Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Best Thing I Saw at NAIS



Just before spring break, I traveled to Seattle for the Annual Conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. This was my third NAIS Conference. The quality of the presentations is so superb I wish our entire faculty and staff could experience a conference like this. I'll do my best to share what I learned. But in small bites. I know what it's like to stay home and have someone come back all full of three days of workshops.

So let me start with one thing. Not with Bill Gates, who was impressive--informed and visionary and clear. Not with Amy Chua, the famous/infamous Tiger Mom (who surprised me with her vulnerability). Not with the ever profound Pat Bassett, President of NAIS. But with a fourth grade teacher from Virginia, John Hunter.

Hunter invented the World Peace Game to teach his fourth graders about the complexity of peace in an interconnected world threatened by many challenges and problems. Those problems reside on a number of different levels: amont nations, but also in the environment. The game itself is a four foot cube with four plexiglass levels: ground level of sea and land, but also an underground level, an airspace level, and an outer space level. Earthquakes and asteroids are part of the challenge, as well as rogue states.

He divides the class into four teams, or countries, some wealthy, some poor. Each student plays a significant role (Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Minister of Defense, Head of the National Bank, Arms Dealers, etc.). There are two goals to the game: to solve all the problems and to raise the asset level of all four countries in the game.

Hunter designed the World Peace Game many years ago and has perfected it along the way. Now, as he prepares to retire, lots of people are paying attention. The Game has its own website now. Brad Martin's (of Saks) Foundation, the Martin Institute, has partnered with the University of Memphis and Presbyterian Day School in Memphis to promote the game.
Hunter's TED talk was voted the Most Influential TED Talk of 2011.

What I loved about Hunter's game was the level of engagement he got from all his students. Filmmaker Chris Varina has made a documentary about Hunter's class and the game, which will be shown on PBS later this spring. We saw an eight minute clip from the film, and I witnessed some amazing interactions between students. Listen to the TED talk and hear Hunter tell about some of the surprising lessons he and his students learned together--not scripted, but the sort of lessons that will stick with these students for the rest of their lives.

Another impressive aspect of Hunter's game: They read together sections of Sun Tzu's The Art of War and then reflect on its insights throughout the game. There is a scene in the movie where one of the students looks right into the camera and exclaims, with utter amazement in a moment of enlightenment, "I am Sun Tzu! I know what he was talking about!"

Hunter got one of the few standing ovations at the conference. It was well-deserved. Teachers know a good teacher when they see one, and Hunter stood among us as an example of what we all hope to be and do.

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