The Exploration of Malawian Educational Environments

Presented by: Dr. Michelle Pearson, Kristi Gaines, Malinda Colwell, Peter Raab, Charles Klein

Introduction Research has repeatedly shown that the design of learning environments has an impact on learning outcomes (Aburas, Gaines & Shin, 2014; Lackney, 2003; Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Beasley, Gorman, 1995). However, the majority of existing research relating to learning environments has been gathered in developed countries where there is a greater ability to provide more supportive classrooms. Research relating to the design of learning environments in developing (or third-world) countries is limited. In addition, many of the findings and design recommendations for learning environments may not be applicable to many of the developing regions of the world, which often struggle to provide even the most basic psychological and physiological needs. Maslow (1954) created a hierarchy illustrating the needs that motivate human behavior. At the bottom of the pyramid, one will find the most basic human needs including shelter and food. As one moves up the pyramid, the needs become more complex. Many American classrooms are able to be designed to meet even the most complex needs and help attain the highest level of self-actualization whereas many under-developed countries struggle to even provide a rudimentary structure to use as a classroom. The objective of this study was to evaluate a series of Malawian classrooms based on a list of optimal inclusive classroom features developed from a research study in the United States. Methodology The methodology employed for this research study includes a site visit to Malawi. Malawi is a country located in southeast Africa and among the world’s least-developed countries (Human Development Reports, 2014), ranking 174th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Reports by the United Nations Development Program. The population is 16 million, with 76% living below the poverty line. The educational system has a number of concerning trends. Within the primary education system, there is a dropout rate of 50.88% with only an average of 4.19 years of schooling. During the visit to Malawi, the researchers conducted site visits to four different schools. The researchers conducted a series of interviews with administrators and educators of the schools. Finally, the researchers conducted observations in approximately 10 classrooms and additional learning environments. While on the site visit, the researchers were evaluating the visual and auditory qualities of the classroom, based on a list of optimal inclusive classroom features developed from a research study in the United States. The recommendations include nine objectives including lighting, color, and spatial organization. Finally, the researchers sought to determine where typical Malawian schools fell on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Findings/Relevance to Interior Design The results of this study found that the classrooms were at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, often only able to provide the most basic of needs. While the classrooms attempted to meet some of the design recommendations, there was still a great need for improvement. In the United States, classrooms are designed to meet the needs at the highest levels of the pyramid. In contrast, Malawian classrooms serve as a purely utilitarian space. The facilities are basic and schools typically have little or no equipment. Many of the classrooms are in buildings that were not originally intended to be used as a classroom and utilizes very little furniture, if any at all. Many classrooms lack electricity and lighting, thus making it incredibly challenging to teach the necessary skills. The relevance and contribution to the field of interior design includes adding more information to how an educational space in a developed country may vary from that of an underdeveloped country of the world. The ultimate goal is to create a model for building and improving of learning environments in under-developed regions of the world.


  • Aburas, R., Gaines, K. & Shin, S. (2014). “Physical and psychosocial factors in classroom design for elementary level schools”, The International Journal of Early Childhood Learning. 20 (4). 19-35.
  • Lackney, J. (2003). "Architecture of Schools: The New Learning Environments." Children, Youth and Environments 13(1).
  • Dunn, R., et al. (1995). "A meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn model of learning-style preferences." The Journal of Educational Research 88(6): 353-362.
  • Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivational and personality, Harper & Row.
  • Programme, U. N. D. (2014). "Human Development Report 2014."
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