Don’t Fight Fantasy

In 1983 a new craze spread through Britain’s children (mostly the boys). It was a range of books called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston. Based loosely on the role-playing game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ that had taken the US by storm, the books differed in that they were for just one player/reader and they covered a much wider range of adventures and settings than the role-playing games did. The idea was simple. It was a book where you started reading and after a few pages you were given a choice. Did you want to go north or south? Ask the wizard for advice or not? Fight the monster or run away? Each choice would be accompanied by a page number which you would then turn to and continue reading. So you read the book by constantly moving from one page to another in a non-linear way. The aim was usually to survive long enough to solve the mystery. The adventures, whether set in a magical land, the past or the future where always very exciting and vividly described. The prose was always written in the present tense and from your perspective, “The door opens and you see stone steps leading down into darkness. Do you enter (turn page 263) or turn back (turn to page 47)”.

Then the backlash began. The books came to be perceived as a problem by many who misunderstood what was really going on. Some criticised the magical elements, feeling it encouraged interest in black magic (the same issue raised its head more recently with Harry Potter). Had these people not read Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Lord of the Rings?

There was also the old chestnut that turns up every time something is popular for children that they weren’t reading ‘proper’ books. English teachers frowned at the style of prose and bemoaned the lack of variety in children’s reading.

What they all failed to realise was that these books got children reading. We read them over and over again. We devoured them. And when we’d been through the thirty or so books in the series we moved onto other books such as Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Terry Pratchet and Douglas Adams and devoured them too. It doesn’t matter what children read, just as long as they do read.

There were other positive side effects too (again viewed by teachers and parents as bad). We started writing our own inventive fantasy fiction. Initially it took the form of writing your own adventure books for your friends. It was easy to do. You plotted out your story, the characters, events, mysteries and twists and then numbered blank pages of an exersise book from 1 to 100 and then got writing, inventing numerous traps and tricks for the reader on the way.

Slowly and inevitably we all grew up and no longer had the patience to play the book adventures anymore, wanting instead the passive reassurance of a linear novel. But the concept of the Fighting Fantasy books unlocked a unique form of creativity and imaginative invention in those young minds that shouldn’t be underestimated. Don’t fight your children’s fantasy. Let them explore it and express it in any way they choose.

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How to Play the Piano

I’ve had a piano for seven years and a synthesiser for seventeen years and I’ve just learnt how to play. I’d been trying the play all that time but failed dramatically. Then as soon as I stopped ‘trying’, within a week I could suddenly play.

It came about because I wanted to retain the ‘cool dad’ tag for as long as possible with my fourteen month old son. We’ve been filling his day with music since he was born and when he expressed an interest in the large wooden piece of furniture covered in ebony and ivory keys I wanted to be able to play a tune for him. So I did. Was it as simple as that, you say? Actually yes. And I’m not saying all this to impress you, but to impress upon you a strategy for learning which can be, and should be, applied to everything you want to learn.

Let’s have a look at what is going on here.

The first thing was that suddenly the motivation was there to learn. When I was at school my parents and the teacher were concerned that I was late in reading. The reason was that they had given me a load of old boring books to read. I wanted to be able to do it to please them and get away with it and I wasn’t motivated in the actual reading of such dull stories. But when I got me hands on the Dalek and Star Wars annuals with their comic strips I suddenly ‘got it’. Then I devoured the many Doctor Who novelisations of the television series, a couple I owned and the rest from the library. Remember these were the days before video recordings. A Doctor Who story was on television once and then never repeated so books were the only way of reliving the adventures.

Comic strips, pulp science fiction, novels of tv series and fantasy ‘choose your own adventure’ books were all decried by teachers and parents in the 70s and 80s. What they failed to recognise, as the author Philip Pulman has often pointed out, is that it’s the reading that is important for children. It doesn’t really matter what they read as long as they do read. (For Pullman it was the Superman comics). Children soon consume a range of books and then look to the next thing to satisfy their reading desires. It’s often those who started on the lesser appreciated literary forms that move quicker onto more advanced works.

What was going on with my early reading was that I was getting a result straight away. I was learning as I went along, but I was getting the result which was the understanding of the particular adventure story.

I’d used the same approach to learning the guitar. I was self-taught. I learnt that I only needed the chords A and D to play ‘Mull of Kintyre’. Add in an E and I could play Buddy Holly’s entire back catalogue. My goal was to sing and play and within a week I could do that. After a month I was writing my own songs.

So it was this technique that I applied to the piano. The goal was to be able to play and sing some popular songs. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning and learn the history and meaning of dots and squiggly lines on wires. All I had to do was to make a convincing sound.

All learning begins with self learning. A good teacher shows the way and needs to surround the student with the right motivation for them. The student then pulls themselves up, by themselves. The thrill of achievement then fuels the next stage; the desire to get better. This is where the teacher is needed as mentor, to guide the student through to mastery by showing technique and information.

So many teachers get this process back to front. They bombard the student with technique and information which goes over the heads of so many students who then feel disenfranchised and lose interest. There is a certain percentage of people who can learn this way but many will get quickly bored if the information is not relevant to their current goal. It’s all about finding the right teaching strategy to match the student’s learning strategy.

Now that I can convincingly play ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let it Be’ I can begin to expand my repertoire as well as going back to look at the technique and information for reading printed music. I now have the motivation to be able to get there.

You’ll have your own learning strategies. They may be different to mine but they’ll be the same in the one vital way: you will always need less will power to learn something you want to learn and that you will enjoy learning. If you have to use will power then you are more than likely to just give up and do something more rewarding at the first sign of hard work. Build the reward into the learning. This will work whether you want to learn Mandarin, Chemistry, salsa dancing or piano. Ask yourself ‘why?’. If that ‘why’ is compelling enough you’ll be doing it in no time.

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