Gentle Bamboo Solutions

[Case Studies] What I learned from the World Peace Game


[This week, Rakshith explores Case Studies as a training tool. Over to him.]

I had an interesting response to the last email I wrote. A professor who uses case studies wrote to me that when learners are prepared, case discussions can be exciting and revelatory. Otherwise, they can be aimless and seemingly pointless; vague and plodding. The variables that influence the direction and quality of a case discussion include the trainer, the learners, the case, and a host of other possibilities such as the physical setting, the time of training, or the incentive to participate. This mail deals with the only variable you can control: yourself.

Consider these lines:

… I don’t actually know how to create world peace. And I share my ignorance with my students. I admit the truth to them right upfront. I tell them I don’t know how to solve the problems I am asking them to solve. I apologize to them as well…

… Because I don’t know the answer, they see that if the world is going to be saved, it’s up to them to do it. All I can do is arm them with some skills to take up the effort…

… Who is really in charge? Because over my nearly thirty-five years as a teacher, I’ve gradually learned to cede control to the students. I don’t have to control every conversation and response. My students’ collective wisdom is greater than any individual wisdom I might possess, and I admit that to them openly.

These are lines from John Hunter’s TED Talk, Teaching with the World Peace Game. The World Peace Game is a classroom game invented by John Hunter, set in a fictional world modelled after our own and 50 interlocking scenarios or cases that have increasingly complex implications for the world. Needless to say, he’s been extremely successful in using this game to teach complex problem-solving.

So, how does John Hunter get such dedicated participation?

The easy argument is that kids are naturally more inclined to play and participate. And while that argument has some merit, he’s been equally successful conducting this game for adults. So, what else? It might be helpful to understand Hunter’s philosophy more deeply. He refers to his classroom as an "empty space." The empty space is a space for the learner to ponder the situation, reflect on what decision they are going to make and how that decision might affect other stakeholders.

I was fascinated by this idea when I came across it two days ago. I understand emptiness by considering its opposite – a full classroom. That’s a space where every moment, the learner is absorbing knowledge, practising skills, and working towards achieving some pre-determined goal. I’ve justified running such a classroom with words like, "Time is important." "Adult learners want clarity." "Malcolm Knowles’ six principles, etc."

While this approach will definitely contribute to the knowledge and skill of learners, I now wonder how practised would they be in encountering the unknown, whether in the real world or in a case study?

Of course, I recognise that a classroom composed only of “emptiness” is of no use. I still think it is irresponsible to invite learners into an empty space and simply allow them to sit until they think of something they wanted to learn or solved a problem they were set. To learn we need both structure and freedom, knowledge and creativity. I think the purpose of the empty space is to fill it up. I as the facilitator am fully accountable for what my learners learn. That’s entirely on me. But they are responsible for what they learn; each learner owns what they learn.

I understand that John Hunter works with his students for an entire semester while we deal with our learners for 3 to 6 hours. We need to find a way to adapt his philosophy in a short, one-time training setting. But, I think what I am taking away from studying his story is humility. I don’t know how to apply his philosophy in a 3-hour training program when discussing case studies. But, I am hoping you and I – with our collective wisdom – can find it together. Shall we try?

Learning to create open spaces,