After fifteen years as a University Lecturer, based in Uganda, Connie Nshemereirwe is now an independent science and policy facilitator. She founded Actualise Africa in 2016, with the vision to see Africa evolve and fulfil its potential by profoundly reimagining current education systems. On this episode, Connie tells me about her work at the interface between academia and policy. She shares with me the core of her mission to reform education. Connie also talks about her activities with researchers across Africa, as a learning facilitator part of the Inclusive Innovation organisation.
At the end of the show, I ask all my guests the same set of questions to get a sneak preview into their favourite music or books. Here are the links to Connie's answers. The books she is currently reading are Learning (Re)imagined by Graham Brown Martin, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, and Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. The book that particularly resonated with her at a specific time in her life is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Her all-time favourite book that she absolutely recommends is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
In case you wish to have more information on the organisations and initiatives mentioned in our conversation, here are some useful links. ‘Education evolution or revolution?’, an article written by Connie and published on the Actualise Africa website. The Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP), one of the workshops led by the Inclusive Innovation organisation. The Global Young Academy (GYA) and the Uganda National Young Academy (Uganda NYA), both of which Connie is a member. Teach for Uganda, an organisation that Connie mentioned.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to a new episode of Narratives of Purpose. I am your host Claire Murigande, and on this podcast, I bring you inspiring individual stories of ordinary people making extraordinary social impact. My guest today is Connie Nshemereirwe, who joins me from Uganda. Connie is a civil engineer turned educator. She founded Actualise Africa, where her main activity is independent science and policy facilitator. She acts as a science writer, trainer and speaker. Connie is also a learning facilitator at inclusive innovation, an organisation that runs workshops around the world with scientists and researchers. In our conversation, Connie will share her main areas of research and her work in facilitating learning between scientists and policymakers. We will also talk about the need for educational systems to provide proper skills to future citizens, including the role of technology. Please take a moment to rate and review the show by subscribing on your preferred podcast platform. But for now, have a listen to Connie's journey and what is at the core of her mission as an education reformer in Africa. Hi, Connie, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing today?
I'm doing well. It's a nice day here in Bharara where I live in Western Uganda.
Great. It's really nice to have you on the show today, Connie. So let me start with a few words of introduction on how we got to know each other. I connected with you not long ago, after I had viewed a panel discussion you were part of back in December 2020. This discussion was commemorating the 30 years of the Human Development Report. And you were basically the education expert on that panel. So after that I did a bit of research. And I read an article that you had written which was titled, education, evolution or revolution. And I found it quite insightful. Now before we go into any further details on this topic, I would like you to tell me more about yourself, and especially how you transitioned from being an engineer, to an educator.
So my bachelor's was in civil engineering, and my transition to educate was a little serendipitous, actually, I had been working as a construction site engineer for about two years, when one of my former classmates asked me to go and cover for her at the University where she was teaching while she went on maternity leave. Once I set foot on campus, however, and began interacting with the students designing the lessons, and especially having unrestricted access to the library, something inside me really switched. And I now began to dread going to the construction site to carry out my duties, and could not wait to get back to the university and be part of the students' development. So when that first semester ended, my friend decided not to return, and I decided to stay. So a year in I was enjoying the teaching so much and feeling like it was really my true passion that I decided to quit engineering altogether. So I wrote to the Institute of Professional Engineers and withdrew my application for membership, and then straight away enrolled in a Master of Education and is now coming up to 20 years ago, I believe, and I've never looked back. So that's my journey.
Wow, that's really a fascinating journey. So you say it was 20 years ago. And within this period of time, you have been doing some research on transforming the education system from what I've seen. And I was wondering, what did you identify in terms of needs or gaps in this area?
