Iterative Design

I. An Ongoing Journey

II. A Singular Focus & Consistent Implementation

III. Data Collection & Analytics

IV. A Staff Committed to Excellence

V. Communication & Consensus-Building

VI. The Essentials

Why Iterative Design Matters

Delivering effective education, especially in low-resourced settings, is hard. The fact that nine out of ten children in low-income countries cannot read by age 10 is a testament to this challenge. Adding to these difficulties is the reality that many, if not most, 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. Unlike, say, protecting people from polio, education reform is not solved primarily through one magic formula that is guaranteed to deliver the same impact to every child, regardless of context. The best vaccinations provide immunity against a disease whether the person lives in the United States or in The Gambia. In contrast, effective global learning programs for children recognize that the impact on children’s learning is a result of multiple variables and contexts best suited to an iterative design approach.

3 out of 5

of the largest global funders of basic education have no evidence of impact at scale

Getting education right for children in low-resourced countries requires careful research, astute design, disciplined implementation, and, importantly, rapid cycle iteration. Yet all too often, the dominant model for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is a model in which success is measured by a program’s adherence to the original design plans rather than student learning gains.    

For the Luminos Fund, iterative design is a core component of our identity and approach. Recent research results of our work demonstrate the powerful impact of our approach on student learning. The Iterative Design element of the Luminos Method details how we have established this culture and capacity. In sharing our experience, we fulfill a key element of learning organizations, which is to widely share our solutions with all those who are invested in figuring out what works in global education reform.

Key Messages

Successful education initiatives are those that marry the best of global learning science and local insights and apply an iterative approach to implementation.

Here are the key capabilities needed to create an organizational culture of iterative design:

  • A deep commitment to an ongoing journey
  • A focus on one thing – foundational learning – and doing it well, as well as consistent classroom-level implementation
  • Data collection and analytics
  • A staff committed to excellence, and a staffing structure to match
  • Extensive communication and consensus building with partners

This webpage includes an overview of how Luminos practices iterative design. For more detailed information, recommendations based on our experiences, and a discussion of some of the tensions and challenges involved, you can download this document.

Our Approach

I. A Deep Commitment to an Ongoing Journey

Luminos’ programming runs on an ongoing cycle of designing, learning, and adapting. The frequency at which we repeat this iteration cycle and the magnitude of the changes vary year-over-year, but in general, the frequency and intensity is highest in phase one, medium in phase two, and then drops significantly in ongoing iteration cycles thereafter.

The Iteration Cycle

We institute our commitment to iterative design by:


  • Getting as smart as we can about the context: We conduct deep research about the country and community context in which Luminos is operating, adding our analysis to all existing data on what has worked in the past.
  • Adjusting our program from the moment it is launched in the classroom: We use the learnings from our real-time data collection to identify what is working and what is not, and make adaptations across all aspects of our program.
  • Being realistic about the pace of change: Successful iteration happens step by step, and Luminos paces our changes accordingly to align with our program capacity.

A Three-Phased Approach

To learn more about our deep commitment to an ongoing cycle of designing, learning, and adapting, you can download this document.

II. A Singular Focus on Foundational Learning With Consistent Classroom-Level Implementation

A Focus on Doing One Thing – Foundational Learning – and Doing it Exceptionally Well

At Luminos, we do one thing – provide joyful, foundational learning to marginalized children. Our laser focus allows us to deliver programming at a high level of excellence. It also enables iteration.

We make the most of singular and exceptional expertise by:

  • Allowing the time and capacity to reach excellence: We know we cannot simultaneously address all the needs of children in the developing world; we focus on refining our programming to achieve maximum educational impact.
  • Working with partner organizations to meet other student needs: Rather than expand into other connected, but distinct service delivery elements, we partner with organizations that can meet other student needs, such as school meal delivery.

    “If we were focused on offering fifty different kinds of programs and trying to iterate on them all simultaneously, we would not be able to pull it off.”

    Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

    To learn more about how we deliver joyful, foundational learning, see the Joyful Learning element of the Luminos Method!

    Consistent Classroom-Level Implementation

    We apply a structured pedagogical approach to our curriculum, which provides an important framework and makes it easy for us to track classroom implementation and progress. We do so by:


      • Establishing clearly-defined learning objectives: Our curriculum lays out clear expectations for children’s learning and follows a systematic and explicit phonics-based approach to reading.
      • Tracking the consistency of implementation across classrooms: We use data collected at the classroom level to line up real time student progress to our original timeline for impact.
      • Providing detailed teacher guides: Detailed classroom instructional materials establish clear classroom expectations for our community teachers.

