How to Build Effective International Education Programs

How to Build Effective International Education Programs

Across the globe, access to universal education is often seen as a key goal for many international education programs — and it is tempting to think that learning follows a simple pattern: build schools, hire teachers, and children will learn.

Yet the fact that nine out of ten children in low-income countries cannot read by age 10 is proof that delivering effective education, especially in low-resourced settings, is hard.

Teaching children who are often the first in their families to learn to read is an extraordinarily daunting task — especially if doing so in a language they don’t speak at home, with minimally trained teachers, and little to no classroom materials. Adding to these challenges is the fact that many, if not most, of the international education interventions set up to improve school learning fail: currently, three out of five of the largest global funders of basic education have no evidence of impact at scale.

At the Luminos Fund, we know that effective education projects are rooted in iterative design – a process centered on continuous improvement and refinement. In this approach, organizations continuously evaluate their program implementation to assess their impact and make ongoing adjustments accordingly. For education projects and organizations, impact means students are learning, and the depth of that impact is the depth of a student’s learning gains.

Successful education initiatives marry the best of global learning science with local insights and apply an iterative approach to implementation. At Luminos, we have identified six key capabilities needed to create our organizational culture of iterative design:

1. A Deep Commitment to an Ongoing Journey

At Luminos, our iterative process is an ongoing cycle with three key stages: design, learn, adapt. From the moment our program is launched in the classroom, Luminos is iterating on our approach in response to the data we collect. Our learnings inform the nature, extent, and pace of our program adaptations. These adaptations occur across all aspects of our programming, including curriculum design, assessments, service delivery program support, and staffing capacity and structures. Once one cycle ends, the next one begins.

2. A Focus on One Thing — Foundational Learning — and Doing It Well

While the needs of children in the developing world are vast, they cannot all be effectively addressed simultaneously by one international nongovernmental organization. Focusing on what you do best allows you the time and capacity to refine your approach until you reach excellence. At Luminos, we do one thing: provide joyful, foundational learning to marginalized children. Our singular focus enables iteration, allowing us to home in on the adjustments and adaptations needed to achieve maximum impact for our students.

3. Consistent Classroom-Level Implementation

In pursuit of foundational learning and in support of our community teachers, Luminos applies a structured pedagogical approach to our curriculum. Structured pedagogy involves breaking down complex concepts into smaller, manageable units and presenting them in a logical sequence in order to progressively build upon a child’s foundational knowledge. For example, when teaching students to read, we begin our phonics-based approach by ensuring students can identify letters, then the letter sounds, before blending those sounds into words of increasingly greater complexity, eventually progressing to reading individual words and then sentences.

This framework makes it easy for us to track how consistently our curriculum is implemented across classrooms, and whether individual students or whole classrooms are on track with set learning targets. By laying out clear expectations for children’s learning, our structured pedagogy, combined with our classroom observations and other data collection, allows us to know immediately if we are meeting our learning targets or not, and make adjustments accordingly.

4. Data Collection and Analytics

The ability to quickly and accurately collect data, and then process and learn from that data, is crucial to making adaptations. Across all Luminos’ program sites, we collect data through classroom observations made by supervisors and Luminos staff, student assessments, and external program evaluations. This data provides a clear picture of what is and is not working, and it enables us to focus our adjustments accordingly.

5. A Staff Committed to Excellence, and a Staffing Structure to Match

Iterative design is foundational to Luminos and is reflected in our Beliefs and Values. Among other things, staff commit to using research, data, and classroom observations in the tenacious pursuit of excellence to learn what works and take the initiative to problem solve and adjust our programming accordingly.

6. Extensive Communication and Consensus Building with Partners

From start to finish, Luminos works hand in hand with our community partners and government stakeholders to ensure the successful delivery of our programs. An iterative approach is often new for community and government partners. Sharing data on actual student learning levels and inviting collaboration on solutions is critical for bringing partners along on the iterative design journey.

Looking to the Future

While iterative design is a well-known model in other industries, it is rarely practiced among global education reformers. In a world in which 90% of children in low-income countries have not learned to read by age 10, effective interventions are essential to addressing the problem. We believe the way to get to those effective education interventions is by employing an iterative design approach. Education reform through iterative design is a hard journey, but our results in the classroom tell us that it is the only one worth pursuing.

