TED Radio Hour: John Hunter: How Can 4th Graders Solve World Problems? Educator John Hunter puts all the problems of the world on a 4'x5' plywood board — and lets his fourth-graders solve them. He explains how his World Peace Game engages schoolkids and why the complex lessons it teaches go further than classroom lectures can.
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How Can Fourth-Graders Solve World Problems?

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How Can Fourth-Graders Solve World Problems?

How Can Fourth-Graders Solve World Problems?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. In John Hunter's fourth-grade class, the students aren't tied down to their desks.


JOHN HUNTER: All right, we're going into negotiation as of now.


HUNTER: I say to the students every day when we start class, I'm sorry boys and girls; I'm afraid we're going to have to have fun today.

STEWART: Back in the late '70s, John created a hands-on political simulation called "The World Peace Game." And it's been a part of his classroom ever since.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Gaby has given me a promise, that he did go and buy those troops secretly. And I believe he's trying to own the World Bank, and try to get everyone mixed up.

STEWART: Fourth-graders become prime ministers, secretaries of state; and are asked to solve problems typically reserved for the adult leaders of the world.


HUNTER: We have - let's see, ethnic and minority tensions; we have chemical and nuclear spills, nuclear proliferation. There's oil spills, environmental disasters, water rights disputes, breakaway republics, famine, endangered species and global warming. If Al Gore is here, I'm going to send my fourth-graders from Agnaherd Invenable (ph) school to you, 'cause they solve global warming in a week.

STEWART: John Hunter got the chance to explain more about his game at TED in 2011, and he's with me now. John, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

HUNTER: Hi Alison, thanks for having me.

STEWART: What is the "World Peace" game John?

HUNTER: Oh my goodness. It's been called a geo-political simulation or exercise and it's a gigantic towering Plexiglas structure with thousands of game pieces on four different levels and I'm sure you can hear in the talk, how complex it is and it's deliberately complex, putting students in situations as world leaders; arms dealers; United Nations bodies. And they're charged with solving the bigger, the larger problems of the world and they're trying to do it without combat if possible.

They use Sun Tzu "Art of War" to try and see how not to go through those activities. But of course, in the game the rules are so open, they're allowed to do whatever they can conceive and can understand the consequences of. They can act that way and they sometimes learn by doing and sometimes they learn by choosing another path and that allowance, that open space to make that kind of choice, I think is the strength of the game really.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: If you look on the "World Peace" game man, he has like that much oil.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: So it's Caden, and Caden's our complete ally.

HUNTER: Well you know, what it really boils down to, the game is actually just a pretext for fostering critical and creating thinking in children and fostering that, that effort that they make to design their own tools, to solve problems. And hopefully they, they carry that with them as they leave and go further into the world and, you know, I used to be asked, what's the purpose of the game and I'd say something educational. And now I say, it's really to decrease suffering and to increase the opportunity for compassion.

STEWART: John, your story was made into a documentary called "World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements," a great title and, you know, you used a little bit of it in your TED Talk and I watched the documentary and one of the things that is so interesting about it is, at times it appears a little bit...


STEWART: ...chaotic, but in a good way. Is it as chaotic when those kids, all of a sudden, find themselves to be Prime Ministers and arms dealers?

HUNTER: And you're very kind to say chaotic in a very good way. Yes, and it's designed to allow that much confusion and complexity to go on and in a way it mirrors life. Life is not always neat and orderly, we like for it to be so. So we try to emulate that situation and give students a safe opportunity to work on problems of that intensity, at a much lower magnitude. But they take those roles on so seriously and suddenly they seem to become bigger than themselves, because they have then a responsibility for their people.

And ultimately, as we go through the game, about midway through there's a sort of a clicking point where they realize that they have responsibility for everyone, not just their own group or their own selves. And that's really the magic of it, when that non-preaching or non-teaching about compassion is evidenced through their actual experience in the game, where they learn that they are stewards and caretakers of everyone. Just in practice really.


HUNTER: We had played the game one session after school, for many weeks, about seven week and we had essentially solved all 50 of the interlocking crises. The way the game is won is, all 50 problems have to be solved and every country's asset value has to be increased above its starting point. Some are poor, some are wealthy, there are billions. Our World Bank President was a third-grader one time, he said, how many zeros in a trillion? I've got to calculate that right away.

But he was setting physical policy in that game for high school players who were playing with him. So, the team that was the poorest had gotten even poorer. There was no way they could win and we were approaching four o'clock, our cut off time, there was about a minute left and despair just settled over the room. I thought, I am failing as a teacher. I should have gotten it so they could have won, I should have brought them to the - they shouldn't be failing like this. I've failed them.

And I was just feeling so sad and dejected and suddenly, Brendan walked over to my chair and he grabbed the bell, the bell I rang to signal a change or reconvening of cabinets. He ran back to his seat, rang the bell, everybody ran to his chair. There was screaming, there was yelling, waving of their dossiers. They've got these dossiers full of secret documents. They were gesticulating, they were running around. I didn't know what they were doing, I had lost control of my classroom. If the principal walks in, I'm out of a job.

