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World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements: by John Hunter

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements: by John Hunter

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Rating: ★★★½☆ 

I had to go to YouTube to check out John Hunter’s World Peace Game play-space. This is not your average board game. The 4’x5’ ground surface is color-coded and populated with tanks, troops, power plants, boats – bright bits of plastic that represent the forces you’d expect in a war simulation. But Hunter, educator and creator of the game, is a multi-dimensional thinker, and his game design, refined over the years, honors complexity. Suspended on wires above is air space, on which planes and weather events are represented, and above that, outer space, where stars and satellites dwell. There is also a subterranean level – how else would the students address issues surrounding oil drilling and undersea exploration? In all, the players are faced with 50 interconnected crises, and the game is “won” only when each of the crises have been solved and the asset value of each nation is raised, all in 10 hours of classroom time or less. And here I thought I was awesome for winning Risk once when I was drunk and 24.

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, to its credit, is not a sappy paean to the uncomplicated wisdom of our precious wee ones. First, in the tradition of Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching As a Subversive Activity, the emphasis of the book is primarily on Hunter’s own reflections about the mindfulness of teaching and the long underappreciated opportunities found in open-space instruction. Secondly, some of these kids are ruthless! Whaddaya know, just like adults! Take Jared, a prime minister who took an individualistic and tyrannical approach to his leadership role. Vanquishing nation after nation and annexing most of the available territory, Jared’s reign of terror ended only after a succession of self-sacrificial coup attempts finally defeated him (success or failure determined by rolls of weighted dice). Until then Hunter had been contemplating direct intervention: Jared had essentially hijacked the game, and, well, that’s kind of not the idea. But it was Hunter’s restraint and renunciation of outcome-based assessment that gave the players the space to collaborate without prompting and brainstorm without expectation. This step back also allowed Hunter himself a moment to self-evaluate in terms of checking his own (peace-oriented) biases and allowing the gameplay to inhabit a gray area that disconnects from the normalized dichotomy of winning and losing.

Though vignettes like this about students and their strategies are entertaining and enlightening enough at face value, the more revelatory material in World Peace pertains to Hunter’s perspective as educator-as-bodhisattva. In terms of instruction, this means guiding his students through the discomforts of failure, data-flood, sabotage, open-ended conflict and the wiliness of chance with a “don’t push the river” accommodation of trust. Philosophy matters too in this high concept enterprise: The World Peace Game is brought to order each session with a passage from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Don’t think they don’t get it – one player contextualized a pattern of cyclical violence using a concept he attributed to Sun Tzu… except when Hunter looked for the reference, he couldn’t find it. When you have your kids thinking like an ancient Chinese philosopher, chances are you’re doing something right.

The story of Hunter and his game have been shared in Chris Farina’s 2010 documentary of the same name, and through Hunter’s own TED Talk in 2011. One shortcoming of the print version is that it lacks photos, and without a visual orientation of the physical game design, it’s tough to conceptualize, quite literally, all of the moving pieces. Hunter never sells the World Peace Game as a model upon which to solve the actual world’s problems, but rather as a progressive educational tool that teaches interdependence, negotiation and self-discovery. His fourth graders show us it’s not too early, nor is it too late.

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