David Sengeh – Radical thinking allowed

With his background in UWC, Harvard, MIT and IBM, Sierra Leone's new Basic Education Minister is on course to radically transform the country's education system. If he succeeds, it could well be the model for the rest of the continent.


Image : David Sengeh

It’s pretty clear within the first two minutes of our discussion that David Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Minister for Basic and Senior Secondary Education, is fiercely opposed to elitism.

“The only successful model of education is one where everyone can have access to education”, he stresses. A minority receiving A-stars is not what will transform his country, he explains, nor, he insists, is it a sign of ‘quality’ education.

Sengeh is on a mission that he calls #radicalinclusion. He himself has the CV of the gilded elite – a scholarship to attend United World Colleges international institutions for the gifted at 17, followed by Harvard and MIT. You don’t get more elitist than this.

But as he explains, he’s had the privilege of experiencing all forms of education starting from the state school system in Sierra Leone. The classrooms were crowded and he was bullied and intimated for not wanting to use the squalid school toilets.

And yet his passion for learning came from his formative years with his parents and relatives, who encouraged him to be inquisitive and to push himself intellectually. He said, during an interview at a TED gathering, that he also had a rebellious streak, wanting to break rules as a kid.

His anti-elitism rationale is straight­forward: you cannot say you have a good education system unless it is wholly inclusive and you will not achieve true transformation in Sierra Leone, and other developing countries by focusing only on the elites.

Yes, he says, grade averages will fall and it will be perceived as though the quality of education is regressing but, as much as it may seem counterintuitive, that is actually a good sign and part of the process of building better education for all.

Our telephone interview is scheduled at 21.00 after Sengeh has put his daughter to bed. Sengeh has been back in Sierra Leone for three years now – he was invited to be the country’s Chief Innovation Officer, a novel post by any country’s standards.

Was it easy to come back to government from the rather comfortable life in Boston? He says it was an easy decision to make; even though he could make an impact in what he was doing before – Sengeh gained the global limelight for his work in prosthetics and at the MIT Media Lab. “If you want to make impact at scale, then government is the only real place where this can happen” he says.

Human development at centre stage

He was given the basic education portfolio 11 months ago. Now that he has a seat in Cabinet, it is easier to get the support of President Julius Maada Bio and the VP Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh and push through reforms.

He’s also got an advantage as Human Capital development is at the centre of the country’s national development plan. The country allocated 22% of its national budget to education, one of the highest in Africa.

In their latest report on education (see p.59) the Mastercard Foundation highlighted the need to get the support of the political leadership in order to achieve any real progress in education.

Sengeh says that the leadership in his country is truly supportive. He says that the President is actually the most curious person around the table, probing and questioning, and that he’s spent time getting Sengeh to teach him how to code.

But as a result of the support that he does get, there is no room for excuses. “The authorising power is from my boss. He has a vision and the vision is based on delivery. I can’t blame anybody else if I don’t deliver.”
One major recent achievement was overturning the 10-year ban that was preventing pregnant girls from attending school. “If you think about it,” he explains, “most of those girls are victims. If you have sex with somebody under 18, it’s statutory rape. Banning them from school would be double-punishing them.”

Not allowing them back into school would also be breaking that important trust between government and the people who would feel let down. That is what radical inclusion is about, he says. “Making sure that everybody has equal access to quality education. It’s a question of justice.”

What is his biggest constraint? Capacity, or the lack of it, he responds. “There are three parts to the equation: leadership, citizenship [he calls it responsible peopleship] and resources. It is those resources, human and financial, that are limited and require juggling.

He often writes code himself to ensure something gets done and he may have to stay in the office late to write his own speeches but he also says that if you provide the right leadership in office and show that change is possible, then the civil servants will respond in the right manner and will be engaged and deliver.

Another challenge has been changing mindsets. Inasmuch as people call for reform, he says that they are actually deep down intrinsically against or afraid of change.

He calls challenging people’s assumptions ‘unlearning’. Many of these have been ingrained precisely through the education they have received and those preconditioned thoughts and beliefs. It is the same with teachers; to break the cycle, they need to ‘unlearn’ what they have been taught and then shown that there is a new way of teaching.

Linking thinking to learning

One of the first things he did as Minister of basic education was to put together a new education curriculum framework based on the five Cs: Computational Thinking, Comprehension, Civics, Critical Thinking and Creativity.

“It’s not just about teaching the kids how to read, but ensuring they can comprehend what they’re reading; it’s not about doing maths but rather problem solving, as well as developing creativity and civic values,” he expounds.

Surely all this will involve training a new generation of teachers? He says there are schemes and incentives, both at a pupil and a teacher level, to develop the teaching and learning of STEM subjects for example, including scholarships. Teachers who focus on STEM are encouraged to delay retirement as they prepare a new generation of teachers.

He mentions how his country, because of the Ebola experience where schools were closed for a long period of time, was better prepared for this pandemic. Courses taught through the radio and other remote learning innovations were already in place in Sierra Leone.

His department works closely with numerous partners who are contributing $150m or so in grants and funding to education programmes in the country.

But he says that his role as a Minister is to challenge the solutions that they bring, “they have the right to put forward their ideas, but we will challenge them to ensure that they are aligned to what the country needs and that it’s going to transform education in the way we want it to.”

Given his background in the private sector (IBM) and in academia (MIT), one advantage he has is that he can’t be ‘blinded by the science’ or the limitations of it. With his own knowledge, he knows what can and can’t work in the Sierra Leonean context.

Is he optimistic about the future of education in Sierra Leone?

Absolutely,” he says. “I do think that we will transform education in the next three years and five years after that these changes will be permanent. I absolutely 100% believe that with digitisation and automation, it will solve many of the challenges that exist.”

In his spare time, he raps and plays music and one line from his song exemplifies his attitude best: if they had told me what I shouldn’t say then I wouldn’t do what they couldn’t do.

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