The parents are looking in the window and Brendan runs back to his seat, everybody runs back to their seat. He rings the bell again, he says, we have - and there's 12 seconds left on the clock - we have all nations pooled all our funds together and we've got $600 billion. We've got offers of a donation to this poor country and they accepted to raise your asset value and they can win the game. Will you accept it?

And there were three seconds left on the clock, everybody looks at this Prime Minister of that country and he says yes and the game is won. Spontaneous compassion that could not be planned for, that was unexpected and unpredictable.

STEWART: You've talked a lot about what the "World Peace" game has done for your students. How has it changed you as a teacher?

HUNTER: What it does is it, first of all shows me my arrogance and my uninsightfulness, because I will have created a crisis where there's actually some trace of my own baggage, my own prejudice in there and the students will explode that. They will see that, understand, this crisis doesn't make sense, it's a little skewed Mr Hunter. So I'll have to rewrite it, come up with another approach

And so often I, I'm basically getting a great reflection on my own practice, how I need to improve as a teacher through their, their efforts in the game, their practices, what they reveal, what they show. And every time we play, I do not know what they're going to do. The game is designed that way, it's designed to fail massively and they have to come out of that somehow.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: They want - They say I can't withdraw that and 'cause I'm withdrawing, they're going to attack.

HUNTER: No, no, what did the U.N. say?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: They said it was fine, but they say I can't withdraw the offer.

HUNTER: No, if the U.N. says it's fine, it's fine. This is very good, you do what you want to do, the U.N. sanction said you're OK.


HUNTER: Think of the consequences and deal with them in a good way.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I've got good news for you...


HUNTER: And so our relationship together, they know that we can trust each other and they know I'm going to help them and not let them flounder too long, if I can help it. But really, they have to put it together themselves. And so, that relationship is really the thing that holds us together and I'm in the dark. I have a, a motto. I sort of go by a slogan, I go by, with the game it's learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown. And I'm in the unknown from the moment I step in that classroom.

And I almost have to be, I think, to be a good teacher. If it's all drawn out in a script, there's no creativity, there's no life in it and the students know that too.


HUNTER: Actually I can't tell them anything, because I don't know the answer and I admit the truth to them right up front. I don't know and because I don't know, they've got to dig up the answer. And so I apologize to them as well, I say, I'm so sorry boys and girls but the truth is, we have left this world to you in such a sad and terrible shape and we hope you can fix it for us and maybe this game will help you learn how to do it.

STEWART: We're speaking with John Hunter, who teaches Fourth Grade in Virginia, about a unique experience he's brought to his classroom called, the "World Peace" game and John, you make a joke about how your students have solved global warming a couple of different times. What were the solutions?

HUNTER: Well, yes, I don't want to give too much away because we have teams who've yet to play.


HUNTER: But I can sort of hint a little bit. They deal with climate change in different ways. Sometimes they use a technological approach. They sometimes go the green route with more plantings on a vast scale, to replace wetlands and rainforests and so forth, that have been lost on the planet. So there are a number of different approaches actually and I've seen it happen.

Ever since we put that crisis in, I think about eight years ago, every time we play, the students have to deal with it now. And that's coupled with about 49 other problems, including water rights issues and territorial border disputes and religious and ethnic problems and so forth. So it's all intermixed, the problems are interlocked. You can't simply think in terms of one problem alone, as we really can in the world as adults.

And they practice this kind of interdependent, interrelated thinking. Hopefully it's a tool that lasts through practice like that.

STEWART: This is a clip I want to play from your TED Talk, that is this amazing story about this little girl who had a vision and at the time, you all thought she had just gone bonkers.


HUNTER: In this game we had a little girl and she was a Defense Minister of the poorest nation and Defense Minister, she had the Tank Corp and Air Force and so forth and she was next door to a very wealthy oil rich neighbor. Without provocation, suddenly she attacked, against her Prime Minister's orders, the next door neighbor's oilfield. She marched into the oil field reserves, surrounded it without firing a shot and secured it and held it. And that neighbor was unable to conduct any military operations because their fuel supply was locked up.

We were all upset with her: why are you doing this, this is the "World Peace" game, what is wrong with you? It's a little girl and 9 years old, she held her peace, she said, I know what I'm doing and then to her girlfriend she says that, you know, that's a kind of a breach there. And we learned in this, you don't really ever want to cross a 5-year-old girl with tanks. They are the toughest opponents. And we were very upset.

I thought I was failing, as a teacher, why would she do this? But come to find out a few game days later when they return, where we take negotiation from a team, then we - Actually there's a negotiation period with all teams and each team takes a turn, then we go back in a negotiation round and round. So each turnaround's one game day. So a few game days later it came to light that, we found out this major country was planning a military offensive and to dominate the entire world.