Learning more in the Iterative Design element of the Luminos Method!

Five Tips to Build Effective Global-Local Partnerships

Five Tips to Build Effective Global-Local Partnerships

While the international development world is committed to putting more resources in the hands of local partners, the question remains: how does it work best in practice?

Local partners (what Luminos refers to as our “community partners”) have been a core part of the Luminos Fund’s high-impact learning program from the beginning. In our global-local model, our programs are co-created and co-implemented with our community partners. Through many years of experience, we have honed an approach to deliver our transformative education programs efficiently and effectively with and through our community partners, combining international best practices with deep local expertise and creativity.

Here are five tips from the Community Partners element of the Luminos Method for building effective partnerships.


of community partners reported that Luminos’ approach to capacity building was “great” and that partners’ staffs were providing the technical resources necessary to work more effectively and efficiently

1. Align on Leadership, Mission, and Values

Do: Ensure your partnerships reflect your values just as much as the program itself. For example, we take a joyful learning approach in the classroom and with our partner interactions.


Don’t: Assume that the same leadership or operational style will be suitable for all partnerships, regardless of their specific cultural context or organizational values.

“We chose Luminos because it matched with who we are as an institution. We do things differently around foundational literacy and numeracy, and we want to use data to measure progress. We also want to improve the community. In Luminos, it was the first time we saw a partner that encompassed wholly our interests and approach.”

Benjamin Freeman, Executive Director of LIPACE, a Luminos community partner in Liberia

2. Solve Problems Nimbly and Proactively

Do: Take a quick, proactive problem-solving approach in the face of unexpected challenges during program implementation. Though we have standardized many elements of the program over the years, we must remain nimble and ready to think creatively with our partners in the face of operating challenges.


Don’t: Ignore the insights and problem-solving capabilities of your community partners by adhering rigidly to your processes and overlooking opportunities for mutual learning.

“We came on board having our own processes and opinions about how you go about doing the work. But as we worked alongside Luminos, we saw that they knew what they were doing and that there was so much we could learn in working side by side.”

Kirk Anderson, Executive Director of Link Community Development, a Luminos community partner in Ghana

3. Communicate Often and Quickly

Do: Take a “high-touch” approach to communications through WhatsApp, Slack, by phone, or in person. Whether it is the timely answering of text messages, showing up to important community meetings, or returning phone calls, partner responsiveness is an important value.


Don’t: Expect successful outcomes without fostering a communication environment that facilitates a swift and collaborative response to changing needs and situations.

“When we are both so closely following the work, it means that most of the time we get to the problem at the right time and have a solution in place before it’s too late to change.”

Hagirso Desta, Executive Director, EECMY-DASSC, a Luminos community partner in Ethiopia

4. Prioritize Learning Outcomes

Do: Use real-time data to help community partners learn and adjust along the way, sharing data with partners via data dashboards or learning sessions to serve as a guide for any classroom adjustments.


Don’t: Implement data-gathering requirements without explaining their purpose and sharing the results with community partners to invite their input and creative problem-solving.

“All their analysis really helps improve implementation. Each year, this brings to us new and additional knowledge to our approach that makes the work better for the children and the staff.”

Hagirso Desta, Executive Director, EECMY-DASSC, a Luminos community partner in Ethiopia

5. Create a Safe Environment for Candid Feedback

Do: Take the first steps to build a culture of trust and transparency by creating clear and open communication channels, in both directions, on an ongoing basis. This can include multiple formal and informal processes, from surveys and learning sessions to regular check-ins. Commit to being responsive to the feedback received.


Don’t: Create an atmosphere where partners may feel hesitant to share honest feedback due to concerns about jeopardizing the partnership.

“We have to demonstrate that we really mean it when we ask for feedback and that partners can trust us to receive it well.”

Ernesta Orlovaitė, Luminos Fund, Director of Impact​​

Learn more in the Community Partners element of the Luminos Method!

