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.

Vecht, Wihtred and Lodia

In Saga, there are Kings and rulers scattered everywhere. This one, King Wihtred, rules the Island of Vecht, just south of Bretland – at least for the time being…

One of the pleasures of writing from a Viking perspective is trying to create names that sound or feel right – sometimes using combinations of old Norse, or translating toponyms, or making intentionally rough transliterations of the oldest names I can find for places. Some names are recorded, of course: the Suthreyar, the Northreyar, Jorvik and so on, and I find magical. Suthreyar in particular is very funny to me – I’ll have to write about it again.

I could never produce something actually accurate, but place names are always a mish-mash of different languages and cultures anyway, so all I’m aiming for is a map littered with beautiful sounds, which, if you think about or investigate, turn out to make some kind of sense. Any historians or linguists among my readers are more than welcome to stick their oar in!

Interested to hear more about this gamebook project, coming in 2023? Find out here. Haven’t seen the longer sample? Try this.

A Sample of SAGA

Yesterday I enjoyed attending Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 in Ealing, West London, organised by the inestimable Jon Green and company. Fantastic! Books were sold, signed and shared.

I also distributed around 50 copies of a sample sheet for my upcoming project, in partnership with Spidermind Games, and already there have been requests to see it from others who weren’t able to attend. So, without further ado, click here to download a sample sheet of SAGA and get a taste of what awaits.

I have a new page for the project here on martinbarnabusnoutch.com, which will host static information, while I’ll continue to write blogs about the writing process here, as I used to during Steam Highwayman III. And don’t worry, I’ll also update from time to time about the progress of the next three Steam Highwayman books: they’re far from abandoned. Our family trip to Devon earlier in the summer particularly got me thinking about some more content for Princes of the West.

A New Saga

Tomorrow I will be sharing some free sample pages of a new gamebook, currently called Saga, at Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 in Ealing, West London. I’ll make them available here too in a couple of days, for you to download – and even print if you like.

Saga is a new open-world gamebook series written by me and commissioned, and to be published, by Spidermind Games, who may be known to you as the author and publishers of Legendary Kingdoms. The Spidermind team and I have a lot in common – both our existing series are developments of the Fabled Lands system in the books by Morris and Thomson, and more recently Paul Gresty. We have both crowdfunded our publications and I actually met Jon and Oliver at Fighting Fantasy Fest 3 some years ago.

In Saga you, the reader, will take up the mantle of a Viking Jarl, sailing your craft to raid or trade, caring for your folk in the settlement you leave behind and return to every year, slaughtering monks, exploring the oceans etc etc. It is more of a historically accurate adventure than some more recent retelling of Viking legends, but there is certainly magic – and the supernatural – in it.

I’m very pleased to be able to share this because I’ve been working on the project for over a year and have had to keep my lips sealed clam-tight. I’d rather be posting about my writing progress and sharing ideas – so from now on, expect that!

If you’re an avid reader of Steam Highwayman and you’re anxious to know whether this means that I’ve stopped work on that series (I’m looking at you, Darcy 😉 ), please don’t panic. Steam Highwayman IV-VI are in currently being written, but it is my intention to plan and write the entire three volumes before proceeding with another crowdfunding campaign. The opportunity to work with Jon and Oliver, and to widen my readership, as well as to work on commission rather than for the negligible profit of a Kickstarter, all convinced me to come to terms with them a year or so ago.

Also, if you noticed a recent post a couple of weeks ago teasing a new, completed Sharpsword publication, Saga isn’t isn’t that! That book (which is indeed complete) is simply waiting for the date of a launch party here in London to be set before I can go fully public.

So please watch out for the share here on my site, unless you’re coming to FFF4 tomorrow, in which case you can pick up a sample from my stall. As I mentioned before, I hope to be blogging a little more frequently now as well, since I don’t have to be quite so secretive.

Let’s Play… Steam Highwayman

Brian Hazzard, the nice fellow behind the Instadeath Survivors Support Group Podcast, is beginning a new YouTube Let’s Play series premiering later today. He’s chosen to feature a playthrough of Steam Highwayman.

Will this be the classic opener, rolling down the hill into an unnamed gin shop and getting ambushed by violent drinkers? Will an army of commenters and watchers manage to steer our luckless host away from misery and punishment? I suppose the implicit invitation in ‘Let us play’ is to participate like that, so here I need to cry something like, Who is the Steam Highwayman? WE are the Steam Highwayman.

