‘Education is an investment that brings democratic values, inclusion, change’
-Dr. David Moinina Sengeh

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By Ayesha Kabir
Dr. David Moinina Sengeh is the Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Chief Innovation Officer for the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation in Sierra Leone. He is a TED Senior Fellow. He studied biomedical engineering at Harvard University, joined MIT for postgraduate studies, was named a TED Fellow in 2014 and was one of Forbes 30 under 30 in 2014. He won the 2014 MIT Prize for innovations in healthcare. He is also an Afrobeat rapper and a fashion designer. During a recent trip to Bangladesh to visit BRAC’s play-based and experimental learning programme, he spoke in an interview with Prothom Alo on his visit, education, collaboration with BRAC and more.   

What brings you to Bangladesh, Dr. Sengeh ? What is the purpose of this visit?

There are multiple layers around our visit. Most importantly, with BRAC we are here on a study tour. While, the study tour is hosted by BRAC, the idea is that we can see and engage with the government on a national level, district level, with faculty and researchers across the spectrum. We can engage with the people and understand the programmes from a technical point of view and see what happens in the field. We have had engagement with BRAC for quite a while now. We listen and read up about what they do, now we are seeing it in practice.

We have met with Dr Dipu Moni. She is on the high level steering committee of UNESCO and we have had several conversations. The combination of government engagement and to see the BRAC programme was what inspired our decision to dedicate this time here. We visited BRAC Bangladesh, BRAC International, BRAC University, Ayesha Abed Foundation and more. We met the deputy minister in charge of ECD (Early Childhood Development), kindergarten teachers, the BRAC team and more.

Can you tell us about your field visit, what you have seen, what experience you gained, what you will take back?
It was special. There was a cyclone, but that didn’t stop us visiting the communities, from going to the field. The kids were learning even in that environment. The parents were there, participating. I could come here, sit in Dhaka and learn what’s going on sitting in the hotel. But it’s different when you go and sit on the ground with the kids who want to know whether you played a lot when you were a kid. One of the things I enjoy a lot as a minister is visiting the schools and communities regularly in Sierra Leone, once a week, once every two weeks. I was able to engage with families here and ask them why they send their kids to school, what they want their children to be.

It was also important for my team to see in practice how we can learn about their one-classroom schools, the accelerated development programme, learning programme, the communities, the materials and all of those things

Do you see a lot of similarity between the children here and the children back home?

I think one thing was clear, children everywhere are children. All they want to do is play freely and be in a safe place. All they want is somebody to listen to them. One of the children was asking me, does your younger sister play, what would you play? I am sure the message she was sending out in front of all those adults was the desire to play. My own daughter wakes up and says, dad, get out of bed, let’s play. This idea of playing, of learning is universal.

In terms of similarities, I personally feel very much at home in Bangladesh. I am sure you know during our war, a lot of Bangladesh military went for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone. We are grateful for them being there. Here I went to the Liberation War Museum and it gave me a sense of understanding about that desire to contribute to the global economy, global peacekeeping, to share their ideals with the world, that inclusion, accepting our diversity as a strength.

We are more similar than different. Even our differences bring us together, not keep us apart.

Dr. David Moinina Sengeh Suvra Kanti Das
Playing and learning is universal, so is this learning through play initiative already in place in Sierra Leone, or being newly introduced, or will it be scaled up?

BRAC has been working in Sierra Leone since 2008. Experts from BRAC come to Sierra Leone and do workshops with us. We have ben engaged in workshops, we have done things together, hands-on participation. We know what everybody does, what the visions are and we are very similar in our trajectory in education. We are very similar in inclusion. In Sierra Leone too there is inclusion, where pregnant girls, children with special needs, poor people, people who live in remote areas, all come back to school and that inclusion is central to our work.

In addition we have undergone curriculum reform, much like it has happened in Bangladesh. We have a new early childhood development curriculum which we are working with Bangladesh on to see how we can use this framework in the classroom, how we can embed play in there to make sure the kids are learning in a right and safe environment.  One of the schools we visited was a BRAC school and it is now a fully government school and that is a good relationship to me. We all want education for our children. We hope to scale many of the ideas.

So is this visit only about education or other areas too?

Actually, it’s quite interesting. I was very enthused about Digital Bangladesh. There is bkash and many ideas around digitisation that are very important. We had a very wonderful meeting with the minister of education, discussed ideas about training, exchanges. She is on a high level international steering committee to UNESCO and I chair it. It is always great for her to be there because most people at these global organisations project themselves and think about their countries, but she thinks not just for Bangladesh, but for the region, representing the region. She does have that quality.

A part of the conversation we had with her was to go beyond basic education. We had conversations about technical education, higher education, examinations, assessment and so on. She very much looks to the future, thinking about education for today and tomorrow. We discussed how to ensure that we bring in all the girls, don’t leave the boys behind either, ensure that the children have the basic requirements, the basic tools to meet their potential.

Sierra Leone Education Minister’s visit to BRAC early childhood play-based education in ManikganjCollected
So what is your perception of BRAC on a local and global scale?

