The first part of this article was published in The Hindu titled Collective Effort dated 10th April 2022
I am in India on a short trip. Most evenings, I take a short walk around the apartment complex the parents live in. The community is a middle class community with children playing outside every evening. Regular readers know how much I enjoy seeing children playing outside everyday. One day as I was walking past the play area, I stopped to see what the commotion was all about. Slippers were being thrown as high as little hands could reach, and all the little children were standing around giving instructions. It was then I noticed the two badminton rackets lodged up in the tree branches above (probably a dare since there were two rackets lodged firmly.)
The little band of racket-throwers were now trying to retrieve them from the trees, It is amusing to be a silent spectator to problem solving such as this. Several suggestions were being given by all gathered (Some enthusiastic, but clearly not grounded in laws of Physics. Others, theoretically brilliant but lacking the practical aspects such as the presence of a long 7 ft stick to dislodge the rackets). When it looked like there were close to dislodging the racket by themselves, I carried on, only to come back a few minutes later on my rounds to see that several attempts had yielded nothing. A general despondency had set in, and some gloomy faces stared at the unyielding tree with its branches so ridiculously high above.
When it was obvious that the little folk could not dislodge the rackets, a small dip in their collective can-do attitude was apparent. Sensing this, the older children playing a little distance away, gathered to help. On my walk as a spectator, this was such a heart warming scene, for I could see the future of humanity secure in this simple act. When one of us suffers a setback, the others came to help willingly without even being asked. The older children had height on their side, and the tallest one lifted a younger child, who then dislodged the racket with a stick lying around.
The cheers erupted all around. One might’ve assumed that a World Series match was just finished. But this jubilation was a different one altogether and play resumed.
I wish children played outside on the streets more especially in the United States. I couldn’t help thinking that that motley bunch of children could have a future CEO reimagining the world, a diplomat helping out in times of humanitarian crises, scientists solving problems as deftly and quickly as humanity creates them, artists and writers who dare to dream and imagine a different world, etc.
Which brings to this excellent book I was reading earlier, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements. I always think highly of children’s perspectives and potential, so naturally I was attracted to this book. In the book, a fourth grade teacher, John Hunter designed a game to restore World Peace in a mythical world of his creation bearing enormous resemblance to our own. Climate change, wars, humanitarian crises, economic bankruptcies are all problems to be solved in this world.
There are Prime Ministers of countries, nominated by the teacher. There is a World Bank, a weather goddess who controls things like freak climatic disasters, the stock market etc, a United Nations council all ably run by the children in the classroom. There is even a secret saboteur whose main job is to spread lies and sow discord between factions. So they learn to trust but verify, be wary but condone etc.
He has a 3-D model depicting their world in which the oceans, the lands and the skies above us need governance and international cooperation to achieve World Peace. They are given 50 problems that must all be solved, and the net worth of the countries needs to be higher than when the game started for the game to be won.
He has perfected the game over several years in his classroom, and the results are indeed stunning in some cases as he writes in his book. In most years, the children did manage to solve World Peace in spite of the overwhelming odds stacked against them. Like in the little anecdote above, the children mostly hit upon a solution only after they are that close to giving up altogether. The failure, dejection all slowly yields to a new mode of thinking. One that is difficult to think of before, and this invariably leads the teams to collaborate and help each other better. (As J K Rowling says in her Harvard Commencement Speech – The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination)
TED Talk by John Hunter – 4th Grade Teacher
Truly, what we learn in Elementary School is priceless. The camaraderie accompanying solving problems truly makes the heart lighter. When in the right company, no problem is insurmountable. More importantly, there is hope for this world despite what we have done.