Joyful Learning Webinar: Why Children Everywhere Learn Best When They Are Happy

Joyful Learning Webinar: Why Children Everywhere Learn Best When They Are Happy

On January 30, 2024, Luminos convened leading education experts to explore the power of Joyful Learning to drive better learning outcomes for children. The LinkedIn Live webinar featured insights from Dr. Kwame Akyeampong of the Open University, Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen of LEGO Education, and Caitlin Baron from the Luminos Fund. Watch the webinar for valuable reflections and read on for three key recommendations from the discussion.


Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education and Development, Open University

Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Head of Educational Impact, LEGO Education

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

Watch the webinar below:

Key speaker recommendations include:

1) Develop Joyful Learning on the Foundation of a Safe and Inclusive Environment

The well-being of students is paramount for joyful learning. Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, emphasizes this, stating, “We always emphasize that…learning of any kind really cannot happen until we can provide children with a safe and inclusive learning environment​​.” Ensuring staff and partners are well-trained, educating students about their rights, and promoting healthy practices are all critical components of ensuring student well-being.

Learn more in the importance of safe, inclusive, and healthy environments in the Joyful Learning element of the Luminos Method!

2) Develop a Meaningful Program of Study

Meeting students where they are with culturally relevant materials is a cornerstone of the Luminos approach. “A meaningful program of study…connects with these children’s interests and background,” says Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, underscoring the need to tailor education to the child’s learning level and cultural context​​.

Caitlin Baron adds that “the lack of resources doesn’t actually need to change the pedagogy, it just needs to change the materials and the modality.” This lesson challenges educators to adapt their teaching methods to the resources available without compromising on the quality of pedagogy.

“A meaningful program of study…connects with these children’s interests and background.”

Dr. Kwame Akyeampong

As a Luminos Board member, Dr. Kwame Akyeampong has observed that Luminos classrooms are “a very rich, stimulating environment. It is something that strikes you immediately.” To promote joyful learning, educators should create spaces that are vibrant and connected to the students’ community and experiences, using materials and resources that resonate with their backgrounds. A classroom where “there is a lot of movement, hand movement, a lot of talking” is one where joyful learning thrives, as described by Dr. Akyeampong.

“The lack of resource doesn’t actually need to change the pedagogy, it just needs to change the materials and the modality.”

Caitlin Baron

3) Employ an Engaging Pedagogy

Luminos uses “a range of fun and engaging teaching methods,” an essential practice for student interaction and empowerment.

Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen contributes to this point, saying, “Happiness is fundamental to learning. But the reality is when you are going to prioritize it, it is very difficult when you are faced with a stressed, highly competitive, and often resource-constrained environment​​.” An engaging pedagogy is designed not just for fun, but also to empower students to experience success, voice their opinions, and grow in confidence. By incorporating these principles into teaching strategies, teachers can cultivate an atmosphere where learning is not just an obligation, but a joyful and empowering journey for every learner.

Luminos students in The Gambia use their student workbooks during a literacy lesson.

Students in Ethiopia have fun during writing practice. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund) 

Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen speaks further to the importance of collaborative learning environments, “We know that children learn when they can share ideas, they collaborate, observe each other.”​ A joyful learning environment is one where interaction is encouraged, and everyone—teachers and students alike—contributes to and benefits from shared learning experiences.

“We know that children learn when they can share ideas, they collaborate, observe each other.”

Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen

Caitlin Baron adds to this, suggesting that a learning environment which allows children to “thrive is a real foundation for everything that comes after.”​ When students feel heard and are given the chance to succeed, their confidence and enjoyment in learning naturally increase.

To learn more about Luminos’ approach to creating joyful learning environments, download the full Joyful Learning element.

Explore additional elements of the Luminos Method here.

To view the webinar on LinkedIn and read the commentary from event participants, click here.

Learn more in the Joyful Learning element of the Luminos Method!

Unpacking the Reading Wars and Advocating for Phonics

Unpacking the Reading Wars and Advocating for Phonics

On May 23, the Luminos Fund convened leading education experts to discuss the U.S. reading wars and refocus attention on the crucial task of teaching children how to read. This was the second webinar in the Luminos Method series, which also marked the launch of our latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers. This Method element is a user-friendly resource designed for governments and education organizations, combining the latest research on effective phonics instruction with our best practices developed through years of experience in some of the world’s most challenging contexts.