We have been fortunate to meet with the leadership of BRAC. Sierra Leone is co-chair for a high level steering committee of UNESCO and I am the co-chair for the Global Education Monitoring Report. So we are in these rooms and lucky for us Bangladesh is in many of those rooms as well. So we get to have these conversations with the government and BRAC. BRAC being BRAC, with its global outlook, when these conversations are being held, BRAC comes forward too, acting together, thinking and learning from each other, sharing ideas. That’s at the leadership level and certainly at the technical level too.

For me, people can go on talking and talking, but I like action and doing. And BRAC, for my experience, is an organisational institution that does. You can only create impact when you do.

You talked about two levels, Sierra Leone government and BRAC, and then Sierra Leone government and Bangladesh government. Overall, how do you think Sierra Leone and Bangladesh can work together?

One of the things that works very well is that the government of Bangladesh and BRAC have a great relationship. This was evident in the district office in Manikganj. There was the government and the BRAC staff there and it was very nice when my team asked, how do you guys work together? They said we don’t have very different programmes. It is just one work. We do trainings together, programmes together. Similar to Bangladesh, in Sierra Leone, only 15 per cent of the schools are government owned. But the government supplies support to all those schools, 80 per cent or so, provides them with text books, teachers and so on. There is a lot to learn from the relationship between the government of Bangladesh and BRAC.

Sierra Leone has a relationship with BRAC independent of the government. My ministry engages with them. We have this relationship with BRAC and Sierra Leone has a relationship with Bangladesh from history, from peacekeeping. Bengali is an official language in Sierra Leone. And a lot of Sierra Leone students come here to study. There are many Sierra Leone students studying in Bangladesh, in BRAC University and outside of BRAC University in and around Dhaka, mostly studying engineering, computer science and so on. So there is a solid Sierra Leonean student relationship in Bangladesh under an existing scholarship scheme with Bangladesh.

Sierra Leone Education Minister’s visit to BRAC early childhood play-based education in ManikganjCollected
Globally speaking, and certainly in Bangladesh, a learning gap was created during the Covid outbreak. How did you deal with it in Sierra Leone?

This is a conversation we have been having at a global level. Around 70 to 80 per cent of 10 year olds cannot read and understand a simple paragraph. That is disastrous. Every country has different ways of dealing with it. In Sierra Leone, we have had hybrid systems. We use radio a lot. Radio is a common technology. We send physical materials to the kids from poor communities. We tried to bring back kids as soon as we could. Luckily for us, we even had increased enrollment when we opened up again.

The world has a big problem, but Covid has given us a good opportunity to rethink. I am going back inspired by Bangladesh. You stopped your Grade 5 and Grade 8 exam. I am feeling inspired by some of these bold moves that you have been able to take. These are moves that we all could have done as ministries, but we didn’t. But I am inspired that you have been able to do it. There is no reason why we can’t go back and do it.

About play-based education, should this be adopted across board, not just in certain projects and programmes ?

When I was young, I faced criticism. Everyone wanted to tell me off — you are so playful David, you are such a playful person! I was eligible to become a prefect early in school because of my grades, but I was not made a prefect because I was too playful. They said, he is not ready, he is playing all the time. We can’t make him a prefect. But in my own life now, I rap, I design, but I am a minister too. They say you are not a serious minister, you are rapping! People don’t understand the link between playfulness, creativity, collaboration, emotional safety. People don’t understand what it means to be resilient, able to share. You can’t learn about sharing, there is no short cut to learning, there is no Step 1 ”think about sharing”, Step 2 “discuss what you are going to share”, Step 3 “measure accurately the proportion you are going to share.” If you are in school and you are playing and someone wants something, you may fight, but then you learn you have to share. You don’t measure how much you share. Those are values we all want to be there in society. These can’t be found in a text book.

What about all this talk about transforming education?

The transforming education summit was hosted by the Secretary General of the UN in New York recently. This was the biggest and the first time that education has had global leadership at that level. The reason for transforming education is the crisis we have in learning, poverty, not being on track to meet the 2030 goals. So the world needed to take a step back and see what we need to do to transform education, to have a shared vision, pedagogy, a way of thinking. You need system change.

Within the transforming education summit there were five pillars. One was, safe schools, healthy schools, inclusion. Two was environment, sustainable development, life skills. The third one was teachers and teaching, training. The fourth one was transforming technology, digital transformation, how we use digital technology in education. Fifth was financing education. The Bangladesh education minister has been advocating a higher percentage of the GDP for education. She mentioned that the founding father of the country had said that there should be a large percentage of the GDP invested in education. And today globally this is being advocated, that 5 per cent of the GDP go to education. Bangladesh is lower, Sierra Leone is lower. But in fact, education is an investment. It brings democratic values, inclusion and change.

The biggest mistake one can do is take money from education and to put it somewhere else. We have to invest in education, in developing skills, knowledge. The best thing we can do is invest in education to face the global challenges.

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