Had they had their fuel supplies they would have done it. She was able to see the vectors and trend lines and intentions long before any of us and understand what was going to happen and made a philosophical decision, to attack in a peace game. Now she used a small war to avert a larger war, so we stopped and had a very good philosophical discussion about whether that was right. Conditional good or not right?

That's the kind of thinking that we put them in, the situation. I cannot have designed that in teaching, it came about spontaneously through their collective wisdom.

STEWART: And one of the more sober experiences the students have is that, if someone is killed, they're required to write a letter to that person's family.

HUNTER: Yes, that was a fairly recent innovation. What happened was, I guess I had contact with the veterans coming back from Desert Storm and even Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course I want to protect my children, I don't want them exposed to frightening and, and awful things. But I also want to get across the idea that, you know, a commitment like that, even in a game, does have a cost.

And so, what I asked them to do is write a letter to the fictional parents of their troops if they're - if they lose in battle and thereto, I ask them to explain what happened, ask them to explain why it happened and then to offer some words to the parents, to help them hopefully understand.

And it's a very moving thing. Students - I think it doesn't go quite as deep for them, it is a game still, but if there are adults in the room, I think it really does hit home, what we're asking of the students and what kind of range we're trying to bring about for the student understanding. At least planting the seed for that kind of consideration in the future.


HUNTER: We had this situation come up, last summer actually, at Agnor-Hurt School in Albemarle County and one of our military commanders got up to read that letter and one of the kids said, Mr Hunter, let's ask - there's a parent over there, there was a parent visiting that day, just sitting in the back of the room. Let's ask that mom to read a letter, it'll be more realer if she reads it.

So we did, we ask her and she gamely picked up the letter, sure. She started reading, she read one sentence, she read two sentences. By the third sentence she was in tears. I was in tears. Everybody understood that when we lose somebody, the winners are not gloating, we all lose.

STEWART: You're in a really unique position because, you've given this experience to your students for over 30 years now. Have you noticed any differences in the way students have played or play the game over the past 30 years?

HUNTER: Yes, I would say so. Back in the beginning, students were more apt or more ready to commit to combat and warfare. They seemed to enjoy the challenge and going at it that way. And it may have been media influence, it may have been our culture at the time. This was the late 1970s, 78, 78 when we started. So I, I think in the 80s there was that attitude and at least among - especially among the young men, the young boys. They were more than apt to attack first and ask questions later.

And what I've noticed over time is that, there's a greater reluctance to engage in combat first. There's more thinking, more thoughtfulness, more exploring alternatives and I say particularly my girls, they have always been, I think, a little bit more consensus oriented in my classes that I've seen. But I think the leadership capability is more apparent now than ever before. That the girls are not hesitant to step up and take leadership positions and that negotiation skills that some of them bring to the job are great for the game and great for everybody to play.

So those kinds of changes I have seen occur over the years.

STEWART: What happens when the game is over? Do you have a debrief with the kids? And what's their reaction when it's all done?

HUNTER: Oh yes, we, we spend, spend a week or longer. Actually there's a, a number of questions, essay questions, open-ended questions that I have prepared for them to, to wrestle with. And things come up in the question, questionnaire like, what makes a good negotiator or, can you have peace while having violence? I mean it's a very philosophical, tough question that they have just wrestled with. And so they have a greater depth of understanding and the insight's just phenomenal.

And I find that that's true because I have students who come up ten, 20, 30 years later Alison, who let me know, they remember something I've completely forgotten, that happened in the game. And how that affected their lives even down to the choice of the career they've gone into.

So that kind of affect, that kind of resonance is startling to me and it's very gratifying and I feel like, as a teacher, you're, you're reaching through time, you're making an effect here in this room today that you don't - you don't even - you're not even aware of and yet, decades later, maybe even generations later, the effect can become apparent. So it's a very huge responsibility you can feel as, as an educator that way.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: In envy of all the crises being solved and in envy of everyone's asset value being over 100 billion, I hereby declare this "World Peace" game won.

HUNTER: Every game we play is different. Some games are more about social issues, some are more about economic issues. Some games are more about warfare. But I don't try and deny them that reality of being human. I allow them to go there and through their own experience learn, in a bloodless way, how not to do what they consider to be the wrong thing. And they find out what is right, their own way, their own selves.

And so in this game, I've learned so much from it, but I would say that, if, if only they could pick up a critical thinking tool or creative thinking tool from this game and leverage something good for the world, they may save us all. If only. And on behalf of all of my teachers, on whose shoulders I'm standing, thank you, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

STEWART: John Hunter, thank you so much for joining us in the TED RADIO HOUR.

HUNTER: Oh Alison, what a pleasure, thank you and you're most welcome.

STEWART: John Hunter, he's a fourth-grade teacher from Charlottesville, Virginia and subject of the documentary "World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements." You can find out more about the film, go to our website, TED.NPR.org.

I'm Alison Steward. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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