Emily Hanford, Senior Producer and Correspondent, American Public Media

Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director, Global Education Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

Watch the webinar below:

Journalist Emily Hanford, celebrated for her in-depth, investigative podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, set the scene by providing an overview of the current state of reading instruction in American schools. Dr. Benjamin Piper of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew on his extensive experience working in low-income countries, and shed light on the journey of learning to read in such contexts. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:

1) We are facing a global learning crisis.

The global learning crisis transcends national boundaries, and the consequences of this crisis are far-reaching, hindering social and economic progress and perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. In the U.S. and around the world, far too many children are not learning to read.

“7 in 10 kids worldwide can’t read at the age of grade three, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s 9 in 10 children. 90% of kids can’t read by the end of their third-grade year, age 10… Learning levels in these foundational years have lasting impacts on children’s low learning trajectories and future life prospects overall.”

Dr. Benjamin Piper

2) All children can benefit from a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, especially those in low-income countries.

Research consistently shows that explicit and systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of a comprehensive approach to foundational literacy. This approach promotes inclusivity and equips children with the tools they need to become successful readers. This is especially important for first-generation readers who are growing up in homes without books or parents who can read to them — phonics-based instruction equips them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.

“We work with students who are often the first in their family to learn to read, coming from homes that may not have a single book and coming from environments where the printed word is not a familiar thing. Most importantly, many of the students we teach are actually learning to read in the language they don’t speak at home. When you think through all of these extraordinary barriers to learning to read, it starts to become clear why a systematic step-by-step approach to teaching kids to learn to read is all the more essential.”

Caitlin Baron

A Luminos student in Ethiopia practices reading during class.

Luminos students in Ethiopia practice their reading skills using readers with local stories and illustrations. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)

3) Partisan political and ideological concerns have highjacked the debate on reading instruction.

The U.S. debate surrounding reading instruction has unfortunately become mired in partisan political and ideological concerns, diverting attention from evidence-based practices. It is crucial to refocus the conversation on research and best practices, ensuring that decisions about reading instruction prioritize the needs of children above all else.

“If you’re a mom of a kid who’s struggling to read, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or Republican, you still care about this issue… And I’m hoping that means we will start to get the politics out and just do what we know is best from a lot of scientific research about how to teach kids to read.”

Emily Hanford

4) The key to academic success and social-emotional well-being is grounded in foundational literacy skills.

Foundational literacy skills serve as the cornerstone of academic success and social-emotional well-being for children. These skills not only establish one’s reading abilities but also contribute to broader cognitive development, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Moreover, mastering foundational literacy skills empowers children, instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment which positively impacts their overall well-being and engagement in the classroom. By prioritizing and strengthening foundational literacy skills, educators can set children on a path toward lifelong learning.

“If we put a bright light on the foundational skills and really make sure that kids are mastering those, that allows them to experience success in school.”

Emily Hanford

Learn more about how we grow our student’s sense of self-belief and ensure they are able to experience success in the Identity & Self Belief element of the Luminos Method!

Luminos students in The Gambia use their student workbooks during a literacy lesson.

Luminos students in The Gambia during a literacy lesson. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)

5) Teaching children how to read is not easy, and teachers need support.

Teaching children how to read is undoubtedly challenging, and explicit phonics instruction can often be new to teachers. They need ongoing coaching and support to help children become successful readers. It involves adapting teaching strategies, providing individualized support, and fostering a joyful classroom environment.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa and India in the last 16 years having lived here. [In] well-designed programs where teachers are trained and supported to teach these programs that are not only phonics but include phonics, you see the magic of having these kids track with their fingers as their teacher is reading the word, and actually seeing the relationship themselves between the letter sounds and the words.”

Dr. Benjamin Piper

Equitable and Effective Reading Instruction for All 

The webinar served as a platform for educators, policymakers, and advocates to contribute to the global conversation on one of the most critical issues facing education today: how to teach children to read.

The insights shared by our speakers reinforce the urgency of prioritizing evidence-based reading instruction for all children. With continued efforts and collaboration, the global community can strive towards equitable and effective reading instruction for future generations.

To learn more about the Luminos Method, including Phonics for First-Generation Readers, click here.

To view the webinar on LinkedIn and read the commentary from event participants, click here.

