Picture of Dr. Thomas de Maizìere in a conversation, black-white-gradient

“It’s about the art of the address, discussion and having a say.”

Dr. Thomas de Maizière about moral courage, decency and a digital educational mission for schools, business and homes.

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Dr. de Maizière, the Deutsche Telekom Foundation has carried out more than 100 projects since its foundation and spent 120 million euros on foundation purposes. Which project is particularly close to your heart?

There are two! One is the “Junior Engineering Academy,” in which high school students in grades 8 and 9 work closely with universities and companies to develop things such as an artificial arm prosthesis or a solar-powered car. That’s great fun for them and the great thing is that they learn math and physics as a result. The second project, “GestaltBar,” focuses on grades 7 and 8 at secondary schools and awakens the desire to work with computers, smartphones, technology and engineering services.

With what success?

The overarching goal is to change schools from the outside in by creating networks between schools, universities and companies that “carry” young people into the future and actually make an impact. The two-year Junior Engineering Academy, for example, runs at more than 100 grammar schools throughout Germany. There are already GestaltBars at more than 30 locations, and in the future, we want to create more of these networks.

How do such projects emerge?

As an operational foundation, we develop projects that we believe support the educational system in a meaningful way. A call for proposals then ensures that all interested institutions such as schools or youth institutions can apply. If 100 schools participate in a project such as the Junior Engineering Academy, it will be easier for us to make general statements, for example, about technology didactics, than if we were to carry out a larger project with just one school. A foundation that spends around 10 million euros a year can only achieve something by generalising, by giving examples and by delivering results that are reliable in terms of quality.

In this way we can collect information such as: do eighth graders learn and react differently in the North than in the South? Does this have anything to do with the school system or the educational environment? With whether the teacher is a woman or a man? Or with the size of the school? If you want to discuss such questions, you are able to make the necessary comparisons only if you hold the projects in your own hands. That is personnel-intensive, and as a small foundation we have just 23 employees. But we find this way more promising than waiting until others have ideas that we then support financially.

Thomas de Maizière, Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom Foundation CO2

Picture of Dr. Thomas de Maitìere, sitting on a magenta coloured sofa

Thomas de Maizière, Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom Foundation CO2

Thomas de Maizière has been Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom non-profit Foundation since November 2018. From 1994 to 1998, he headed the State Chancellery in Schwerin and from 1999, served as State Minister in the Free State of Saxony. In 2001, he moved to the Ministry of Finance as Saxon Minister of State, in 2002, to the Ministry of Justice and in 2004, to the Ministry of the Interior. In 2005, Thomas de Maizière became head of the Federal Chancellery, four years later Federal Minister of the Interior.

From 2011 to 2013, he was appointed Federal Minister of Defence and from December 2013, to March 2018, he served as Federal Minister of the Interior again. He has been a member of the German Bundestag since 2009, humbly serving as a directly elected member of parliament.

How do you invest intelligently in digital education?

By increasing the reach of your investments and their results as quickly as possible, for example through cooperation with other foundations. The Education Digitalization Forum we initiated works like this. Another very successful cooperation project is the “House of Little Researchers,” which introduces three-to-six-year-olds to the topics of science and technology in kindergartens. The project is funded on a large scale by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, foundations and other partnerships, and has thus gained an enormous reach. Wherever we do something specific, we do it alone, in our own name. In this respect, we always have to weigh things; do we want to be recognizable by our name or do we want to reach more people, more schools, more educational institutions – including extracurricular ones – together with others? We are trying to find a good mix between the two.

Tim Höttges recently warned that the German digital economy lacks 300,000 skilled workers. How does the Deutsche Telekom Foundation deal with this?

When it comes to “specialists,” everyone thinks of engineers who develop apps worthy of the Nobel prize. But we also need what we call “skilled workers” in the analogue world at all levels of qualification in the IT world. For example, to lay cables for appropriate connections and repair work. That’s why we shouldn’t just focus on academic functions and universities. We also need corresponding offers in the area of vocational training. As a foundation, we cannot reach or satisfy the entire field of education, but we can show others that this is how it could be done.

In the future you will concentrate your work on the age group from 10 to 16 years. Why?

We focus on this age group because educational biographies are decided at this age, but also because many young people lose the desire to learn during this phase. This often has something to do with didactics, in other words with forms of teaching or with how the pupils are addressed. How do I teach a rule of three, for example, so that a pupil does not lose the desire to learn a solution? In the future, we will try even harder to act as a model in schools so that the pupils’ desire and joy in learning, but also in constructing, doing handicrafts and in realising themselves, is simply strengthened. This also creates a tendency to make such a thing a profession.

What do you mean by “addressing the students?”

If you ask students directly, “Would you like to become an IT specialist?” then many probably say “No.” But if you instead ask, “Do you want to not just use a smartphone, but to build computers and understand what happens inside your smartphone? Do you enjoy developing something together with others and not just on your own? If you want to do that, the MINT section could be of interest to you.” Maybe we have to separate ourselves from narrow technical terms like mathematics, physics and chemistry. For many, this already creates a hurdle. If instead you talk about developing something, being creative, experiencing new things, being able to concentrate, then I think it makes you enjoy IT and mathematics much more quickly.

How can you influence school operations in this sense?

Picture of Dr. Thomas de Maizìere in conversation; he speaks and gestures

Through meaningful support that does not burden, because a lot is already expected from schools. They should promote democracy, teach arithmetic, reading, writing, as well as swimming and cycling. They should promote health behaviour, good nutrition, be against racism, teach how to file a tax return and write a cover letter for a job application. Schools should do all of this, but they are totally overloaded with these tasks. That’s why we as a foundation are increasingly trying to link schools and extracurricular activities. This also has an effect on schools, for example in that children are not only left to their mobile phones for hours during the afternoons at allday schools.

