John Hunter is the kind of teacher I’ve always wanted to be—wise and compassionate, with a deep understanding of the complexity of human nature. When I read his new book, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements, which was based on his 2011 TED talk, what struck me the most was his ability to guide nine and ten year olds through world crises that would challenge even the most experienced policymakers.
Those crises are at the center of the World Peace Game, which John created for his students as a way to introduce them to problems such as ethnic and minority tensions, environmental disasters, famine, and nuclear proliferation. This very complex game that often runs for weeks requires students to take on roles such as prime minister, chief financial officer, and secretary of state, then tackle a 13-page dossier of 50 interlocking world problems. The game is won only when all the crises are resolved and each country’s asset value has increased. According to Hunter, “The World Peace Game is about learning to live and work comfortably in the unknown.”
As a former fourth grade teacher, when I first heard about this game, the question that ran through my mind was, “How?” And yet after reading the book and speaking to John himself, I understood that so much of the “how” had to do with him. His ability to guide students with deep compassion and understanding as they wrestle with very human problems such as power struggles, followership, and decision making reflects his many years of introspection upon what it means to be both a teacher and a human being.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with John about his book and how to cultivate this kind of wisdom in both teachers and students. Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
Vicki Zakrzewski: In the book, you write, “I believe the ultimate point of education and everything else is simply to express compassion in the world.” How does this belief fit into the current state of education?
John Hunter: I think compassion is a fundamental aspect of being humans and teachers and students, and we can either ignore it and forget about it, or we can enhance it and deepen it and go further. I’m very fortunate to have a school where compassion forms a basis for how things work. But I understand that there’s a difficulty in American education today with compassion not being a driving force in how we design curriculum and how we teach students and how we approach students. And if that is so, then I think that is a sad thing because, as I’ve said in the book, the real purpose of education to me seems to have beautiful, wonderful, compassionate people come out of the educational process who live their lives in a beautiful, compassionate way. And the assessment for that is really over decades rather than just in a snapshot assessment or a test.
VZ: When you speak to educators, how do they respond to your idea about the purpose of education?
JH: I see a lot of head-nodding. A lot of people say, “Oh, yes, we know exactly what you’re talking about.” In other words, I’m not saying anything new to teachers. They know that the essence of getting a lesson learned is first that connection between teacher and student—that one-on-one is the basis of it all.
And that one-on-one connection is deepened by how much you care about the student, and that translates into compassion. Not just sympathy, but actively caring and actively helping them decrease their ignorance and their suffering by any means possible. And they usually tell us the best way to do it if we listen carefully enough. Each student has a unique entryway, a unique map. So our job as teachers is to be really sensitive to that, to be great listeners, and to really feel for our students and their lives—and then develop curriculum based on what we intuit about how our students can best love and live and learn.
VZ: We know from the science of compassion that the obstacles to acting compassionately are often obstacles within ourselves. So being able to cultivate the kind of compassionate relationship you’re describing with a student requires a lot of self-awareness on the part of the teacher. What would you tell a new teacher about how to cultivate that kind of self-awareness?
JH: I can’t advise because I never really know another person’s situation, but I can say that in my own experience, I’ve gotten much better at teaching as I’m able to discern more of my own nature, more of who I really am. And when I say, “who I am,” I don’t mean what band I like, what flavors of ice cream I prefer, what’s my fashion sense. Instead, I mean at the very core fundamental bottom level of it: Who am I? And what am I? What am I about? What am I here for? And that kind of examination is an ongoing practice every day.
So that daily self-reflection or introspection is what I think has been fundamental for me in becoming a better teacher—to know myself enough to be able to try and remove the baggage that I bring that gets in the way of their learning. Removing the prejudices, the biases, the inhibitions, and the limited perspectives that I have—sometimes at a very subtle level—takes a lot of introspective work to root these things out in order to be clearer with the students.
VZ: How much guidance and preparation do you do with the students in order to help them work with one another during the game?
JH: Strangely enough, there is absolutely no preparation whatsoever before they enter the game room. There is no discussion of diplomacy or tactics or policy or international boundaries at all whatsoever. I want them to come in without any information, so that they immediately get overwhelmed. And it’s deliberate that they will be completely out of their depth from the very first. They will be floundering. And of course that means they will have to fail—that’s designed to be part of the game. But the safety net is our relationship—we can trust each other and they think, “Well, we can trust Mr. Hunter. He wouldn’t put us in this situation if we were going to get hurt. So it’s going to be hard, but we’ll come out OK because we have that trust.” The only preparation is the care and the love and the relationship and the compassion we have for each other before we start.
