Digital denominator

30.07.2020 | Author: Marlene Sørensen | Photos: Jonas Holthaus 

Verena Pausder is sitting in a room with a blue wall looking to the upper right corner of the picture. A couple of toys are spread across the room.
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Entrepreneur Verena Pausder sets new standards with her commitment to children’s digital education.

Eight years ago, Verena Pausder – with boldness, determination and an attitude that said “If nobody else is doing it, I will” – launched Fox & Sheep, a start-up that develops apps for children. The Haba Digital Workshop, developed together with the toy manufacturer Haba in 2016, aims to familiarise children with the digital world and hosts courses and workshops for children and educators alike. At the end of 2019, the entrepreneur handed over the management of the company, but she continues to fight for digital education: she does not just criticize German education policy (an appearance on a German TV show gained her nationwide applause), she does something about it. In May 2020, she started the hackathon #wirfürschule, with around 6,000 participants developing creative ideas for a future school system.

We meet Verena Pausder at the Haba Digitalwerkstatt in Berlin, where flashing robot eyes and a 3D printer form the backdrop for a conversation about educating children in a digital world.

She’s Mercedes: For years, the burning question has been looking at how we are preparing the next generation for the digital world. What’s your advice to parents?

Verena Pausder: Don’t demonise this world, engage with it. A twelve-year-old is more likely to take advice if their mother knows about Minecraft and doesn’t just nag them to put the tablet away! Then she will also see that Minecraft is a game that can stimulate creativity.

Cluster of small blue ball robots, model "Dash" by Haba.

Artificial eyes? No, a programmable robot: the “Dash” robot in Haba’s digital workshop.

Specifically, what does “digital workshop” mean?

Our approach is to create a space that is all about opportunities and participation. Many parents are already fearful enough of the effects of digitisation on children. We want to take that fear away completely.

Like many fears parents have about raising children, this arises from the worry of not being able to sufficiently protect children. And more and more children are being diagnosed with computer addiction...

Of course, we really have to do everything in our power to prevent this. And, naturally, we must protect our children from cyberbullying, strengthen them against it. But it is unfair to project your own fear onto the children, because they are not afraid. And that’s just fine at this stage. It’s important to guide their curiosity. I believe that the best way we can move forward is with a healthy balance between openness and clearly defined boundaries.

What should schools aim to achieve?

First, they must provide the right tools. Secondly, teacher training is critical – including in the emotional and social fields – so that programmes for real teaching can be developed. For example, not only is programming part of the curriculum in Britain, but mindfulness is, as well. The third aim is that we need a consensus on the future skills that our children will need.

What are these?

Resilience and a tolerance to frustration, problem-solving skills – these skills will all still be needed, even in a fully digitised world. And digital competencies. By this, I mean that children need to be able to evaluate information, as well as learn creative skills. Because creativity is one thing that robots cannot replace.

In Silicon Valley, a movement has emerged recently of parents who forbid themselves and their children to use media. Employees in the big technology companies send their children to Waldorf schools where they learn on chalkboards and in tree houses.

If the kids were there until they were 25, I might say: OK, they’ve realised that they’ve created a bad thing that we have to protect our children from. But their kids only go to Waldorf Schools until they are twelve, maybe 16 at most – and then they attend fully equipped colleges. After that, it’s on to a top internship, Stanford, and from there, their pick of the jobs. This only applies to that privileged tier of society, though. In Germany alone, there is already a shortage of at least 100,000 IT specialists. These gaps will not be filled unless we teach children to learn how to really get the most from their devices. You have to start much earlier than twelve.

How much earlier?

From six or seven. In my view, this is the only way to even out the differences between the sexes as well as the social differences. When girls are introduced to it at this age, they develop a completely different self-perception than when they are constantly told that technology is not for girls. Girls need to have the feeling that there are many others like them here. It starts with them being trusted to manage more.

“Switching from being permanently online in the office to completely offline for a few hours at home is like going cold turkey every time.”

How do you handle screen time within your own family?

My sons are nine and twelve years old now, my daughter is still an infant. The rules we have are half an hour of screen time each on Tuesday and Thursday, one hour each on Saturday and Sunday, and no screen time on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

What did your children think of that? Probably not thrilled.

It was quite an issue to enforce this. “What? Is that all? Other kids get much more. You’re crazy!” But once it became clear that we were not going to budge on the topic, it was accepted. Media consumption needs rules just as much as road traffic does. Do we want smartphones at the dinner table? If not, the rule applies to all, including the father, who wants to make a quick phone call, and the mother, who wants to send a quick email.

Wasn’t that hard for you?

Not at the dinner table. But switching from being permanently online in the office to completely offline for a few hours at home is like going cold turkey every time. I’ve already tried everything possible to stick to it, for example by having every app shut down between 6:00 and 8:30 pm.

You took a digital time-out at the beginning of this year. You are also retiring from the management of your two companies and moving into a position on Haba Digital’s advisory board. All of this to be able to take more care of your own children. What prompted the desire for some time out?

I wanted to focus on just one thing again, instead of constantly thinking in parallel tracks. And I have to admit: things get along very well without my involvement. I’ve had eight years juggling two companies, my children and various other activities. But there wasn’t any depth in my life. I no longer wanted to have to turn every conversation into a to-do list. I thought to myself: “I’ll take this luxury now.”

Verena Pausder looking into the camera holding a round blue object in front of one of her eyes.
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