Buzzine: Revolutionary Teacher Uses Unique Method

on Sunday, 19 February 2012. Posted in Interviews, Media Coverage

John Hunter and World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements were recently featured in a video on Buzzine:

Clare Elfman:

Because I had been a teacher, Rick Elfman, publisher of Buzzine, asked me to come down to Anaheim to watch an extraordinary film and interview John Hunter — subject of the documentary — about the unusual “game” he presented to his 4th grade students. It was called World Peace. They were asked to figure it out and solve it. Oh, come on. Fourth-graders solving the problem that had been unsolvable through the ages? And the idea of a trip from L.A. down to Anaheim — an hour on the freeway during rush hour – was not appealing. But after taking a couple of wrong turns and coming in a bit late, I cooled down, had a cup of tea, watched the film, World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements…and the little hairs at the back of my neck began to bristle. I realized that I was seeing something extraordinary! I had been in the system long enough to know a remarkable teacher when I saw one. And then, after the film, when a member of the War Department came to talk with me and I understood that the Pentagon was coming to watch the method a fourth-grade teacher was using to introduce kids not only to problem solving but to the impossible concept of “world peace,” I was totally blown away. Listening to John Hunter and seeing his amazing game was a privilege. In these totally frustrating times, something new is happening. Well…how do you feel about a little hope for a change? John Hunter…remember that name.

Clare Elfman: You have invented and are using a wonderful game called World Peace, which you play with fourth grade kids, and you have just been called by the Pentagon? You tell me why the Pentagon has called a fourth grade teacher who teaches a game called World Peace to little kids. This is too amazing. Explain that to me.

John Hunter: We’ve been asked to speak to some of the executives at the Pentagon in Washington, DC and present the World Peace game, the theory and the principles underlying it, and of course it’s a complete surprise to me that we’ve been asked. I’m not completely sure of all the reasons people invite us but it’s exciting, and hopefully we can do some good wherever we go, and maybe we’ll learn something too.

CE: What on Earth gave you the idea, as an elementary school teacher, to create this quite intricate and philosophically fascinating game called World Peace?

JH: In 1978, I was just beginning my career as a teacher. My first teaching assignment was at a gifted high school: inner city eighth and ninth graders in Richmond, Virginia. When I asked what my job assignment was, my supervisor had simply said, “What do you want to do?” And that initial opening, that space she created so inspired me, it changed my thinking. So I thought, “How can I create a space for (my students) to learn, rather than filling in something that they would have to take from me? And of course teaching is best facilitated, I think, through the line of least resistance, where I find out what a student loves the most, or what they’re passionate or interested in, and then build curriculum toward that. Skills can be slipped in surreptitiously; skills can evolve suddenly during the process of doing what they love. And sometimes they aren’t even 685x387aware that they’re learning because they simply think they are doing what they want to do. So I thought, “Well, they love games. Let me try a game.” I wanted to combine game playing and social studies, so we used a continent – I think Africa was the first one. I taped it off on a plywood board on the floor and divided the students into country teams, and gave them the problems of the country. We did a little problem-solving. They’d have to do a little research to find out about the countries before they could solve problems, so we were getting our social studies done, but we were playing a game at the same time. And it seemed to work; they seemed to enjoy it; it seems like we got something done their way – through a game, and they seemed to really find that more enjoyable… so that inspired me. And of course, this World Peace game has evolved to a gigantic Plexiglas towering structure, four feet tall with thousands of game pieces…

CE: Did you construct this yourself?

JH: I thought, “I’ve got to create this thing somehow.” So I talked to my father, who’s got a great special intelligence, and we thought we could do a Plexiglas tower and use rods at the corners and the center to sort of reinforce it and hold it up. I got a Plexiglas shop to fabricate it. We didn’t know if it would work or not, and it seemed to work. Actually, the entire World Peace Game structure can sway. You can walk up to it and actually grab it, and just move the whole thing around. And it’s strange because the movement when it’s bumped or moved is like the Chinese idea of bamboo, which bends in the wind. Had I made a much stronger, reinforced structure, it might have taken more damage, had it been bumped by the students, which it occasionally does get bumped.