I actually ended up teaching at University for about 15 years and the last five years or so I've been running Actualise Africa. But during the time that I was a university lecturer, I observed a lot of problems or challenges with the students that we were admitting, it usually centred around the failure for the high school grades, the grades of the national examinations, predicting their ability to handle the university studies as well. So this is how my research started. I began to ask the question, to what extent can the grades in national exams, especially as high stakes as they are? To what extent do they reflect the knowledge and skills of the students that we admit. In other words, what can we conclude about a student who scores an A, or B, in their high school examinations with regard to the actual knowledge or skills that they have? How is that A or B different from a D, for instance, and are these grades as useful for selecting the best students for university as they used to be? And it turns out actually, that these grades do not really differentiate the students on level of ability as much as one would expect. Instead, they are more a reflection of the school to which that student has been. And by this, I mean that in schools where a lot of emphasis is placed on preparing students for the examinations, those students are much more likely to score highly in the national examinations. And what one observes is that as soon as the students arrive at university, you will find that someone that's quite a C or a D from a less well performing school will do much better than some of the people who scored A or B, from these so called best performing schools. Now, this is obviously an average effect. I'm not saying that everyone who had an A fails to cope with their university studies, but the schools from which those students came, were much more predictive of the grade that they received than all their ability or their, the skills that they had to do well at university. So that's one of the issues that I've been doing research on. The second issue is all about the relevance of education and the curriculum, especially in systems like Uganda's, but it turns out to be a global issue, because we are all struggling with an education system that is rooted in the industrial age, where the focus is on transmission of knowledge, and where the teacher takes a very dominant place. And the question is, for a country like Uganda, a lot of the content in there is quite outdated, a lot of focus is on knowledge gain, rather than on building skills. And yet in the 21st century, skills are much more important. So skills like communication, or working with others, or critical thinking and these kinds of skills, content can be found anywhere. And it's changing so rapidly that to have a static curriculum on which you're examined and expected to pass and be admitted to the next level of education turns out to not be so relevant anymore. I study a lot of other systems that are different from this dominant Industrial Age system, and try to extract the principles by which we can try to reform our education systems. So those are my two main areas of research.
Okay. All right. I see. So does that mean, now I'm thinking back to your role as science and policy facilitator? Does that mean this research was the trigger for you to create this function? Because, for me, it's the first time that I had ever heard of a facilitator between science and policy. And I would really like to know how you link this role with the outcomes of your research you just highlighted there.
Firstly, this science and policy facilitator is a title that I made up, but it really accurately communicates the role that I see myself playing, and that is that in a lot of African countries, we academics, we researchers, are too removed from our societies. And if I'm going to do research in the university and publish scholarly journals, to what extent is that research trickling into the public sphere? To what extent am I engaging with the Curriculum Institute or the Ministry of Education or the schools themselves or the teachers when I say, Oh, we, you know, education must change for ABCD reasons, I must be able to translate those findings into action. And as the scholar I can't also be the person who takes the action. So a science and policy facilitator, I found that I needed to leave academia. And inhabit this space between scientists and policymakers at that interface, there's a lot that has to be learned. And that's also connected to how I set up Actualise Africa. And that was mainly to give scientists the skills that they need, but also the mental attitude to recognise that they perform a very important role of doing research and communicating their findings. But they must not stop there. Otherwise, they do not have the impact that they wish because the policymakers are not going to find their research in the journals that they publish in, even though the policymakers want to find these journals, these articles, the language that they use for those journals is not a language that policymakers would understand. So, science and policy facilitator is a role that enables me to help policymakers understand the language of science, but also help academics and scientists understand how to communicate in non-scientific language so that they can have the impact that they desire.
Yeah, that's a very good point, because I also have a scientific background. And I realise, as you were just saying, you know, how we communicate the work is by publishing in specialised journals, which only people in science understand. And how do you translate that for other people outside science, especially policymakers? So my next question is really concretely, how does that translate in terms of activities? I do understand your role. But what are you concretely doing to help this facilitation?
