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Knowing what counts in future: An interview with Thomas de Maizière, Chair of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.

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Einstein or Instagram: What counts as general knowledge? What role does digitalization play in the transfer of knowledge? The Deutsche Telekom Stiftung strives to answer questions like these. In this interview, Dr. Thomas de Maizière, Chair of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung, talks about their efforts in support of a modern education system.

Dr. Thomas de Maizière, Chair of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.

Dr. Thomas de Maizière, Chair of the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung.

The Deutsche Telekom Stiftung describes its activities under the motto “Knowing what counts in future.” What do we need to know in the world of tomorrow, Mr. de Maizière?

STEM topics – that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – will definitely play a major role in the future and will be a larger part of a good general education than today. That’s a side-effect of digitalization. But pure STEM expertise isn’t all we need to understand and help shape our increasingly fast-changing, tech-heavy world. Interdisciplinary skills such as judgment, critical thinking, and source competencies are also needed to ensure that people can acquire new knowledge on their own at any time. 

Speaking of knowledge: Why do we need to acquire knowledge at all if the internet knows everything for us? 

If only it were that simple. It’s true that a lot of knowledge is available on the internet, but that’s just one side of the coin. It’s also true that there’s a lot of wrong information circulating on the internet, some of it seeded intentionally. That’s why media skills – in the sense of news and source competencies – are a very important topic for the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung. Everyone – but especially children and youths – needs to be able to tell trustworthy and untrustworthy information apart.

You emphasize the importance of media skills for young people – but don’t they already have the skills due to their age and constant use of digital media?

You might think so, but studies and surveys paint a completely different picture. Yes, young people use smartphones, tablet PCs, and computers as if it were second nature, but that’s usually all. They use media for entertainment, for chatting or gaming, for example. But using a tablet PC or learning systems for your own education is something completely different. And this is where the challenges start. I think the coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown how well suited digital media are for teaching and learning – when used properly – and what they make possible. But it’s also shown that things don’t just work right away. In any case, sending out worksheets via email and leaving the students on their own isn’t enough. Young people need support when it comes to developing media skills and digital maturity – especially when the risks of the digital world come in. Cyberbullying and dealing with privacy rights are two areas where they need guidance, for example. This needs to be taught in schools, as well as in youth centers, clubs, and at home. 

According to the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung, schools, youth centers, and clubs are part of an “education ecosystem”. That’s what your strategy states. What do you mean by that? 

That’s our vision for the educational systems of the future: We want all bodies and institutions where young people can learn to collaborate closely: schools, libraries, museums, clubs, child and youth workers, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case right now. Each organization does good work, but on their own and according to their own concepts. As we see it, in the educational landscape, we can all learn from one another – for the good of the children and youths, who then enjoy a kind of “all-round educational package.” We need to understand this better and live it, too. 

You mentioned STEM education before. But these subjects aren’t exactly favorites among children and adolescents …

That depends. When we think of small children, they’re all little STEM researchers. They are inquisitive – about the environment, animals, machines. They want to know how things work and try them out themselves. Unfortunately, this STEM enthusiasm is often short-lived. Math, physics, and computer science are often perceived to be too theoretical or too boring. Since the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung set its focus on educational offerings for 10 to 16-year-olds last year, we have investigated the interest in STEM topics among this age group at length. The result: The young men and women show a lot of interest in issues like environmental protection, climate change, nutrition, health, and the use of robots – which are all STEM topics, even if there isn’t a big “STEM” stamp on them. And these are topics that are incredibly important for our future. What we need to do today is ensure that the children and youths aren’t just interested, but actually engage.

How do you plan to do that? 10 to 16-year-olds in particular aren’t an easy group to influence.

If we pick them up in their reality, I’m sure we can achieve a great deal. The Foundation already has great projects like the Junior Engineer Academy, the “GestaltBar” digital workshop, and “Yes I can!”, where young people can tackle questions that interest them with great enthusiasm – and find answers, too. We will develop even more such programs in the future and get young people directly involved. The future belongs to them, after all, so they should have the opportunity to help shape it.

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