CE: I can see this being done with eighth or ninth grade students. What on earth gave you the concept that you could bring this in with fourth grade students? They’re babies. They’re little kids. How did you get the idea that you could move that into as young a level – at the age where they’re just like clay being molded?

JH: I had a thought that I could take this game from high school to my elementary school level. I moved around to different grade levels throughout my career, and I never really thought that my younger students couldn’t play the World Peace Game. I thought, “Well I have it; it’s a game, it’s exciting; we can tweak it if need be. We can modify whatever we have to do to make it accessible to fourth grade – nine-year-old students,” and with a few tweaks, it proved to be perfectly adaptable. You might think it was lessened in some ways, but it really wasn’t. Actually, the idea was to over-complexify – to completely overwhelm the students to start with. To make it completely or nearly hopeless for them to solve. To put them in a situation where there is no conventional way they can solve the problem, and ask them to do it anyway. Once they realize conventions are not gonna work, you strip away the conventional thinking that the things that they are taught and trained to lean on – you strip that away and what are they left with? They’re left with their own collaborative wisdom and intelligence which is inside themselves.

CE: Did you have to define terms for them? For instance, you have the business with the oil fields and the business of the global warming. Did you have to take each of these terms and define them for the kids, or let them work themselves, or what?

JH: In order for the students to understand the language – the terminology of the game, we use a pretty high-level diplomatic language, I guess you’d say, and political language and functional language, I simply began talking that way. And of course the first day, they might not understand what an insurgency is, but you simply use it in context in conversation and in context with other words that are related, and they begin to get a conceptual understanding. Then, of course, they’re prompted, they’re inspired, they’re encouraged, they’re stimulated to do their own research, and around the dinner table at night…I usually hear my World Peace students spend a lot of time at the dinner table talking about the game with their parents. They do a lot of research that way, and they find out quite a bit, come back in with a deepening knowledge and understanding. We don’t really prepare them for the game before we play. We simply go plunging in to a complex, uncertain world, and it’s our confidence in our relationships together that we can take that leap of faith.

CE: You just absolutely amaze me. You go in and give them something of utter complexity, and let them just deal with it. What was the beginning response from the kids? Do they come in with bewilderment, or how do the young minds function, where suddenly it’s a problem that the Pentagon has come to fourth grade students to figure out how to stop this world of chaos? What are some examples of how you saw the young concepts form or their reaction to it?

JH: When they first are presented with it, it’s a surprise. I have a buildup – “We’re going to do something very special tomorrow” – and of course at that time, the game is not put up in the room, and they don’t know what it is, but they know I’ve got a surprise for them. And the game board structure itself – the way I built it – takes about six hours to set completely for the 50 interlocking crises. So we have six hours setting it up…

CE: You have 50 crises?!

JH: There are 22 or 23 major crises with sub-crises embedded within them. They’re all interlocking, and I’ll give you an example shortly too. You cannot solve one crisis without consideration of the consequence of others.

CE: Wait, I’m gonna stop you for just a moment. Give me the concept, for someone who hasn’t seen the game. You have what? There are four different countries?