I'm a member of two science academies. I'm a member of the Global Young Academy. And I'm also a member of the Uganda National Young Academy. So this science on policy facilitator role plays out in those two spheres because as a member of such an organisation, it's possible for us to gather as scientists and invite policymakers or government officials to discuss issues that are important to the to the country or to the globe in the in the case of the global Academy. And at these kinds of meetings, we try to come to a common understanding of what the problem is, because many times scientists, because of the way that we do our research, may have a rather theoretical understanding of the reality on the ground. And many times actually, we even investigate the wrong problem, because we come to the description of the problem by reading other people's research, and we are trying to fill some gaps in the research, whereas government officials or policymakers may experience the problem differently. So if we think that the main issue is curriculum, or the main issue is teachers, they may add to our understanding of the reality by informing us that in fact, maybe the main issue is funding or the main issue, you know, you're where the bottleneck is. So when we can facilitate these kinds of conversations, researchers get a better handle on what the problem is, policymakers also can receive information about the system in which they operate, that they were not privy to previously. That's one one way. The second way is what I do through Actualise Africa, and why I also identify myself as a learning facilitator. I work with an organisation called Inclusive Innovation, which works with scientists to help them appreciate the leadership role that they play in society. And by leadership, we mean, as a person who knows a lot or as a person who has access to a lot of knowledge, even by the virtue that you hold a PhD, the society already looks at you as a person who can lead, a person who can inform, a person who can analyse issues, and a person who can help solve problems. But many scientists do not step into this role. Because they consider themselves only to be scientists, and they should just be generating knowledge, what I do as a learning facilitator in this situation, and I call myself a learning facilitator on purpose, because, again, it's the way that we look at the Education Exchange. In the traditional sense. We think of education as there's a teacher and there's a student. But in fact, we have to move past the idea that there is someone who knows and someone who doesn't know. And so the one who knows is transferring knowledge to the one who doesn't know. In the meeting between scientists and policymakers each side knows something. So my job is to facilitate the learning between the two of them. And I always emphasise with the scientists that I work with that you know a lot, but keep in mind that there's a lot you do not know. So if you're not coming to teach or inform or disseminate your findings with the policymakers, come with an attitude of listening to learning, the policymakers will also be more open to learning from you. With Inclusive Innovation, we run workshops, actually, for scientists across Africa, across the global South, as it is known. And since COVID-19, has has been in place, we've actually found that the internet has enabled us to reach scientists from all over the world. And so that's what I do on a daily basis.
You just mentioned Inclusive Innovation there. And I'm curious to know what type of workshops you're running, because you just mentioned that you run workshops online, obviously now due to COVID. But are there some specific initiatives or some examples on the African continent? Or even on the regional level? Because you're based in Uganda, do you have an example of a workshop that you could share?
One of our flagship workshops is called the Africa Science Leadership Programme, which gathers scientists from various African countries and actually we just concluded the first workshop of that sixth cohort, this ASLP, as we call it, Africa Science Leadership Programme has been running for six years. And every year, we invite about 20 scientists to come together and brainstorm on all the different ways in which scientists could be contributing to society, their countries, and for a year, these 20 scientists work with one another, but also compose teams in their home institutions to tackle a specific challenge that is related to their research. So for instance, if they are doing malaria research, whereas previously, they might have done that research, mainly within the university or across other universities, but really in a research sense, they take that farther into the society and look for ways to connect to communities where the challenge is being faced so that we can better understand the challenge, and learn from those communities, as those communities also learn from them. And so the ASLP is, is one of those programmes where inclusive innovation, myself included, and other colleagues from Ethiopia, from South Africa, from Nigeria, from Kenya, various colleagues, as learning facilitators, work with these fellows to develop those joint initiatives in their communities so that they can become more connected, so that their science can spread into the community. So that's an example of one of the initiatives that we have that we do.
Oh, that's very insightful. Thank you for sharing that example. Now, another question regarding technology. So we have been on a global level all forced to communicate with digital tools, due to the pandemic. And I would like to ask you, how do you see the role technology is playing now, and will continue to play in the future in terms of education, evolution, or education revolution to come back to the title of your article I mentioned earlier?
