Yuka Nakamura is chief operating officer of Tokyo-based edtech startup WonderLab and oversees all business strategy, finance, and operations. WonderLab’s flagship product — the critical-thinking skills app Think!Think! — has amassed nearly 2 million downloads in 150 countries and won a Google Play award. 

What does your app do differently, and how does it stem from Japan’s education culture?

I grew up in a rural area, Shikoku – not a very diverse environment. I didn’t realize that everyone was expected to be a certain way until I went to work for a consulting firm and thought, oh, I can think more freely. Schools [in Japan] are great, teachers are doing great work, but the system makes them all fit in in the same way. 

Our mission is to bring out children’s wonder in themselves. By nature, they’re curious and creative, so it’s not our job to intervene. Instead, we use gamification with puzzles and quizzes, and lead them along small steps to discover things by trial and error and [to] enjoy critical thinking. If their goal is just to find an answer, they’ll be stressed. 

In Japan, there’s a culture of enjoying mathematical thinking – like sudoku. Our company, and our founder, Kei Kawashima, were initially part of the juku (cram school) [culture of] Hanamaru Education Group, which has a unique history in fostering critical thinking skills. [This is]unlike the norm in Japan, which is conservative and very much oriented [toward] passing entrance exams. Our product [helps] in passing entrance exams, of course, but the most important thing is critical thinking and creativity.

How does technology change young children’s capacity to learn? 

We’re looking at countries interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics], like the U.S., U.K., Canada, and maybe Australia. Technology allows us to provide lots of great content at a low cost, which means low prices, which means we can offer this product to more and more children. That’s really important to us. Second, we wanted to create universal content. A lot of it is nonverbal, so translation is minimal, and kids of our target age – between four and 10 – are very intuitive. Some of this is down to digital literacy, but it’s also the age group. For children over 10, they’re good at metacognition and able to plan and reflect. Under 10, their motivations are more straightforward – if it’s interesting, they’ll participate; if not, they won’t. 

Edtech markets are pretty variable around the world – crushed under regulations in China, market pressures in India. What do you think is so hard to get right?

Right now, only 4% of the education market is digital. Not all edtech services are great; some products are too gamified, just about children earning stars and points. Adaptive learning technology is great, but I’ve heard teachers saying it can move too speedily for students. Others offer exactly the same experience as analog learning. So, teachers naturally think, ‘Why don’t we just stay analog?’ And many of those barriers are cultural. There are problems with extensive screen time. The technology isn’t good enough yet – but we can make it better. 

What kind of workforce do you envision you’re preparing these students for?

We think artificial intelligence and robots will do routine work in the future. We don’t think we’ll be robbed of our jobs, but we, as workers, will learn how to manage AI, and replace routine work, in order for humans to do more creative and valuable things. 

*This 3 Minutes With interview first appeared in the Rest of World weekly newsletter. Sign up here.