Cool Teacher: John Hunter
Meet the inventor of the World Peace Game,
veteran teacher John Hunter.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
What’s the World Peace Game?
The World Peace Game is a geopolitical simulation that Hunter uses to teach students about life. (Along the way, they learn math, reading, science, and social studies.) It’s not available commercially, but Hunter offers World Peace Game camps and master classes for both teachers and students. To learn more, visit worldpeacegame.org.
In 1978, John Hunter created the World Peace Game to teach his Virginia high school students about creativity, problem solving, and peace. Then, the homemade game was a 4-by-5-foot piece of plywood featuring the outlines of countries; students assumed roles as global leaders and were tasked with finding solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems. Today, the game is a 4-foot-square, four-layer Plexiglas structure, and Hunter’s fourth-grade players must successfully solve 50 interlocking problems—while increasing the asset value of each country—to win.
In 2010, Hunter, his game, and his students were featured in a documentary titled World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements. In 2011, he presented a TED talk about his game and experience, and last year he published his first book (it shares its title with the film).
Q | How have you seen education change over the past 40 years?
A | Like in any field, there are trends and fads that come and go. In education, it seems every five to seven years there’s a new policy movement, a new way of doing things, or some new standard that everybody must conform to. I’ve seen that cycle in my career many times.
What the veteran teachers ahead of me taught me is that policies are like weather. Sometimes there will be storms, sometimes it’s sunny weather, and sometimes you have to hunker down and duck and cover—but policies come and go. Take the best things you can from them and avoid the worst. The thing that remains is the relationship you have with your students. It’s beyond policy. Things do change, but what is fundamental is my relationship with my students.
Q | How do you make education meaningful for your students?
A | My experience has shown me that when I work on myself and try to find out my inhibitions, flaws, faults, prejudices, and biases, then work on weeding them out, I become not only a better person but also am more able to see what is going on in the classroom. That’s the first step for me: clearing out my own baggage.
The second step is on the student side. Once I’ve developed some of that personal awareness, I can really zero
in on the students, to find out who they really are, what they really care about, and why they are feeling the way they are feeling. I can build curriculum around those passions. There’s no need to browbeat or force them. When they see their own love incorporated in the curriculum, they’re happy to go along.
Q | How has the World Peace Game helped your students succeed?
A | I would like to think that this game facilitates the children taking charge of their own learning and feeling empowered. I see them develop compassion and the genuine desire, garnered through playing the game, to help reduce suffering in the world.
When I hear of their successes, and even their failures, of how they have dealt with them, I am so moved. The game made some difference in their considerations, their increased empathy, patience, comfort with uncertainty, and even in their capacity for kindness.
Q | The concepts in the game are quite complex. How do you do it?
A | When you know the child, spend time with them, and remove some of your presuppositions about what childhood is and live in the moment with the child, you find a unique individual. You drop the concept of adult and child; you’re working with a very unique person who has amazing ideas, interesting insights, and less baggage than you do. So you meet the child as a person and suddenly you’ve got a collaborator, a co-teacher with a whole different angle. Then you can really attack things as equals.
Q | You cede a lot of control to your students. How does that benefit you and your students?
A | I started with the understanding that as a teacher you’re in control. That’s an illusion, but we like to think it because sometimes it appears so. But a student will come up with an idea that’s better than any idea I’ve ever had. A couple of other students will say, “I like that idea.” Another one will say, “I don’t like that idea.” We’ll have a discussion. Soon, the class is teaching itself. It’s tearing apart philosophical and intellectual concepts. Like a surfer, you catch the curl of that wave and guide the surfboard in on the wave.
The ceding of control came along because they had ideas and I simply didn’t get in the way. I allowed them to go forward and see if they worked or not. My students have the luxury of failing. There is no moral stigma attached to not succeeding. We try something and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, we try something else. They don’t know they’re learning
anything different or new, but we’ve just done a whole week’s worth of curriculum in half an hour because they’re so excited.
Q | A lot of teachers have innovative ideas but struggle to find support. Any advice?
A | It’s a challenge, isn’t it? And it’s become more so as the policy parameters have changed. I really feel for new teachers coming in. Some teachers have decided to become subversive. They decide to find a way around and through, one way or the other.
I know one teacher who had been teaching for two years. She was so enthusiastic and idealistic, but she ran into nothing but static at her school. Nobody was up for a fresh idea. We talked for a while and then she came up with her own solution. She said, “I’m going to outlast them. As long as I take care of my health and keep my idealism, I’m going to be in it for the long run for these kids.”
I look to the environment of the school because you can fight an uphill battle your entire career or you can go where the water runs downhill. I have been fortunate to find visionary, caring, and trusting leadership. Administrators who understand and protect you so you can teach the way you were made to teach, the way that’s good for children.
When I wasn’t in that situation, I looked for the line of least resistance, and if I couldn’t find one, I resigned. I resigned four or five times in my career and went to a different school or district because I couldn’t do what I felt was wrong for children. I couldn’t do it, so I had to leave.