A Basic Right: Education

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to education is a basic human entitlement, which covers “free, compulsory primary education for all.” per Wikipedia’s definition.

Education is arguably our most valuable tool to ensure a prospering human society and planet. It is our first opportunity to enlighten, encourage, and train the children of the future to be curious, thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate – to be the leaders and stewards we need. As designers, we have the privilege to help with this goal.

Looking at Burkina Faso in West Africa, we see an excellent example of designers identifying a problem with access to education and proposing a solution. Burkina Faso experiences an extremely hot and arid climate (temperatures exceeding 100° F), making temperature control of schools difficult to maintain. Classrooms can become hotter inside than outside due to traditional building structures. As a solution, a team of designers radically redesigned the typical school. Robin Cross, CEO and director of Article 25 a UK based NGO, describes the innovation in the publication Works that Work, “… the elegant new buildings’ most distinctive feature is the geometric network of steel beams that lift the corrugated steel roofs 1 meter above the classrooms, creating a welcome pool of shade. By raising the roof you vent the underside of the metal, the heat is swept away, and the classrooms stay cool.” Metal louvres have replaced traditional glass windows to avoid the high cost of maintenance, particularly due to sand storms. The louvres are located on both sides of the classroom for sufficient cross-ventilation. Additionally, the building is made predominantly out of laterite, a stone found locally to Burkina Faso, to help support local business. A more comfortable learning environment has shown to be paramount in keeping children in the classroom and moving on towards graduation.

Gourcy School: Bethel, Burkina Faso http://www.article-25.org/projects/model-school/

In the US, it is well documented that public education is not equal across the country. In fact, recent data has confirmed the suspicion that wealthier families have access to better public education. As demonstrated in the chart below from the website Vox, children trend to perform better on standardized tests if they grow up in districts with on average more expensive homes (i.e. wealthier families).


But today, even as we get children into the the classroom, we see that they are faced with waves of distractions. The ubiquity of smartphones has become a constant diversion.

Even if students are using the internet for learning purposes, we tend to see the use case is CliffsNotes and other short version articles and guides to the topic. Students are no longer reading novels. Particularly because these comprehensive resource guides can be found online, for free. CliffsNotes, SparkNotes, Shmoop, etc. are a prime example of products that was intended to aid students by supplementing the required reading and helping to clarify confusion. Unfortunately, it has trended to simply replace reading.


As we continue to develop technology, we need to enable teachers to contend with the distraction. For example, Professor Carl Fisher advises teachers to make students submit their work via a website titled www.turnitin.com, a plagiarism search engine, to help combat the over-use of CliffsNotes. 

Screenshot of the website WriteCheck (powered by turnitin.com): Illustrates the student interface for submitting papers. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/technology/personaltech/16basics.html

Looking forward, how can new technology and designers continue to shape the education sector? And will we be able to achieve universal, quality education?

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