Why Learners Need to Make Bad Choices

Choice is a powerful tool of engagement.  Training as a teacher in the late noughties, I was taught that the epitome of classroom practice was the Early Years model of ‘choosing time’, which you may vaguely remember from your own start at school.  Lay out engaging learning activities in engaging ways and allow the young learners in your care to move between them at will, following the impulses of their own curiosity and the rhythms of their own attention.   The biases in the University Education Department were historic, with lecturers and mentors frequently harking back to the pre-1988 period before the National Curriculum standardised Primary School course content.  They were philosophical biases too, based on the still-powerful writings of Piaget, Vygotsky and their countless disciples in the British education system.  But they were also biases in tune with the popular psychological dictum that had become mainstream by the end of the twentieth Century: give people choices, and they will make responsible decisions.  The Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 ran on a slogan of ‘Education, Education, Education’ and all around echoes of this idea could be heard and read.  Privatising services was justifiable since the consumer would have an increase in choice, and would make responsible decisions…

It all feels rather naive in a world in which political and societal stability seems under constant threat from populist politicians and demagogues.  Journalists seem to believe that we are once again in the age of the mob and that we are under the influence of people with the skill to whip up emotions, unbalancing what the supposed responsible, sensible, rational decision-making of the general public and herding them into Brexits, panics, xenophobias and surrenders of their own power and agency.

But reflecting on this as a teacher and a specialist in writing choice, I have a few thoughts.

Choice was always emotional.  In the classroom, children can only rarely be trusted to follow their own preferences, and even then, it must be within bounds defined by their educators.  No teacher or school can can provide enough options for all learners, or all readers; some children will want to play or exercise outside, out of supervision (!).  And then there are the children who want to test the limits of choice-and-consequence.  ‘I know we’re not meant to do this, but what if we do?’

This recent, and amusingly-structured, article in the New Yorker by Leslie Jamison is excellent, and she quickly gets to the point that so many theorists of choice, both teachers and writers, seem to miss: people like to choose badly.  It’s the old ‘What-happens-if-I-press-this-red-button?’ temptation.  (I have a guilty memory of curiously and needlessly pressing an airline steward button on a flight sometime in 1991 or 2 that seems to be burned into my amygdala.  I remember her face, the dim light of the plane cabin, and the smell…  And the acute embarrassment.  I would have been around 6 years old and very English indeed in my social discomfort.)  I have observed children reading and writing choice-based fiction explicitly for the ‘wrong’ choices: they love to play with a sudden death, an unfair, tricky author’s punishment and an unexpected consequence.

And this is where I think the largely-untapped education power of choice-based fiction: in the emotional engagement if the reader.  Feel that a consequence was disproportionate to a choice?  Life is unfair?  You’re likely to remember what you chose, hanging your memory on an emotional hook of resentment.  And you might not make that mistake again.

If I were to design a series of choice-based education materials based around a single topic, I would first aim to engage the emotions of my reader and invest them in what they were reading.  I’d want them to be curious, but also playful.  I’d need my reader to appreciate that the story or environment in which they found themselves was not a genuine free space with unlimited options, but a collaboration of agency, in which they accepted the author’s limits and in which they were granted in turn a specific type of power.  Yet part of the deal, if the experience is to be attractive to a reader, is the right to explore, to play and to knowingly make bad decisions, both to see what the author has chosen in the way of consequences and to think about it yourself – to see if you agree.

And that’s how I genuinely try to build my classroom.  I currently teach 9-10 year-olds.  It’s also, from one perspective, how my Steam Highwayman works, and how Saga seems to be developing.  There’s a relationship with my long-term love of Science Fiction – or Speculative Fiction, as I think the genre is better named.  Speculative Fiction has space for your classic or near-future Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Alternate History – a parcel of some of my favourite genres.  Back when I was a teenager reading at speed through Asimov’s oeuvre, I realised that his formula, as a scientist writing, was to take a hypothesis and to experiment with it, through the medium of a story.  What if robots were conscious human-analogues?  How would that really work in society?  How would their systems be governed?  Then he would test the edges – make intentionally bad choices – and see the stories go wrong, characters imperilled or killed or disappointed – but explore the idea.

Alternate History does a similar thing, even more extremely than Historical Fiction.  I love the rich world of O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, which seems to ask ‘What if the men of Nelson’s navy were pretty much like the humans we see and know today?’ and then pursues the hypothesis for twenty-one books.  Alternate History then asks, ‘What if it had been like this?’  Three perspectives on a Nazi victory in World War II – Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Deighton’s SS-GB and Harris’s Fatherland – run parallel experiments with some strikingly similar results, each beginning from a fundamental Bad Choice.

Play is the Highest Form of Research

Albert Einstein (according to the internet… and also not)

Speculative or Choice-Based Fiction should be a place to explore – a place for ‘learning play’.  The Einstein quote (above) that gets thrown at toddler groups and university students alike here is almost certainly a misattribution or, at best, a paraphrase.  (There’s a short discussion of its possible origin here).  Hyperbole aside, play can be research, and if the space is safe enough to intentionally make bad choices, then there has to be an element of playfulness present.  But in a written book or an authored Choice-Based educational programme, there is only an illusion of experiment for the reader: the author has already decided upon the consequences.  It is the author who is really playing – really experimenting – not the reader.  If the reader wants to experiment with seeing what happens when they make new bad choices, or if they disagree with the author’s consequencing, they must graduate to creating their own Choice-Based fictions and be prepared to defend their own structures of choice.

An educator has a responsibility to their student.  For a learner to experiment open-endedly, without plan, structure or system will result in a mass of findings – data – and emotions that they will struggle to use.  But to lead a student along a path, using a collaboration of agency invites questioning and challenge: I love to hear my students or readers disagree, when they say ‘I don’t think that should happen…’ in response to the consequence I have suggested.  That’s fine – they simply need to be able to tell me what they think should happen, and begin their own choice-and-consequence chain.

All play and no work made Albert a paradigm-breaking physicist, apparently.

While looking on Pinterest for an amusing image of this much-bounced-about quote, I came across another that terrifies me a bit, and not just because of the ugly comma in the centre where a semi-colon or a nice conjunction would be so much clearer: “I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  I’m a father now, as well as a teacher and a writer of Choice-Based Fiction: I recognise the absolute need to teach my children and my responsibility to be direct and unambiguous.  Yet without the right conditions – more the illusion of choice, or shared experiment, or safe play – there will never be a genuine independence of learning.

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