Can 4th Graders Save the World?

Like many of you, I'm a big fan of TED. As part of my research for my series on creativity and education, I came across musician and teacher John Hunter and the World Peace Game. In 1978 Hunter created a lesson for students on Africa using a 4’x5’ plywood board, because he observed that they “learn through their bodies.” It has now evolved into a 4’x4’x4’ plexiglass multi-level world, including undersea and outer space sky levels. There are 4 countries that have a unique economic, military, environmental, social and political background. Each country has a prime minister and cabinet. The 4th graders are presented with a 13 page crisis document that has 50 interlocking problems that the groups have to solve before the game is done.

The World Peace Game is a great example of where critical and creative thinking complement each other. Problem-solving at its best is both of these things.

John Hunter: Teaching with the World Peace Game


Here are some take-aways on how to create environments where critical and creative thinking come together:

Develop Universal Trust
• As I watch Hunter describe all the moving parts and roles, I can only imagine how his students feel when hearing this. It sounds very complex, not to mention the fact he has them reading social and political theory along the way. However, to my surprise the students aren’t concerned. They trust their teacher and most importantly each other because they have a “deep rich relationship together.” Hunter realized that he didn't have to control every conversation and told them that their collective wisdom was greater than his own. I have a feeling this was a part of his teaching philosophy from day one; sowing the seeds of trust so that his students would be ready for anything.

Embrace Ambiguity as an Opportunity for Innovation
• Hunter said "The World Peace Game is about learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown." My favorite example of this is when he describes a student from one of the poorer countries seizing the oil fields of a neighboring country without provocation. Everyone was shocked. They come to find out later that the country with the oil fields was planning an offensive to dominate the world. If she hadn’t acted they would have succeed. This student was able to see what was going to happen long before others. This event prompted a discussion on whether having a war to prevent a larger war is a right course of action-an amazing teaching opportunity that could never have been designed.

Provide the Guidance, So They Can Go Wild
• For some reason many people believe that creativity only happens when there is a lack of structure or order. Consequently, that means creative people have no process and that rules constrain. Whenever I hear that I'm always surprised because every creative person I've worked with – architect to musicians has a process that provides a structure that they use to channel their thoughts. So don't buy into the notion that framing a situation or providing structure destroys the creative process. Hunter has provided a lot of structure and guidance, but has been able to do it in such a way that still invites participation by choosing the role of “clock-watcher and clarifier."

Expect Greatness
• Age ain't nothing, but a number the late, great musician Aaliyah use to sing. The World Peace game carries this tune in its message that we should underestimate children or anyone for that matter. Hunter has his students read The Art of War by Sun Tzu and why not? If you expect greatness you get greatness and students will rise to the challenge. One of the most amazing parts of the talk is when one of the students explains how through playing the World Peace Game he was able to understand Sun Tzu. Through the power of play students are able to take in and understand what seems out of reach.

What are some things you took away from Hunter and his students?

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