JH: What you see, when you see the World Peace Game, is a towering Plexiglas structure. It’s four feet by four feet by four feet tall, so you have four horizontal sheets of Plexiglas – and they’re separated and stacked above each other in sort of a towering format. The lowest level, closest to the floor, is undersea level – there’s undersea mining and submarines, and an undersea civilization that’s sunken. The next level is ground and sea, and you’ll see most of the operational theater of the game. You have factories and cities and militias and troops –things we have on our Earth’s surface and sea surface – ships as well. The next level is just about eye level– the aircraft level. We have a Plexiglas horizontal sheet there that has territory air space marked off above the country below it, and there are giant puffs of cotton that are used for clouds, and tiny airplanes representing aircraft. And the top level, which is actually above their head- high – they climb on chairs to operate with little pointers that they can move things around with – is the outer space level – we’ve got an international space station, satellites, research and killer satellites – Star Wars program. We also have black holes and asteroid mining, and things like that too. So you’ve got all this complexity interactive with every other thing on the board simultaneously. And you do have four countries – one on each side of the Plexiglas board – and these four countries have a cabinet of four members – usually four to five members: the Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Minister of Defense, and a Chief Financial Officer, with their respective duties. I offer the position to the Prime Minister, who can turn it down, but I offer it based on my intuition as a teacher about a certain child – what that child might need or what strength they have that should be exploited and developed further. Then they choose their cabinets. I offer the Secretary General of the United Nations position, the World Bank President, and also the Arms Dealer – a CEO job. I offer those to students, and they choose their staffs after that. So the four countries are there, and they’re of varying wealth and asset values, and then they are given the 13-page crisis document which takes three hours to get through, and we do it over maybe a couple of days.

CE: What did you find, right at the beginning? Were they able to grasp what they were seeing and what they needed to do?

JH: I think when the students first see the board, it’s overwhelming, and deliberately intentionally so. I want them to feel out of their depth completely – to be not “Ho-hum, I’ve seen that all before; a bit cliché.” Something totally startling and unknown, and I wouldn’t say dangerous, but something powerful and almost overwhelming. And with that kind of almost awe, or that kind of respect that might be engendered by something so amazingly complex and unknown, and yet your teacher, Mr. Hunter, is asking you to engage with it, and basically fix it.

CE: What was their goal? What did they have to do? What was their outcome?

JH: The goals of the World Peace Game are twofold. One is to solve all these interlocking problems I’ve given them, however they want to do it. There’s no map; I don’t know how to do it. I cannot tell them, so they cannot rely on me for that kind of advice. I admit to them, “I don’t know the answer.” The second condition is that every country in the game – there are usually four with some sub-tribal groups and ethnic and religious minorities also – every group has to improve their asset value and conditions during the game. If those two conditions are met, then we have the World Peace Game as being won.

CE: How do they come up with these concepts on a nine-year-old level – that they see it as young children would see it in trying to resolve their own social problems? I’m trying to picture how they approached it…

JH: The way they solve problems…they are completely outside of convention. They continue to work that way, which is a beautiful thing because they come up with things that I could not think of and probably most adults wouldn’t think of, or wouldn’t think viable. Of course, the game is not a realistic game in the practical sense but it’s realistic enough that you can get conceptual solutions well and working.

CE: Could you give me an example of how a nine-year-old comes up with a solution, being his own age and knowing only what he knows at that level of life?

JH: There was an example — and this is about how nine-year-olds come up with these unconventional conceptual solutions. One of our crises is a very poor country – an ice-locked country – that has recently discovered oil on one of its islands – an ice-covered island. The poor country needs revenue, they need oil or some kind of income fast, because they also have a famine. These are the conditions I create for them to start with. Now, on the site where the oil is discovered, there’s a microscopic species of life form. If they choose to drill for the oil, they will kill, or cause to go extinct, this life form. So they have a moral dilemma to start with. Now, to complicate that further, their neighboring country, which is very devoted to ecological issues and matters – sort of like a Greenpeace on steroids – sent its navy to surround this island and refuses to let the country that owns the island drill there. They’ve invaded the territorial waters and country sovereignty of this other country to protect this life form, against the international law, but they believe they must do so to protect this life form. So you have these colliding issues and concerns and intents and country benefits all in conflict. So the students, to solve this problem, said, “Well, we’ve got to figure out a way to do it. What are we going to do?” They worked through a negotiation with the country that wanted to protect the life form to allow them to do a study research and preserve the life form. They decided to ask that country’s help to explore for oil in other locations… In our game, we have a coin toss. If you’re looking for oil, you find it through that means. So they did find some oil in another location and moved to that, and they left the microscopic life form there. An earlier version of that same problem, I had the life form as the size of small deer, I put in the crisis, and the students simply air-lifted them off the island and drilled anyway. [Laughs]

CE: They were able to come up with these solutions themselves?