Technology is set and is already playing a very big part in reimagining learning and education in general, we only need to be more active as African scholars, but also as Africans in general, in participating in innovation in looking for ways in which we can use this technology to best fit our circumstances, because, I'll give the example of Uganda, when COVID-19 first hit and we went into lockdown. Obviously the schools were closed immediately, the divide between the haves and have nots appeared because schools which could afford to do so began to offer lessons online, this was a very small minority of schools. And the government was scrambling to print educational material and distribute it across the country. They were also looking for ways to broadcast lessons on television on radio. Immediately they came up against an obstacle, only 20% of the country is connected to electricity or has electricity. So if you're going to broadcast something on television or broadcast it on radio, how will 80% access it and even those who have mobile phones, many of them may not have phones that are smart. But even when they are smart, they can keep charge for long enough so that a child can have their lessons as they wish. And all sorts of connected issues, reading is a problem is an organisation here in Uganda called Teach for Uganda, it's part of a wider global movement and a volunteer teacher was saying that when he was going to give the exam to the students, he observed that his colleagues would read the question outside on the question paper. So the teachers have also looked for ways around the issues that children have with reading. And if reading is an issue, you can have every other technology that you like, but how do you get around the issue that children are poor readers? So then, in innovating, we would have to think about voice enabled technology. So the point I'm making is, there's a lot of solutions out there. But we Africans have to be very, very active in innovating by ourselves. But technology in general offers a lot of opportunity, because a child in the centre of Kampala could have the same experience as a child in the centre of some village somewhere far away and this could really revolutionise educational learning.
So following up on what you're saying, regarding access to the technology, how do you see local innovations growing? And by that I mean, do you think it will take time? Or do you believe that innovations will come very rapidly, especially in the context of the COVID crisis?
My expectation, or maybe it's more a wish, is that COVID-19, and this kind of crisis could actually accelerate innovation. Because children have been out of school for more than a year, we have a lot of tech savvy, young people who are already beginning to step into this gap and find ways to deliver a service to those that are left out. My only concern is that while those innovations are going on, the fundamental questions about the relevance of education that they are spreading, remain unanswered. The questions about the content that's in the curriculum, and the question around what the examinations actually measure. And in the end, what kind of students come out of this system. But I think what technology enables is that it gives a little bit of autonomy to the students. So if a child has to learn on their own in a way, then it's more likely that they're going to probably learn better, they have less to depend on and can't really depend on the teacher, they can learn at their own pace. And maybe they can even form small communities of learning where they are so that they can learn from one another, which is one of the most effective ways of learning. So to reflect on your question a bit farther, I think what I see happening around me, at least here in Uganda, is that there's been a bit of an acceleration on innovation around providing more platforms for those who are left out to access education. But time will tell on how, how that will serve the children
Coming back on a point that you mentioned earlier, which is reimagining education. And right now, you also say that the fundamental question, which is the content of the learning and how we measure learning, needs to evolve, what do you think needs to happen from your perspective, as a facilitator, but also as part of this inclusive innovation organisation? What do you think needs to happen for things to evolve?
Yeah, so I think one step towards that reimagination is for us scholars to put more time into dealing with this question, because I find that a lot of my fellow education scholars tend to favour the status quo, but some of them do recognise that there's a bit of a problem. But they feel like it's not such a big problem. And some of the ways that they measure outcomes, or the advantages of the education system that we have in place is they'll tell you, well, Ugandan students compete very well globally, when they are admitted to universities abroad, they do as well or better than their colleagues. But for me, I don't think that's really the way to measure the success of an education system. I think a big part of the change has to come from us recognising that the purpose of education is really to equip citizens with the knowledge and skills for them to solve their own problems. And yet the education system that we have now, an education system that produces citizens who tend to look outside the continent for solutions, or outside their own country, so they look for best practices, and these kinds of things. So the main obstacle we face is that many of us don't think it's such a problem, that we have an education system that does not align with the local contexts as such. We are more proud of the fact that we are as well educated as British people, or American people failing to appreciate that traffic problems or medical problems, or whatever problems that the British and Americans face are very far removed from the ones that we face. And that we shall continue to face those problems here for as long as our education system does not allow us to really engage with them, and find the unique solutions that will eradicate them. So I think it's still a long journey of raising awareness. And this is one of my main missions in life is to publish articles like the one you read, that will enable educators and other members of the public that have influence over the education system to really ponder this question and appreciate that we need a big change. We need more content that reflects our environment, our local environment, our cultural environment, our social reality, our past so that we can better understand how to tackle our own problems.
Well, I have to say that that's an absolutely wonderful mission, and one that I can only support. I have another question now, which is not directly related to your work. And it's one of my favourite questions, to be honest. So do you have a piece of advice you were given at some point in your life, that you still consider today to have served you throughout your journey? And what is that advice?