      “Because everything is structured, you can easily measure where children are at versus where they are supposed to be, and make adjustments accordingly.”

      Ernesta Orlovaitė, Director of Impact, Luminos Fund

      To learn more about how Luminos’ iterative design approach is anchored in a strong framework of structured pedagogy, you can download this document.

      III. Data Collection & Analytics

      Across all our program sites, we collect data through classroom observations made by Luminos staff, student assessments, and external program evaluations. This data provides a clear picture of what is and is not working, and helps us focus our adjustments accordingly. We bolster our ability to collect, process, and visualize our data by:

      • Building out a data team: Our data team to oversee the work and is responsible for training frontline staff on data collection.
      • Administering student assessments: Assessments provide a marker for the pace of learning in the classroom.
      • Making classroom observations: Staff observe classrooms to determine whether our program is being implemented as intended.
      • Participating in external evaluations: We engage qualified external researchers to bring an outsider’s perspective to our program progress.

      To learn more about how Luminos has built its capacity to collect, analyze, and visualize data, download the full Iterative Design PDF!

        Case Study: Iterating on Student Assessments in Ghana

        IV. 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. We help to support our staff in applying and adhering to an interactive design process by:

        • Hiring for traits that are most conducive to our approach: We look for people who possess a deep curiosity and understand both the difficulty – and the value – of our learning journey.
        • Bringing our staff on the iterative journey with us: We understand that our approach is unique and unfamiliar to most new staff, and provide extensive support for their learning journey.

            “We don’t want folks to come in with an approach that they have all the answers. We want expertise, but also, most importantly, we want people who want to try new things out with us until we land on what works.”  

            Dr. Kirsty Newman, Vice President of Programs, Luminos Fund

            V. Extensive Communication and Consensus Building with Partners

            Case Study: Iterating on Structured Pedagogy in Ethiopia

            From start to finish, Luminos works hand in hand with our community partners and government stakeholders, for whom our iterative design approach is often different from past partnerships. We ensure the successful delivery of our programs by:

            • Providing training and practice on iterative design for our community partners: We share data on learning outcomes and walk them through the analysis, then  brainstorm solutions for how to adapt the program together.
            • Securing and maintaining government support and engagement: We find champions within the government, and solicit feedback on our process and recommendations when program changes are needed.

              To learn more about how Luminos works together with community partners and government stakeholders on the iterative journey, you can download this document.

              “True community partners are those that get the ‘so what’ of iterative design and are committed to adaptation in service of children’s learning.”

              James Earl Kiawoin, Liberia Country Manager, Luminos Fund

              VI. Iterative Design Essentials

              Getting education right for children in low-resourced countries requires careful research, astute design, disciplined implementation, and, importantly, rapid cycle iteration. At the Luminos Fund, we have established our culture and capacity for iterative design by:

              • Making a deep commitment to an ongoing journey: Iterative design is rooted in the principles of continuous improvement and refinement and takes the form of an ongoing cycle of designing, learning, and adapting.
              • Focusing on doing one thing – foundational learning – and doing it exceptionally well: A singular focus enables iteration, allowing us to hone in on the adjustments and adaptations needed to achieve maximum impact for our students.
              • Striving for consistent classroom implementation: Our structured pedagogy provides us with an important framework to ground the work, and makes it easy for us to test, measure, and track what is working and what is not.
              • Collecting and analyzing data: The ability to quickly and accurately collect data, and then process and learn from that data, is crucial to making adaptations.
              • Committing to staff excellence, and a staffing structure to match: Our staff are curious by nature, are dedicated to learning what works, and take the initiative to problem solve.
              • Ensuring extensive communication and consensus building with partners: 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.

                Iterative design is the engine that drives Luminos’ approach to education reform: we continuously evaluate our program implementation to discern if students are learning and make the necessary adjustments accordingly. Education reform through iterative design is a hard journey, but our results in the classroom tell us it is one worth pursuing. 

                Students in the Sidama region of Ethiopia sing an educational song during class. (Photo by Michael Stulman/Luminos Fund)

                Students in the Sidama region of Ethiopia sing an educational song during class. (Photo by Michael Stulman/Luminos Fund)

                Catch up with Luminos!

                Subscribe to our quarterly Spotlight newsletter and get the latest news, blogs, and more.

                71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
                +1 781 333 8317

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

                Privacy Policy

                We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.