Tsuyoshi Domoto on nurturing creativity in early childhood education

Born in Japan, Tsuyoshi “Yoshi” Domoto identifies as a global citizen. While building a community library in La Unión, Honduras, Yoshi discovered his passion for education and subsequently pursued a master’s in education technology at Harvard University. Now a country manager at Saturday Kids in Japan, Yoshi shapes the path to transform early education for young children so that they become curious, self-directed learners by picking up programming, design thinking, and other skills.

Community members can ask Yoshi questions on childhood development here

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): At Saturday Kids, why is there a focus on “the idea of play”?

Tsuyoshi Domoto (TD): My parents were fairly traditional when it came to education. I tended to cram for the majority of my life, and I learned at a very early age that studying was something you had to force yourself to do. It wasn’t an enjoyable activity. Then, I went to college in the United States, where I really felt like I had the liberty to pick what I wanted to learn for myself. Obviously, it felt liberating. For the first time in my life, I thought that learning was actually quite fun.

That’s the kind of experience that we’re trying to provide to our kids here in Japan. We really think that if we help kids discover the joy in learning at a younger age, then they’ll be able to reach their true potential. That’s why at Saturday Kids, one of our core beliefs is that learning should be through games, fun, and play.

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Kr: When it comes to technology, what barriers have you seen in Japanese education?

TD: You’d be surprised to meet a lot of educators here who still have fairly traditional mindsets. There are people whom I have spoken with that believe girls should be learning ballet and boys should be learning robotics. Sometimes I have to push back and be like, no, boys can also learn ballet if they want to, and girls can learn robotics if they’re interested. We shouldn’t really engender these things from such a young age, because it has a long-term effect on our kids. One of the things happening in the play-based education space here in Japan is that you’re starting to see more gender-neutral games. That’s a wonderful thing.

For example, during the pandemic, Animal Crossing became huge here in Japan, and you see young boys and girls playing it. When I interview a lot of my instructors, a lot of times they say they got into programming through games. That’s usually their first encounter with technology. The more that we normalize the fact that games could be for both young boys and girls, the more we can increase the entry points and allow more Japanese girls to become technologists, programmers, software engineers, and whatnot. I think that we’re definitely heading in the right direction, and this trend is really exciting for me.

Kr: How can we ensure that high-quality education is delivered consistently regardless of socioeconomic status or gender?

TD: That’s a super challenging thing for anyone to do. If we have to deliver or come up with a product or service for the mass audience, that means we have to make sure that the price point is affordable for the masses. We lower the barriers to entry as much as possible. When it comes to the price, we have to make sure that we create products that limit the need for in-person teaching, or we alter the role of the instructor in the classroom so that he or she, rather than being someone who has all the information, can play the role of a facilitator instead.

Tsuyoshi Domoto takes a class photo with his students in Brazil. Courtesy of Tsuyoshi Domoto.

I think that it’s really important to create a curriculum that is more student-driven than instructor-led. For a lot of educational institutions and companies, your highest cost is usually salaries. So when we create a service or product, we have to make sure that we limit those human costs as much as possible, so that the end consumer can have access to that product at an affordable price point.

We have to start developing content that will use tools that are becoming more mainstream, like smartphones. In Japan, at least 96% of households now own mobile phones. Because almost every single household in Japan now has a smartphone, you’d be surprised to know there’s a lot of young boys and girls who don’t know how to use a computer, but will be masters at moving an object on a touchscreen. Five or ten years down the line, I think that VR and AR technologies are going to become more widespread. That’s a really exciting development for me, because it’s going to increase the range and availability of educational experiences that we’ll be able to offer to our students.

Kr: Are there initiatives that help Japanese students speak more confidently in a second language so they become active global citizens?

TD: That’s actually one of the primary reasons why Saturday Kids entered the Japanese market. I don’t think I’m lying when I say there’s a lot of Japanese people who lack confidence when it comes to speaking English. They’ll know how to communicate with you through writing letters and stuff like that, but when it comes to speaking, all of a sudden, they cramp up and are unable to articulate themselves.

I think that it’s because English language education here has historically been too focused on spelling and grammar and all these things that I personally think are pretty boring. It’s not what language is for. Language is for communication. Language is for interaction and developing a relationship with another human being. That whole aspect of language is completely missing in your Japanese classroom right now. At Saturday Kids, we try to do the complete opposite, where our classrooms are really all about fun and games but also the application of language. You hear a lot of young Japanese boys and girls speaking in English.

We try to stay away from that teacher-student relationship as much as possible. We’re all on the same playing field, and so the way in which I interact with them is also at their level. I don’t speak down to them, neither do any of my instructors. We’re all learning from each other. You’d be surprised how much the kids can actually teach adults. That’s the kind of classroom environment that we’re aiming for and the culture that we’ve tried to build.

Tsuyoshi Domoto and his students work on an interactive exercise that fosters design thinking at Saturday Kids. Courtesy of Tsuyoshi Domoto.

At Saturday Kids, we encourage kids to make mistakes. It’s really through trying to fix bugs in your code that you learn how to program or come up with an application. And it’s the same thing with language learning. You make mistakes, you continue to make mistakes, sometimes your pronunciation is a little weird—and that’s completely fine. After five, ten, 20 times, you start to grasp these grammatical concepts, and they come more naturally to you every time you’re able to speak. The whole point is to encourage kids to speak as much as possible and get rid of the English allergy that, unfortunately, a lot of kids end up having here in Japan.

You’d be surprised by the number of seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds—sometimes even five-, six-year-olds—who come up with amazing robots that adults would have never thought of. You ask the same middle school to do the same activity, and they get stuck, because they’ve already been taught to think in a certain way. They always think that there is already a right answer, and they have to produce this right answer, when that’s not true at all.

Kr: What are your hopes for early education in Japan, particularly within the next five to ten years?

TD: I really hope that education here in Japan can be completely reformed, that we stay away from rote learning as much as possible, and start gravitating towards a curriculum where creativity can be nurtured. It’s the things that kids are learning in the classroom that could be relevant to a lot of the social issues and problems we face in the world today. That’s going to motivate more kids to study harder, dive deeper in their fields, and come up with unique solutions that adults probably wouldn’t be able to think of.

I only see opportunities because of the way in which we have really failed our children, and the ways in which we have really screwed up education over the past 100 to 200 years, ever since the Industrial Age. I’m very optimistic about the future.

I’m not going to say that Saturday Kids is a school where we’re trying to churn out the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. We’re about cultivating the whole individual—somebody who’s curious, who’s passionate about things, who’s loving, friendly, and kind. I believe that our instructors really model that behavior.


Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not KrASIA’s. If you’d like to nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can recommend them here.

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