by John Hunter
Release date: April 2, 2013
In John Hunter’s classroom, students fearlessly tackle global problems and discover surprising solutions by playing his groundbreaking World Peace Game. These kids—from high school all the way down to fourth grade, in schools both well funded and underresourced—take on the roles of politicians, tribal leaders, diplomats, bankers, and military commanders. Through battles and negotiations, standoffs and summits, they strive to resolve dozens of complex, seemingly intractable real-world challenges, from nuclear proliferation to tribal warfare, financial collapse to climate change.
In World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, Hunter shares the wisdom he’s gleaned from over thirty years teaching the World Peace Game. Here he reveals the principles of successful collaboration that people of any age can apply anywhere. His students show us how to break through confusion, bounce back from failure, put our knowledge to use, and fulfill our potential. Hunter offers not only a forward-thinking report from the front lines of American education, but also a generous blueprint for a world that bends toward cooperation rather than conflict. In this deeply hopeful book, a visionary educator shows us what the future can be.
A native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, John Hunter is an award-winning gifted teacher and educational consultant who has dedicated his life to helping children realize their full potential. Employing his background as a musician composer and filmmaker during a three-decade career as a teacher, Hunter has combined his gifted teaching and artistic talents to develop unique teaching programs using multimedia software programs in creative writing and film courses.
During his university years, he traveled and studied comparative religions and philosophy throughout Japan, India and China. It was while in India, the cradle of Ghandian thought, Hunter, intrigued by the principles of non-violence, began to think of how his profession might contribute to peace in the world.
Knowing that ignoring violence would not make it go away, how could he teach peace in an often-violent world? Accepting the reality of violence, he would seek to incorporate ways to explore harmony in various situations. This exploration would take form in the framework of a game – something that students would enjoy. Within the game data space, they would be challenged, while enhancing collaborative and communication skills.
In 1978, at the Richmond Community High School, Hunter led the first sessions of his World Peace Game. Over time, in a synchronous unfolding with the growing global focus on increasingly complex social and political conditions, the game has gained new impetus. As Hunter succinctly explains, “The World Peace Game is about learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown.”
Perhaps I’m out of the loop, but I had not seen Chris Farina’s documentary about John Hunter’s “World Peace Game” nor had I heard any other media accounts of it. I’ve become passionate about education lately, especially progressive, so this book just seemed like an appealing antidote to the waves of standardized testing and test prep that have flooded our nation’s K-12 schools.
I spent the majority of the book alternating between “Wow” and “No way”. The scope and scale of this classroom project – both in terms of the time and effort it must have taken to create it and to continue to utilize and update it and in terms of the expectations for the children playing it – are just mind-boggling. Yet not only do fourth graders apparently take on the challenge, according to Mr. Hunter, they unfailingly rise to the challenge and achieve world peace. Each and every time.
Hunter himself is a force to be reckoned with. Beginning his days in rural, segregated Virginia, Hunter went on to become something of a “citizen of the world” in his words, traveling and studying in India and East Asia before coming “home” to the American black community where he’s taught for nearly 35 years, mostly fourth grade in a gifted program.
The Game started as a fairly simple interactive game focusing on Africa, but then developed into its full-blown form in a sort of vision that kept Hunter up furiously writing all night. In its more-or-less final form, the Game consists of four nations controlling various wealth, power and resources, each led by a prime minister who selects a cabinet with a minister of defense, a secretary of state and a minister of finance. There are also tribal minorities, arms dealers, a United Nations, a World Bank, a weather god(dess) and a saboteur just to make things more challenging. All lead positions are appointed by Hunter, but each leader gets to pick his or her staff.
The Game begins with fifty (50!) interlocking complex crises including such things as weapons proliferations, invasions, war, religious and minority strife, nuclear problems, border disputes, water and mining rights disputes, broken treaties, endangered species, fuel shortages, pollution and global warming, just to name a few. All crises interlock such that if one element change, it effects everything else. The students are charged with not only overcoming all of these crises and achieving world peace, but also with increasing the resources of all the countries and minority groups in the Game. The Game can only be won collectively by meeting those conditions.
Beyond the important lessons of diplomacy and global consciousness, Hunter also uses the Game to teach greater life lessons based largely on his studies of Eastern religion and philosophy, especially the writings of Chinese general Sun Tzu. In the usual frantic pace of daily life, most of us find our lives “full” – every minute accounted for with “productive” activity. Hunter believes that this constant activity shuts us out from the “empty space” which is a necessary part of the creative process. The Game is designed to intentionally overload and confuse students to the point that they simply cannot deal with it all using the normal strategies they have developed. Students are forced to take a step back and re-evaluate problems from an entirely new angle. Hunter’s role as teacher and facilitator is to support the empty space that allows for that shift in understanding.
In fact, Hunter has developed seven stages which he believes every Game flows through: overload and confusion, failure, personal understanding, collaboration, “Click”, flow, and application of understanding. Each stage, even – especially – the most frustrating and despairing – is necessary to confront the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve the final resolution. Students cannot solve all the problems thinking in old familiar patterns, nor can individuals solve all the problems alone. Hunter illustrates each stage with many examples from three decades of playing the Game, as students seem to take all the wrong, misguided and selfish paths, only to find that the “collective wisdom” of the group wins out in the end.
As note, I read this book with a mixture of amazement and skepticism. Hunter clearly cannot describe the Game in infinite detail nor cover every single playing of the Game; his presentation is necessarily cherry-picked to showcase what Hunter wanted to highlight. We really don’t get a sense of the specifics of how the Game is played – how the crises come up, how they are negotiated and “solved”, what counts as being “solved” etc. I don’t know how much the documentary covers, but if any other teacher is planning to play this Game with his/her students, s/he will need more than just this book to manage that.
When I was in seventh grade, our social studies teachers arranged a similar, although simpler game, in which we represented different imaginary countries which were supposed to negotiate with each other and/or attack to increase their power. It was an utter failure. None of us knew what we were supposed to be doing and the one country foolish enough to invade another country provided a lesson for the rest of us not to make that mistake, so we sat around waiting for someone to do something. Mercifully, they ended our game after only two agonizing days. Now, perhaps my teachers were simply not good facilitators or perhaps we were not adequately prepared or our game was not well designed (or some combination of all of those), but I have a hard time imagining fourth graders – even gifted ones – doing what we couldn’t do as seventh graders. I guess I will have to watch the documentary.
One of the most astounding things is that the entire Game takes only about seven to ten hours to play. Most sessions Hunter has facilitated have been played for roughly one hour a day, one or two days per week for ten or fewer weeks. Fourth graders can achieve world peace in a matter of hours, but adults have been messing it up for thousands of years?
Despite – or perhaps because of – my doubts, I would really like the chance to play the World Peace Game myself, or for my daughters to get the chance when they are older. I hope awareness of this Game allows for its expansion into the standardized test-stultified world of K-12 education. At the same time, however, what makes the Game work for Hunter is John Hunter himself. The Game is dependent on an understanding of relationships, personalities and group dynamics, both in general and specific to the particular group, that only a skilled facilitator can provide. I’d hate to see a Milton Bradley packaged and standardized version of this game mass produced and played mindlessly by uncomprehending teachers and students.
On a personal level, this book challenged and expanded my thinking and understanding. Like Hunter, I am a committed peace proponent, yet Hunter’s descriptions of the scenarios in the Game, along with their class visit to the Pentagon, shifted some long-held biases for me. Like Hunter, I find myself grappling with the role of war in building peace and, although my very being recoils at the thought, perhaps there is a place. I guess that’s one of those uncertainties I’ll need to confront in the empty space. After I read some Sun Tzu.