, let’s look at Classroom B. This is a primary school run by an NGO in Kolkata called Vikramshila. And again we recognise it as a classroom: children, learning, writing… But in Classroom B, things strike me, like in a game of spot the difference.


By painting the base of the walks in blackboard paint, each wall has become a copybook which children can write on directly. The rest of the wall is used to hang artwork and learning prompts. Desks and chairs have been eliminated, as too uniforms. With a flexible space, the teachers knell down to engage with the children. The teacher is not always at the top of the classroom and the class is working in small peer-to peer groups.



It strikes me that we have an ‘idea’ of what education should look like, but this pre-conceived notion does not equate to quality education, nor is it always the most cost effective.  Do you really need chairs for education to be good? Or books? Or uniforms? In developing contexts, these are expensive items. Having to buy a uniform or a copybook could be the difference of whether your child goes to school, or not. It seems to me that the thinkers behind classroom B have asked some fundamental questions about learning and were willing to toss the education blueprint. I suspect they asked questions such as; ‘How can learning be best facilitated? How can we eliminate barriers to entry? What economic contexts are the pupils coming from? How can we make best use of the space that we have? How can the children learn from each other?

Whoever designed classroom B are true design thinkers, in action. They know that the most effective is not necessarily the most costly. Instead effectiveness begins by asking the right questions and getting into the mindframe of not just the pupils, but their parents too.



And in saying all this, I also want to add how much I admire the teacher is classroom A. My goodness, she was doing her best. Her name is Madame Florence, and here she was coming in on her spare time to give extra classes to pupils who she cared about. It was not a lack of caring which is impeding on their progress but a lack of questioning at a design and systems level.

Creativity too is a process which begins with questioning. So weather you are designing your own classroom or workspaces, your business or even the flow of your days, you can take some inspiration from Classroom B and ask yourself… 

  • What can be eliminated in my systems to make them run more efficiently? 
  • How might the space I am in be used better to create the outcomes I am looking for? 
  • What context are my students/ clients/ customers/ beneficiaries coming from? 
  • What resources do I currently have which I can redistribute or reuse to create a better environment?


Change begins with a willingness to shake up the blueprints we have inherited and question afresh. 

Now, I am wondering, where can I get my hands on some blackboard paint….



Tonight I am facilitating a workshop on Education and Development for the Suas Global Issues Programme – which prompted me to write this post. I will be covering similar topics as well as looking at gender in education and new trends in global education. Find out more about the Suas Global Issues courses here.

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