JH: I cannot help them solve these problems because I don’t know the answers. Their collective wisdom comes together and they are able to solve it, and in a different way most every time every generation plays the game.

CE: Did you see major changes in the kids in their social life, or in their interaction outside the classroom, once this game started?

JH: What’s been really gratifying about the effects of the game outside the game and after the game is over: First long-term, students who played 15, 20, 30 years ago, are now, because of social media, more easily able to get in touch with me and tell me what an effect that particular exercise has had in their lives. One student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill wrote and posted on our foundation website how her responses in her class on international diplomacy and security issues – are far above the others in the class, and they’re so unique and so different, and she attributes it to her playing the World Peace Game, which, as a teacher, you can imagine how that must feel. But immediately I think, outside of our classroom, one effect I know is that the year after the film was made — the World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements, which documents the World Peace Game story – a group of girls got together and started a charity on their own. I think they were collecting pennies and dimes. They found out that if they raised $100, they could send it to construct a village well where there was no clean water, I think in one country in Central Africa. They provided at least one well, on their own – no adult help or intervention – until the very end when the adults helped them get the funds abroad. But that kind of impetus, that kind of inspiration, I hope, I think – at least they told me it did – came from playing the game.

CE: What is the difference, in your observation, to fourth graders playing the game and ninth graders playing the game?

JH: When I play the game with younger students, it’s a very creative, non-conceptual approach to the game; it’s very free-wheeling, fun, very exciting, very visceral, very emotional. The children invest their entire selves into the experience, and if a conflict is lost or there is some other kind of disaster, they seem to take it personally. High school students, ninth graders do the same, but their experience is more cerebral, and I would say that when I see high school students play this game, it’s marvelous. It’s the most sophisticated thing you can imagine – to see that level of budding intellect tackle these problems in a practical, realistic way, with a fresh creativity — still of childhood, but with the sharpness of a budding intellectual mind. It’s a magnificent thing to watch, and I’ve never seen such sophistication.

CE: You’ve started a game with fourth grade students – they’re practically just out of their diapers . At the film showing, I met a man from the Pentagon who was there soliciting your information. This is something like Dr. Strangelove to me…

JH: Chris Farina, the producer of World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements, and I have been invited a number of places. We’ve been on a two-year circuit with the film to film festivals in other countries – like Norway and so forth – and recently we received this invitation to speak at the Pentagon. Today, at the film showing here in Los Angeles, there was a gentleman, I think, from one of the Army teaching schools who came and said that he was interested and really inspired by what he was seeing, using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, that kind of critical and creative thinking that young people and nine-year-olds were engaged in. And we are invited to the Pentagon in November, so we’re going to go see what it is they really want. We’re not quite sure, but hopefully we can do some good, and maybe inspire others to think about peace in new ways as well.

CE: All that comes to my mind is the phrase: “And the little child shall lead them,” but I have to add to that: “a little child with an absolutely inspired teacher.” And I am so impressed with what you’re doing. I thank you for the opportunity of hearing… I think this blows my mind.

JH: I’ll say in closing that I was fortunate to have a camera in my classroom, and the exercise I was doing happened to go well. But it just lets me know that there are a lot of good teachers who teach an entire wonderful career and do great work, and have great students and great results, and they never have a camera in their classroom. I’m always aware of the responsibility that this film has laid upon us. And we realize every second that we’re just one in a lineage of teachers, and every teacher is interdependent with every person in their building, from the secretaries, the cooks, the janitors, the bus drivers, the custodians, the teaching assistants… No one is independent; we’re all interdependent, so if you see one good teacher, you know there is a mass of people that made that one teacher possible and makes that one result possible with one child.

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