VZ: Have your beliefs about people, about humanity, changed at all as a result of your experience with the World Peace Game?
JH: I come from a very positive background, so I started off with a good feeling. And, of course, there are a lot of terrible things that happen—we see it every day in the news and you can lose heart, you can lose hope. But my experience in the game and in teaching in general has been a very positive thing that’s simply reinforced that initial good feeling.
When I walk into a school, it’s like plugging into a huge, powerful electrical current. The energy is so strong and so pure and positive and hopeful and good and, dare I say it, there’s love in that current.
And in the World Peace Game itself, you see time after time that students refuse to allow anyone to be left out. They simply refuse to. Even if they go through war, through all the tragic blunders that humans do, they always always come to compassion without me having to teach it or to preach it. They discover it on their own through the process of living as a human being in these dire situations with no way out and no one to depend on except each other. And they do it time and time again. So that’s tremendously inspiring to me and to every adult who sees it.
And then students express compassion in their own lives. One student, Emilia, who was playing the role of a prime minister, had water rights issues in her country, and the year after she played the game, she spontaneously organized a charity of her peers. She collected pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters because she heard there was a problem of unclean water in a village in Mozambique, and that one hundred dollars would put in a fresh water well. So she collected one hundred dollars, had an adult facilitate the transfer, and a well was put in. Consequently, lives were saved because of this girl deciding—because of her own experiences in the game—what was right and what was good to do. She expressed compassion maybe without even knowing the meaning of the word, but I think she lived it and that’s even better.
When we met Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon in 2012, he had a half hour policy discussion—not a photo op, but a policy discussion—with our 23 nine-year-old World Peace Game players. They asked, “Here’s how we handle insurgents in the field. What do you do? Here’s how we handle climate change affecting our supply chain in the field. How do you do it?” When people of that stature recognize the good and the efforts of children in a game that they play, that kind of respect and recognition goes so deeply into their hearts and affirms not only what I’m doing, but what all teachers are trying to do. And that’s such an uplifting and helpful thing to recognize and be aware of.
VZ: What would you suggest to a teacher who would like to try the World Peace Game but is terrified of giving up so much control to students as they struggle with both the world crises and their interactions with each other?
JH: Well, it takes some preparation—you wouldn’t go in tomorrow and try it if you haven’t tried it before. Your fear of failure has to be contended with—how you feel about failing and what that means to you personally. If failure is too big a fear, you won’t be able to [facilitate the game] very well. So, again, it goes back to introspecting, looking at oneself, asking, “What does this mean to me, this idea of myself succeeding and being thought of as a successful teacher and person? How much of a necessity is that for me? Will my administrators allow me take that risk as well?” That’s another consideration because you have to be in a safe environment to try these things.
It also takes just simply knowing the students—knowing them really really well. When you have an intuition as a teacher of what works, that inner understanding becomes a tool. This student needs this, and while you might not be perfectly right the first time, you’re still working on developing your intuition and your strength of understanding as a teacher. Intuition is a powerful tool that we don’t rate highly enough in American schools because we can’t quantify it, but I think it’s critical to understanding people. So, once you have that tool and you know the student, there is a trust that can be felt and that trust is the foundation for allowing control to be ceded.
VZ: If you were to give a new teacher one piece of advice that would help them gain the kind of understanding and depth of wisdom that you bring to teaching and to human relationships, what would it be?
JH: My father always said, “I never give advice because I don’t walk in your shoes, but I can tell you what my experience is.” So, for new teachers I would say this: The fundamentals are not new. We’re always looking for the newest, hottest, coolest thing—the next paradigm or the next policy that’s going to save us, going to raise all the test scores and whiten all our children’s teeth and put everybody in the gifted program. We’re looking for that silver bullet. And I’ve come to believe such a thing doesn’t exist. That it never has. Of course we have to have these hopes and desires that things can be better, but I think the better way up is in. The better way to greatness is right in the moment where we are now. In other words, there’s nowhere else. There’s only this moment in front of me with these students right now. No matter what pedagogies out there, what superintendent, what great policy experts or educators or whoever’s been giving TED talks doesn’t really matter. It’s right here, right now. And so that in itself is an infinity. That in itself is a huge universe of possibility.
I’m still taking baby steps, too, honestly. Every time we play the World Peace Game, I’m afraid. I have fear. I go in thinking, “This will be the time they won’t save the world,” or, “This will be the time they launch a nuclear weapon”—because they can. I’m fearful every time they go there because it may be embarrassing, it may be a failure on my part, and I’m still human. But I’ve learned to live with that feeling every time we go in. I’m feeling unsettled that they may fail, but I’m looking at my fear and I’m living through it, and it comes out all right.