A follow-up podcast episode is due out tomorrow too. We recorded it some time ago and I remember waffling dreadfully, so if you want to hear what decisive editing sounds like, you can give that a go too.

A Year’s Sales

I’ve just completed my review of last year’s online sales: I sold 582 books – or 1.59 every day. I’m not rich yet, but I’m very happy to think that every day, on average, someone out there in the world chose to spend their money on my work. Adding in the sales in-person at events, that just tops 600 – a considerable increase on 2020’s total of around 180.

What are people buying? Well, chiefly my three Steam Highwayman books, although a very small number are interested in Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools. The exciting number here is that I have sold over 260 copies of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, the first in my series, which each represent a reader new to the midnight road, and to my work.

And does it pay? Well, I’m proud to say that these sales have made me a gross income of around £2400, spread over the year. After expenses and tax (I already have a full-time job), it’s not a great deal of money. A large proportion of my sales in the second half of the year were seeded by an ongoing advertising campaign on Facebook, which isn’t cheap. Yet to be making a profit at all is validating and encouraging: the four years since I began Steam Highwayman are beginning to pay me back.

So what next? I’m keen to increase my sales, both to share the world I’ve created and, clearly, to profit from my work. So I’ll be continuing to invest income into advertising. But I’ll also be taking opportunities to write for contract, which was always part of my intention for the Steam Highwayman project: that it would serve as a display of my ability and allow me to pitch ideas to other publishers.

And maybe I’ll look back at this post in a year’s time with an entirely different perspective.

Millwall and Boaty McBoatface

I took a trip along the river to Millwall yesterday, actually planning to ride the Thames Clipper with Teo and Sam to the little-used Masthouse Terrace pier and then walk up to Mudchute Farm to feed old carrot batons to the sheep. We did manage all that – and more – and the children enjoyed the boat ride, as they always do. We even nabbed the port quarter seats and Teo got to watch the ‘man doing the boat-rope’, which is her highlight of any river trip.

But while checking the route on Wednesday evening, I spotted that we’d pass a very special guest moored at Greenwich, just opposite where we planned to disembark: none other than Boaty McBoatface herself – the British Antarctic Survey’s Sir David Attenborough.

What a beautiful big red beast she is! She looks like a playmobil toy for giants: cranes, hatches, turny bits, derricks, radar shrouds, seven decks tall (looking like eleven stories or so alongside the flats on Greenwich wharf) and a fabulous crow’s nest / whale-spotting post out the front. I can just see an ice-spotter muffled in some chunky Snow Goose parka featured in the next BBC Frozen World II under helicopter shot.

I found myself getting very excited and did my best to share the enthusiasm with Teo (two and a quarter) and Sam (nine months). Perhaps one day we’ll all be aboard her, I told them. Maybe you’ll be working as an animal specialist and I’ll visit you. Maybe we’ll see the ice together…

Just to make the appeal stronger, she (the ship) has the home port Port Stanley – Falkland Islands emblazoned on the stern. The Falklands have to be one of my most-desired spots in the world to see – I have very few – and I once did fairly well in interviewing for a teaching job there. But life turned another way and Teo and Dam are the result of that.

Still, I felt like if there had been an invitation, Teo, Sam and I could have swung aboard up some boarding netting, taking hot flask, nappies and snacks, abandoning the mundane double buggy aboard the clipper and happily stayed aboard this fabulous vessel until she next docked in the Falklands, next stop, the ice of the Antarctic! I recognised the glamour of adventure and, nowadays, that rare thing, of a genuinely exotic sea voyage. Some lucky person will be boarding Boaty McBoatface tonight, or this week, and doing exactly that.

And the accommodation looks fantastic. I’m sure there would be space for a family with two small children in comfort.

The spot is also precious to me because Masthouse Terrace pier projects onto the Thames from the Great Eastern slipway – the launch site for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Leviathan, which features (briefly) in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The remaining timbers of the launch ramp are not that impressive by themselves, but if you think that the Great Eastern had a gross tonnage great than the fine Boaty, and was approximately twice as long, then you have to realise how she would have dominated Millwall reach just as dramatically as the polar playmobil set does while she is still moored there.