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Teachers Transforming Education: Five Key Learnings from Luminos’ Event

Teachers Transforming Education: Five Key Learnings from Luminos’ Event

The Luminos Fund’s sixth annual U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week luncheon event, “Teachers Leading in a Post-COVID World,” discussed innovative strategies to tackle the global teacher shortage and ensure teachers have the tools and training they need to help children become successful learners in a post-COVID world.

The panel discussion, moderated by Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, included:

  • Dr. Andrew Cunningham, Aga Khan Foundation
  • Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

The event also marked the launch of the Luminos Method – a new series of resources that combine the latest research with key practices and data from our work. The first three elements of the Luminos Method are available in interactive web and PDF formats, including Community Teachers, Teacher-Led Assessment, and Identify and Self-Belief.

Against this backdrop, each panelist shared important insights on how teachers can be empowered to create an environment of transformational learning. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:

1) We need to think differently about who can be a teacher, how we train them, and how we support them.

“Teachers need ongoing support. It’s a contact sport. It’s a team sport. You cannot tell the teacher at the beginning of the year, ‘This is what you need to do for the rest of the year,’ and walk away.”

Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The world is facing a global teacher shortage, with UNESCO estimating that almost 69 million teachers need to be recruited to achieve universal education by 2030. The Community Teachers element of the Luminos Method is our response to this global challenge.

Our experience shows that motivated people recruited from the same communities as our students can become great teachers for the early grades, provided they have quality training, practical written guidance, and ongoing in-classroom support.

With a supportive environment, we believe community teachers can play a critical role in reaching the most vulnerable children and enabling them to catch up with their peers.

2) Teachers can build a child’s confidence (and change their life).

“I could have been a number.” – Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

Instead, Dr. Nyahunzvi’s teacher said three powerful words that changed her life: “You are enough.”

“I remember in that moment… she built something inside of me to a point that I became the first generation [in my family] to attain levels of education beyond grade seven,” said Dr. Nyahunzvi.

How can we help students change their perceptions of themselves, build their confidence, and enable students to see themselves as successful learners, well-equipped to return to government schools? How do we ensure our teachers are building our students’ sense of self-belief and sending a clear message that all children can learn?

The Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method describes how we address these challenges by building self-belief among our students,

which in turn supports further successes in a virtuous circle that can continue throughout the students’ school career and beyond.

3) Assessment is essential.

“When I heard about Luminos and what you are able to do in nine months–that perhaps the public systems are not able to do in three years—I remember saying, ‘I bet you they have a really strong assessment-informed instruction principle.’ That means they’re using assessment information to understand where children are. They are then supporting the teachers to say, ‘Where do they need to be and how we can help you get there?’”

Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Luminos views regular assessment as an essential component of education that is truly learner-centered and based on individual needs. The Teacher-Led Assessment element of the Luminos Method highlights strategies to empower teachers to track their students’ progress using a mix of weekly assessments and informal techniques. Equipping teachers with simple assessment tools, along with the appropriate coaching and support, is essential to keep students’ learning on track.

4) We must value and respect local cultures and communities.

While teachers should have access to detailed lesson plans and curriculum, we also believe there should be flexibility for teachers to utilize their expertise and knowledge of the local culture and context. For example, at Luminos, reading materials, songs, games, and role-play are relevant to the children’s mother tongue and culture. Family members and other community figures participate in students’ learning as well.

Learn more about ways Luminos works to ensure students feel their culture and identity is valued in the Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method.

“When you think about what assets this community has—you think, there’s wisdom in the grandparents—and then by involving them in the schools, in the academic, it helps the kids learn and build from what they know.”

Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

5) All children can learn.

“With the right skills and support, anyone can be anything.”

Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

All children should have equal access to joyful, foundational learning, especially those shut out of education by crisis, poverty, or discrimination. When given a second chance at education, children can learn, thrive, and succeed throughout their lives.

Yet 70% of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read a simple story. As a sector, we desperately need to extend our reach and provide quality education to the most vulnerable communities around the world. By sharing the Luminos Method, we move closer to making this possibility a reality. 

Unlocking the Light

The Luminos UNGA week event highlights that by providing teachers with simple, but effective tools, training, and support, teachers can be empowered to truly unlock the light of learning in children.

“Teachers can own, lead, and inspire change.”

Dr. Andrew Cunningham, Aga Khan Foundation

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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