John Hunter: How Can We Teach Children To Create A Hopeful Future? Educator John Hunter describes how he finds hope and inspiration in his fourth grade students — and their ability to solve big problems.
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How Can We Teach Children To Create A Hopeful Future?

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How Can We Teach Children To Create A Hopeful Future?

How Can We Teach Children To Create A Hopeful Future?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So we'll come back to Al Gore and his optimism a bit later in the show. But first...

Was there a time in your life where you were not optimistic?

JOHN HUNTER: Oh, I've had difficult times. I'm just like the next guy, just the same.

RAZ: You're not like a super-action-hero-figure-optimist man.

HUNTER: Wouldn't I like to be? (Laughter) With a big O on my chest.

RAZ: Right.

HUNTER: No, I'm a regular guy.

RAZ: For nearly 40 years, John Hunter has been a teacher, which he says is the kind of job that can actually turn you into an optimist.

HUNTER: There's a great positive, forward-looking excitement about life in young people, of course. So I think kids having that kind of open-mindedness gives them an edge to address problems in a novel way that we adults seem to be able to not find sometimes.

RAZ: Yeah.

HUNTER: Of course, they've got less baggage (laughter) you might say.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What is it you want us to do?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I want you to...

RAZ: And based on that idea, several years ago, John invented a board game for his fourth graders.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: We know what we're doing. We're going to make the accusation if it's wrong. Then we're going to blow them up.

RAZ: OK, the idea of the game actually is not to blow anything up. It's actually called the World Peace Game. And it's kind of like Risk but way more complicated. And in the game, with John's help, over the course of five days kids have to collaborate to solve the biggest, most intractable problems in the world, war, famine, climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: For any good plans to help stop global warming 'cause if you don't, then everybody's going to die.

RAZ: This is audio from a documentary about John's game. And what he discovered traveling around the world, playing this game with lots of kids, is that it might be possible to solve problems that most of us grown-ups aren't that optimistic about. Here's John Hunter on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HUNTER: This World Peace Game I'd like to tell you about, there are four countries around the board. The kids make up the names of the countries. Some are rich. Some are poor. They have different assets, commercial and military. Each country has a cabinet.

There's a prime minister, secretary of state, minister of defense and a CFO or comptroller. There's a World Bank, arms dealers and a United Nations. There's also weather goddess, who controls a random stock market in random weather.

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTER: That's not all. And then there's a 13-page crisis document with 50 interlocking problems so that if one thing changes, everything else changes. I throw them into this complex matrix. We have - let's see - ethnic and minority tensions, nuclear proliferation, environmental disasters, water rights disputes, break-away 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 solved global warming in a week.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

RAZ: So obviously when it's - it's just you and a bunch of fourth graders, I mean, it can relatively simple to solve global warming, right?

HUNTER: (Laughter) Yeah, certainly. You know, we're just simply practicing, giving them a safe and appropriate arena to try and develop skills so that they can actually deal with the problems that we have created and left for them. And I start every game with an apology. I apologize to the students.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

HUNTER: Here's the situation.

I say, I'm very sorry that we're playing this game even.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

HUNTER: It's not your fault, but there it is in front of you. You've got to decide what to do about it.

Because we're playing it to try and learn how to fix the problems that my generation and generations before have left you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

HUNTER: All right, we're going into negotiation as of now. (Ringing bell) Go.

(CROSSTALK)

RAZ: But at the same time, it seems, you know, you leave a glimmer of possibility because you also say, we hope you can fix it.

HUNTER: Yeah, but the underpinning understanding is everything is interdependent. You can't really address one issue without considering the totality of things.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Stephen (ph) is part of Paxson, but she's...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Offering it to...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Offering it to Stephen.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Not you.

HUNTER: So they try to start solving these problems. And of course, more problems come in. And they're short-sighted first actions lead to more consequences that cause more problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: That's not up to you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: It's my choice now.

HUNTER: So things become very despairing. Things really go dark very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: It's part of mine.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Give it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: No.

HUNTER: And I want that to happen. I want them to go down to zero together.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Stephen, that's final.

HUNTER: To realize that the only way out is through collaborating with each other, depending on each other and going deep within themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WORLD PEACE AND OTHER 4TH-GRADE ACHIEVEMENTS")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Stephen, it's your choice. If you are going to do with you, or if you're going to share it with both me and Andy (ph). It's up to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HUNTER: So I'll just share with you some stories, very quickly, of some magical things that have happened. In this game, we had a little girl. And she was a defense minister of the poorest nation. And defense minister, she had a tank corps and an 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 oil fields. She marched into the old field reserve, 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 a World Peace Game. What is wrong with you?

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTER: And we learned in this, you don't really ever want cross a 9 year old girl with tanks.

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTER: They are...

(LAUGHTER)

HUNTER: 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, it came to light that - we found out this major country was planning a military offensive to dominate the entire world. Had they had their fuel supplies, they would've done it.

She was able to see the vectors and trendlines and tensions 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 avoid 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 could not have designed that in teaching. It came about spontaneously through their collective wisdom.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Do you think that humans are capable of accomplishing the things that those kids accomplish in your game?

HUNTER: Very good point, Guy. It's just a game, you know. But I hope that the students are becoming equipped with the tools to be able to solve any problem of any kind at any time in the future. And they actually leaving the game saying that, I feel like I can do anything. I can solve any problem.

But that kind of, again, optimism, that kind of inspiration I'm now starting to see come through social medias. I'm getting reports back from students from 15 years ago, from 30 years ago, are now in public policy, in diplomatic or protocol services who are saying, Mr. Hunter, that game showed me how to do this so I could solve problems that nobody else could solve.

RAZ: But you think about, like if you watch the news - right? - you see terrorism and the rise of of angry politicians all around the world and injustice.

HUNTER: Yeah.

RAZ: I don't know. Sometimes I'm not so optimistic.

HUNTER: Yeah, certainly. You know, we have that dark moment when we just feel it's impossible, and things seem to be getting much worse. But there's a huge power, a huge effect in even one positive act. And I've seen that countless times with children and playing our World Peace Game activity where they're faced with the worst in humanity in a metaphorical way. And they always, always, always rise to the challenge to find compassion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

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. But I would say that 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. Thank you. Thank You.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: John Hunter invented the World Peace Game. The documentary about it is called "World Peace And Other 4th-Grade Achievements." And you can watch his entire talk at ted.npr.org. We'll be right back in a minute with more ideas about optimism. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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