The Ferry pub, a moment’s walk from the pier where we disembarked, did not make the cut: I limited myself to one pub per locality in The Reeking Metropolis. But it is old, positioned at the bank where the ferry to Greenwich beached for seven hundred years or more – and that ferry is a crucial crossing in Steam Highwayman III.

And I love the river. Since I moved to Marlow in 2008, I’ve grown to know the Thames and to value it for one thing most of all: the appearance of the river can change, boat designs come and go and the city all around is built and demolished over and over again. The course of the river itself has swayed backwards and forwards across the London gravel since the last ice age, I read, swamping mammoths and Roman wharves and chemical factories. But the smell of the river – the brackish estuaryness of the tidal Thames and the sweet siltiness brought all the way down from the West – flotsam and chalk and silt and tiny countless fish eggs from Steam Highwayman country and beyond – from hills that I’ve known and walked, rained that I’ve ridden through – the smell could convince anyone exactly where they are in the world. Stand at the riverside, or better yet, on the foreshore, and close your eyes and breathe deep and you might know the same sensation – exactly the same – as a man walking the banks in Brunel’s age, or ten thousand years before.

SH App available… Visits to Basingstoke…

September has been a fairly busy time. I spent two very pleasant Saturdays selling Steam Highwayman at the annual Essextraordinaire near Maldon and at an event new to me, Cobbles and Cogs at Reading Milestones Living History Museum. Catching up with friends in the steampunk community at each was a real joy – as it was to have a stall with a fine display of three volumes of the Steam Highwayman adventures, my Seekerman velosteam model and the recently-produced A2 maps.

All the while, my friends at Cubus were working away on the release of the Steam Highwayman mobile app, which launched at the end of the month and is now available for iOS and Android. I’ve been having a go myself when I can and really enjoying what they have brought to the project.

I’m teaching full-time again this year, though, so have very little time for writing currently. Instead I’m preparing lessons for 10-year-old children, marking their work and keeping up with school requirements. At home, my two little children are growing fast too and need their own attention.

Instead of directly working at new books, then, I’m working on marketing my existing work and increasing sales. Perhaps you’ll come across an advert for one of my books on the social platform of your choice!

Steam Highwayman App Launches 30 September

Cubus have now given me a launch date – that’s right! The new promo trailer and the page on their site can give you a lot more info.

The app has been made under license, so I haven’t had much direct input (other than writing the book…). This is ideal because, 1) Cubus make great apps, 2) I trust them with my work and 3) I’ve been crazily busy.

There is still an opportunity to playtest before then: if you’re keen, use this link to get your name added and grab an early download.

I hope this is all particularly exciting for any Spanish Steam Highwaymen out there – or Catalan! The app will be available in three languages!

Why so quiet…?

Yes, it has been quiet here at martinbarnabusnoutch.com Here’s why.

Over on Facebook, there’s a relatively new group called Interactive Fiction & Gamebooks Discussion Group (Book Club). Catchy, eh? Well, since the beginning of August, I’ve been posting there every 2 days or so, sharing how Steam Highwayman was written and what I like about it, as well as responding to other readers’ comments. In fact,t the series has been the Club’s featured Book of the Month, so it would be rude for me not to be there!

Then there’s normal life! My two little children, Samuel (6months) and Teodora (26months) are getting some full-on family time, seeing as it is my summer holiday from my full-time teaching job. But just because it’s holiday time, doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing! Oh no. Aside from all the day trips and the park visits…

We moved flat (within the same area – in fact, the same building) and have been redecorating and setting up within a slightly bigger space, which includes a [tiny] desk for my laptop, so there will hopefully be [long-term] an easier writing schedule that doesn’t depend on tidying away for dinner (although I am sat on a dining chair).

And then there’s what I have been working on… Steam Highwayman IV, V and VI are in a gentle planning stage, I want to try to have all three planned out and will probably write them side-by-side, so they need time. Until I’m ready to tackle that, I have some contract work on the horizon that I will be very excited to post about, once I can. And an add-on to the Steam Highwayman project that I’ve posted about before – the Steam Highwayman App – has also been taking up time. I should have more details about that soon.

Then there’s been a steady trickle of readers ordering copies of the Gormley-Watt Velosteamer’s Touring Guide, which takes a regular bit of admin (buying online postage, printing, labelling packets and sending) and quite a lot of Happenings at our local church congregation, where I have some responsibilities.

So watch this space – and if you’ve missed hearing about some of these and would like to find out more, follow the links in the post.