Tuesday, July 7, 2015

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements

Some time ago, I had heard of the work of John Hunter, an elementary school teacher who has been engaging his students in a complex game of politics for decades. He gained notoriety with a TED Talk, and with a documentary of the game, and now of course, it is a whole movement. But here I'm talking about the book, which I recently had the pleasure to read while I was on a trip to visit Barb Chamberlin in New Mexico, as we are working on a new book about educational games together.

The book is immediately interesting and engaging, as Mr. Hunter has over 35 years experience using this game in his classroom, and 35 years of stories of how it has worked and not worked. What is the game designed to teach, exactly? It isn't completely clear, because players simultaneously learn so much. Most students seem to take away some understanding of...
1) geopolitics
2) the formal language of communication
3) the fact that large problems are generally all connected to each other
4) how budgets work
5) why nations need to borrow money
6) the purpose and function of the UN
7) why war happens
8) the elements of teamwork
9) solving difficult problems through tradeoffs
...and many, many more things. Mr. Hunter has no clear curriculum for this. As a practitioner of Zazen, he talks quite a bit about creating an empty space in which students can reach their own important conclusions and insights. What is startling to me is what a naturally skilled game designer John Hunter seems to be. He has carefully tuned his game, bit by bit, over the years, following his instincts about how to make it as meaningful to his students as possible. It is gripping to hear him tell stories of the insights his many students have had over the years, not to mention the testimonials from adults who found the game to be life-changing. People ask me constantly about the best use of games in the classroom, and the World Peace Game is a clear exemplar. I wonder, very much, what John Hunter would make of the deck of lenses?

I very much recommend this book for anyone who is considering making games to change the world. Not only is it filled with memorable stories, but it is framed in the shape of Mr. Hunter's seven-step theory of how games can best be used to create transformation in students. As I read John Hunter's stories of how students faced each new moral dilemma that he presented them, and his pride when they did so, I kept finding a disquieting thought entering my mind: If God wrote a book, it would look very much like this.

I hear tell that a digital version of the World Peace Game is being explored. That sounds very challenging to me -- it will be difficult to adapt without losing the essence. I am tempted, instead, to wonder what other types of games could benefit from a similar face-to-face classroom format? The original version of Happy Atoms worked this way -- but in that case the technology has clear benefits. However it happens, I continue to believe that the greatest teachers of the 21st century will be master game designers. Herman Hesse predicted this sixty years ago in Magister Ludi, and I think we will live to see it come to pass.

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