I wouldn't say that someone gave me this advice. But it's a realisation that I came to somewhere in my mid 20s, that each of us has a unique contribution to make, and that we should make every effort to discover what that contribution is, I think, too many of us are guided or model our lives on the lives of others, we want to do what the others are doing. And yet, I feel that the sum of experiences of our talents and the opportunities that we get should always be able to result in a unique contribution. This realisation has driven me always to find the gap that I can contribute to, rather than do more of what everyone else is doing. So I guess that would be the piece of advice that I would share is that we all can make a very unique contribution. And we should make every effort to discover what that contribution is.
It's so beautifully said, and I couldn't agree more with it. Now, before we switch to the last part of the show, is there anything else you'd like to add? Something you believe is relevant for the listeners to know about on this education and learning theme?
I guess one other thing that I would add, just to sum up Claire, is that at the core of my mission, in being part of the reform of education in Uganda, in Africa, is the idea that education should give every child the opportunity to become who they are, I think when a child is born in a certain environment, a certain natural environment, a social environment, a cultural environment. And then they come to know about who their ancestors were or how this cultural social environment came to be coupled with what happens across the world, what they observe on the news or reading on the internet. I feel like all this should, in addition, with the education that a child receives, should enable a child to become who they really are, to question what they see around them. So education should give that child the skills of observation, skills of reflection, skills, of innovation or critical thinking, the skills that all humans have had throughout history of manipulating their own environment to arrive at an outcome that they desire, rather than an education, which that puts you at the whims of others, I find that the current education system only produces citizens who don't understand the reality so well and have to wait for someone else to describe it to them and give them the solutions to the problems around them. So the core of my mission really is to arrive at an education that can allow every child the opportunity to become who they really are, and to make the contribution that they are meant to make.
Thanks a lot for adding that really important indeed. And this should absolutely be at the core of education. So for the last part of the show, what I like to do is to ask three short questions to my guests, and get a sneak preview into either what music that they're listening to, or what books they're reading. So let's start. Question number one. What song are you listening to nonstop these days? Or if you don't listen to a lot of music? What book are you reading right now?
it would be more accurate to say that there are some books that I'm trying to read. And one of them is a book by a gentleman that I met on Twitter. He's called Graham Brown Martin. And he wrote a book Learning Reimagined and it looks at different education systems around the world. And it's really a fascinating book, but it takes some getting into. And the other book that I'm trying to read is Ben Okri's, The Famished Road. I'm also finding it quite fascinating but also rather dense. And finally is a book by a Ugandan author called Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi searching for the first man supposedly in Buganda, and he tries to imagine his life. So those are the three books that I'm trying to read concurrently at the moment.
Question number two, is there a book that has particularly resonated with you at a specific time in your life that you still remember today?
I'll talk about two books that have really made a very big impact on me. One is fiction by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is called 100 Years of Solitude. That book was just such a journey. I mean, I've read a lot of books. Now that I mentioned his book, I remember some other books. But that's a book that I'd recommend to anybody who has never read this man. But the second book that made a very, very big impact on me was around age 27. Earlier on, I mentioned that I came to the realisation that I could chart my own path. And this realisation came after I read Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and even forgot 100 Years of Solitude. The one book that has had the biggest impact in my life is that book, because it's the reason that I felt able to quit engineering and become an educator, it's the reason that I feel that as one person, I can still make a contribution to tackling a problem as big as reforming education. So those would be my two books.
For the third and last question, you basically already answered it. I actually wanted to know what book you would absolutely recommend to the listeners. And that was the first one you mentioned, the one from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So Connie, thank you so much. It has been really a great pleasure talking with you today. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom and thank you for sharing the mission that you're on. I believe it's a great one and I wish you lots of success.
Thank you just as much Claire for inviting me and for giving me this opportunity to speak with your listeners
That was episode eight, a conversation with Connie Nshemereirwe. Connie is certainly a trailblazer with a bold mission to have an education system that allows every child to become who they really are. In case you wish to learn more about Connie's work, I recommend you read one of her articles titled Education Evolution or Revolution. The link to this article, plus additional links and references from our conversation are listed on the podcast page. Simply type in your browser narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io and click on the episode. Thank you so much for tuning in today and listening to this new episode. I really appreciate you taking the time. Make sure you follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter to get timely updates. Until the next episode take care of yourselves stay well and stay inspired.