“Find out what a child’s passion is, what she really cares about, and build the curriculum to that, build it around her desire, her passion, so that she will feel not only that you respect her deepest feeling, but care enough to respond in a way that makes her feel valued. Suddenly, the learning seems more enjoyable, more accessible, more attractive to the child. It involves something, some aspect of what she cares about.”
Education visionary and fourth-grade public school teacher John Hunter is optimistic about the fate of the world, despite its seemingly intractable problems. His positive attitude comes from decades of watching nine- and 10-year-olds solve the toughest global problems he can throw at them in an open-ended political science simulation he calls The World Peace Game.
In it, Hunter’s students spend eight weeks grappling with 50 complex, interlocking crises (famine, war, colossal debt, refugees, wealth disparity, climate change, etc.), and every year “they collectively decide to save the world,” he says. They also save it a different way every year, using new solutions each time. “They find infinite ways to do good—from the infinite gardens of their mind…There are as many good solutions as there are children in the world,” says Hunter.
Hunter first created the game in 1978 at an urban high school in Richmond, Virginia, where he’d landed his first teaching job. “We were studying Africa, so I thought, ‘Why not put it on a game board?’ So I took the continent of Africa, divided it into countries, divided the kids into teams, and said, ‘Now what should we do with the continent? Well, there are a lot of great things, but let’s look at the problems and fix them. Let’s solve things.’”
The game has since become an elaborate, four-tiered plexiglass structure that dominates the center of his classroom at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hunter outlines the crises, appoints only a few key players—such as the “prime ministers” of each made-up country—and then steps aside. Nearly everything that follows comes from the students themselves.
The game is deliberately designed so students “fail massively at first, but we create a safe environment, with great care and love, where it’s okay to fail and learn from that,” he says. The 30-player, 50-problem nature of The World Peace Game is so complex “it immediately plunges students into uncertainty,” and as play progresses, “the rules and situations change, with multiple consequences, most of them hidden,” says its inventor.
At first glance, it looks like a competition between different teams, but “about halfway through, they have a sudden realization that they are on the same side. Everything is interrelated. To win, they have to go into a hyper-collaborative state.” In order for anyone to win, says Hunter, “everyone has to win.” Not only do they negotiate peace, but each country has to wind up with an improved economy as well.
Each session begins with a reading from Sun Tzu´s “The Art of War”, which encourages students to think about the many ways armed conflict can be avoided and then apply the ancient text to modern day crises.
Solving problems in the game “is certainly a messy process, with false starts, inaccurate assessments, and wrong-headed impulses,” he admits, “but the thought of there being no way out does not seem to occur to children…They are working from a place before perspectives harden and attitudes solidify—where, for example, compromise is demonstrated to be a lack of separateness from others, rather than being seen as personal sacrifice.”
Hunter´s encouragement of problem solving, cooperation, and higher-order thinking has earned recognition for him and his students. They’re the subjects of a documentary film called “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements” and also of Hunter´s celebrated 2011 TED Talk. In 2012, Hunter and his students were invited to explain their strategies to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his staff at the Pentagon.
“Teachers are writing us from all over the world. They watch the film and are inspired to do it themselves. They’re creating versions of ‘World Peace’ in Hong Kong, Indonesia and India. We’re just humbled. It’s a joyous ride,” says Hunter.
Hunter never expected to follow in the footsteps of his mother, who was a teacher. He dropped out of college to travel, studying philosophy and religion on his own as he made his way through India and the Far East. Once home, his mother exhorted him to finish school, so he signed up for the only thing that intrigued him—an experimental teaching program. The idea of trying a new approach to education was somewhat familiar to him, having been selected as a child to participate in a Civil Rights-era effort to integrate an all-white school in Richmond. But he credits his success in teaching in part to his first boss, a woman who he says gave him the freedom to find his own way as a educator.
Now he can offer some fundamental principles: allow students the luxury of failure; encourage them to not be afraid of complexity; and help them develop empathy and compassion. “The World Peace Game,” he says, “is about learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown.”
And Hunter insists that he is as guided by his students as they are by him: “I see everyday how my own understanding and knowledge is dwarfed by the collective and collaborative problem solving of young minds that aren’t fixed on ideologies, philosophies, perspectives and perceptions about life…I see children not as unfinished adults but as people, unique individuals. I treat them almost as colleagues, peers. I tell them, you have one teacher, but I have 30.”
Hunter graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and currently lives in Charlottesville with his wife Leslie and daughter, Madeline. Music is an important part of his life; Hunter has been both a studio musician and a live performer with the Ululating Mummies, an avant-garde/world music band based in Richmond. Hunter continues to teach fourth grade on a part-time basis and is the author of an April 2013 book also titled “World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements.”
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