“Clara.” We asked, “Should a person be thrown in jail for stealing a quart of milk? What if she stole it because she was broke and her kids needed it?” Clara replied, “If the mom goes to jail, her children will suffer. Can’t she do community service? She could be paid in milk?” Clara is a fifth grader attending public school in the richly complex neighborhood of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, New York. We can only hope a criminal court judge, many times her senior, would be as wise. Children see the world so simply. And in their clarity they can get to ethical solutions without the distractions of hardened opinions to which adults cling.

John Hunter and the World Peace Game in action.  Photo by Will May

John Hunter and the World Peace Game in action. Photo by Will May

For 35 years educator John Hunter has helped fourth graders resolve far more complex, global conundrums than the one Clara grappled with.  He, with the support of an extraordinary school supervisor, was given the confidence to go ‘off the road’ and develop a complex structure in which students could explore solving the world’s thorniest problems. We say ‘facilitator’ not ‘teacher’ because Hunter’s approach is to hang back, to give his students agency to make all decisions as a daunting global drama plays out.

Shrinking the planet to the size of a fourth grade classroom

Fracking in the United States, the travesty in Syria, worldwide climate change and other seemingly irresolvable issues are debated every day by adults who take their roles as citizens dead seriously. Imagine a classroom where 30 fourth graders play a game that requires them to resolve these problems collectively. A classroom in which these young students take on roles usually reserved for very savvy world leaders.

Hunter sets a three dimensional stage: his students gather around a multi-leveled four-by-four-by-four-foot Plexiglas game “board”, a construction that represents the four levels of the World—undersea, ground, air and outer space. There are four countries each with different commercial and military assets. And there are realistic looking miniatures that the kids move around the board, representing all the ‘moving parts’—soldiers, tanks, airplanes, arms et cetera. Students take on roles: Prime ministers and cabinets; World Bank and United Nations representatives; two or three arms dealers; a weather god or goddess (who controls, among other things, the stock market); and a mysterious saboteur.

The Game begins as each student opens his or her top-secret dossier revealing a 13-page crisis document of 50 interlocking problems. At the end of the Game (which is played for 45 minutes one day a week, a total of seven and a half hours) all problems must be resolved and every country’s assets must be more valuable than at their starting point if they are to win the Game.

Throughout the process, the students run the show. Mr. Hunter’s role is to clarify and facilitate. Hunter weighs each student’s individual strengths and talents. As he assigns roles, he looks for opportunities to challenge each student. In a bit of inspired counter-intuitive teaching he harnesses the talents of a class jokester or disrupter for the role of saboteur. This recognition of skills that usually gets a kid in trouble turns a negative into a positive and has yielded some of the most inventive game play.

In the first few weeks, Hunter purposely overwhelms the students, which ultimately leads to their failure. He wants to unmoor them, separate them from any preconceived notions as they swim in what he terms “an empty space.” It’s in this unfamiliar territory that solutions come into focus. He notes that “...experience has taught me that failure is often—perhaps always—the gateway to new solutions. Only when the known fails do we have the opportunity to discover the unknown.”

Photo by Will May

Photo by Will May

Origins of World Peace

In the 1970s Hunter dropped in and out of schools, at a time when our country was in great upheaval. He journeyed to India to find spiritual enlightenment. Eventually returning to settle down and focus on teaching in his native Virginia. He says he did not want to lecture and he didn’t want his students to just read books. He wanted them to ‘learn through their bodies’, to become immersed. He knew that his students liked to play games so a game is what he would create. Early on his supervisor cleared the space for him to do as he wished. Inspired by his own early teachers (he had been taught in segregated schools) as well as progressive thought leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Stewart Brand, Sun Tzu, Martin Luther King Jr., and Aung Sung Suu Kyi. Hunter started to develop the World Peace Game at Richmond Community High School, an in inner-city school.

Spontaneous compassion

As the students’ collaborative skills develop during the Game the prime ministers and their cabinets begin to click, negotiations accelerate, and budgets are calculated. The students work to navigate their way through the complex circumstances they face. They know there is a mysterious saboteur in their presence and this keeps them on their toes, adding a critical element to the Game since this awareness leads to deeper thinking as each situation unfolds.

Throughout the game Hunter reads aloud from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He knows some will follow a path to power and destruction. Eventually, however, they will turn away from shortsighted and hasty strategies in favor of cooperative long-term thinking. The students compete to win but winning in this game requires crafting win/win solutions. This is an unfamiliar pursuit to most of the students. When they inevitably reach the boundaries of what they know, the students often become discouraged by their own limitations. A stubborn blindness sets in. At this point Hunter guides the process by introducing some provocative questions – like “What possibilities have we missed?” “What lies beyond what we can easily see?” “How are things different than they seem?”

Photo by Will May

Photo by Will May

Failure leads to collaboration

The students reach the next stage—personal understanding—which helps some students move towards new solutions. But the game is designed to mimic real-world politics and eventually they learn that they must give themselves over to the next stage of learning—collaboration. They internalize an understanding that their solutions as an individual are constrained and they willingly begin to embrace the collective to become part of something much larger than themselves.

Somehow over the arc of the play in the Game, in ways Hunter can never predict, students find a way to peace: And they do it together for the greater good. The ‘me’ has become the ‘we.’ A state of flow rises where decisions start happening much faster. The individual student sees he or she is strengthened by participating fully with the group. And each student rises to become his or her own best self. This is when Hunter knows his students are ready to win the Game.

What really makes the game work—and the part of the game he loves the most—is the collective wisdom of the children. Each year students come up—at times at the very last moment—with ingenious and creative solutions to the world’s dilemmas. They are astoundingly victorious—passionate and earnest—each and every time.

Hunter says, “Thanks to the World Peace Game, I’ve spent most of the past three decades learning to have faith in the collective ability of humankind to solve its problems.” He reflects, “If only they could...[from this game] leverage something good for the World, they may save us all.”

John Hunter and his class visit the Pentagon to talk with Secretary of the Defense, Leon Panetta about how they would achieve world peace.  Photo by Victoria Reynolds

John Hunter and his class visit the Pentagon to talk with Secretary of the Defense, Leon Panetta about how they would achieve world peace. Photo by Victoria Reynolds

We asked a Brooklyn judge, who must remain anonymous, about Clara’s concern for the woman who stole the milk and her suggestions for resolving the dilemma of her children’s needs. In his lengthy reply he assured us that  “the simple question does not have a simple answer...” But he added that any judge would be able to keep the mother with her children, unjailed—much is left up to the judge’s discretion. He added, “I think the deeper implication of your inquiry has to do with some of the core values of our culture and society.”

So, to expand on these reflections, what if all the judges, political, and corporate leaders, and citizens of the world had participated in the World Peace Game when in fourth grade? Would we all be more inclined to cooperate? To work together to solve the World’s dilemmas? Wouldn’t we be better poised to save the world?

— DK Holland and Monica Snellings