The latter describes what digital early education should not look like? 

Yes! and perhaps the example of our early musical education is a good one. There are many ways to learn to play the violin, but the use of an instrument must always be explained, evaluated, improved, corrected and, in case of doubt, simply discontinued. When instructing children how to handle instruments, this all too often neglected in communication today. Perhaps this is because smartphones, children’s computers and their operation are so self-explanatory. This is neither good for the use itself nor for the development of young people.

What could a parental adjustment look like in concrete terms?

Questions from parents like, “What are you doing there? Could you explain that to me?” would be the first step in turning the child from the user to the creative designer of the device. This is a key qualification for school and for education, especially in the MINT subjects. By the way, saying something like that first and foremost at home also has a lot to do with safety: protecting children and adolescents from fraudsters, traps, viruses, basically cybercrime. When we don’t make young people aware of the importance of using the Internet responsibly, external rules, state intervention and counselling services are of little help.

As Federal Minister of the Interior, you once had reason to say: “Part of this answer would unsettle the population.” In the context of our digital security, are you concerned that one of your successors in the office of the Federal Minister of the Interior might have to repeat this sentence?

At the press conference following the cancellation of the international football match in Hanover, my concern was to conceal the possibility of another attack. As a minister responsible for security, to achieve this goal you must talk intelligently around the issue – just as politicians often have to do. But comparable situations such as cyber-attacks on public infrastructures and the security operations of our country can occur. Look at so-called critical infrastructure, which can also be privately owned, for example, transfer centres of savings banks or network transmission centres for electricity or telecommunications supply. The state must do something about this. It is already doing something about it, and it must continue to do so, but the private companies themselves must also do something about this: the railways, the postal service, Deutsche Telekom and its competitors, large hospitals, banks and energy providers. This is a major and ongoing task.

When it comes to security and credibility, half-truths or whole-truths, the Internet is neutral per se. Is the problem “fake news,” to name just one, due to the different credibility of the sources to which the Internet gives access?

Even Wikipedia will not be the only blessed Brockhaus of the future. But the fact that the platform today enjoys a relatively high degree of seriousness has to do with internal quality criteria and their linkage with a systemic corrective. We find that more or less reliably in the print sector as well. For example, I can’t do without my own judgement at the newspaper kiosk. Which magazine do I take? And when I buy one that everyone knows is full of talk, rumours and gossip, I have to ask myself first, “Do I want to be amused by the gossip or do I really want to believe it?” In other words, it does not work without people’s ability to judge – neither a democracy, nor reasonable buying or environmental behaviour, nor the use of the Internet.

“It does not work without people’s ability to judge – neither a democracy, nor reasonable buying or environmental behaviour, nor the use of the Internet.”

Thomas de Maizière, Chairman of the Deutsche Telekom Foundation CO2

The diversity of channels, the intensity with which we discuss them, the variants of those who romp about on the Internet – is there still a constant in our communication?

Above all, the topics are changing, but the intentions are not. This is precisely the point at which I am being scolded too quickly on the Internet. It has been the case since Gutenberg and Luther that intentions are associated with communication. To worriedly say now that an internet service provider connects targeted benefits with their offer would be naïve, because that is their business model after all. It is not unusual to earn money with recognisable or hidden advertising. This has long been accepted in the cinema, on television or in magazines. On the Internet, much is just new, the ranges are different, the internationalization is greater. But a few standards that we had in the analogue world, a few mechanisms to make us immune to advertising or to question them, you need as an internet user too. We should show more composure and not consider everything new on the Internet to be ground-breaking. That already helps.

Would it be conceivable for the Internet to have a comparable authority, such as the German Press Council for the newspaper landscape?

There are already corresponding discussions. Although the Press Council has no sanctioning power, its code has a warning, inhibiting effect. This is certainly not transferable one-to-one, but in a similar form for the Internet such a thing would be helpful.

Because it is like accountability for upholding values and rules?

Correct. Even unwritten rules are very important for the stability of a society. As a lawyer, I value such rules as much as formal rules. It would be a wonderfully important task to think about how to establish unwritten rules of decency, the behaviour of providers, users and how to deal with each other on the net. This would certainly increase the credibility of certain providers on the Internet.

Who needs to be particularly held accountable?

Everyone. It does not help if everyone points fingers. The state has a role, the providers have a role, but so do the users. The golden rule helps: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I am convinced that if we all stick to it, it would have a great effect. And each one of us can remind another of that from time to time. For example, if someone is foul-mouthed in a blog, just reply, “I don’t want us to deal with each other like this on the Internet.”

So, you need a minimum of courage?

Civil courage, yes. Civil comes from citizens. In this sense, displaying civilian courage instead of dawdling and turning a blind eye is always a contribution.


The Deutsche Telekom Foundation is one of the largest educational foundations in Germany. For more than 15 years, it has supported projects dealing with topics from the mathematical, scientific and technical fields. The foundation supports children and young people between the ages of 10 and 16 in actively shaping their own learning inside and outside school and thus developing important competencies for their education and life. From the donors’ point of view, these competencies include solid specialist and interdisciplinary knowledge in mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology as part of general education. In addition, they consider critical thinking and judgement, creativity, communication skills and the ability to work in a team to be decisive for living and working successfully in the future.

Contact: Andrea.Servaty@telekom-stiftung.de

More Information: www.telekom-stiftung.com

Author: Thomas van Zütphen
Photos: Oliver Krato

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