Strategy for children – some thoughts from a course on strategy

Being a home-educating parent (they tend to call it home-schooling or unschooling in the US) has been enriching in all sorts of ways. It has not, though, tended to intersect very much with my political concerns and commitments except in a rather tangential way.

The closest connection has been a procedural or process one, where I’ve helped to facilitate meetings of adults and children, usually separately, mostly in our local home education group HEDGE (Home Education Development Growth and Empowerment). Using participatory techniques I’ve been shown in affinity groups and campaigning settings has been immensely satisfying (when it’s worked).

Seeing that all kinds of situations can be improved by participation and genuine direct democracy, even when the people involved have no special commitment to the model or to any particular politics, has been a great experience.

Right now, for the first time, there’s a real connection between the things that I write about and campaign about, and what I do in home education. Up till now, talking about politics has been intermittent and incidental (‘Why are you going to prison/Iraq/a meeting?’).

Last year, though, we had our annual ‘retreat’, at which a fair proportion of the children in the group discussed what they liked and disliked about HEDGE and its recent activities, and prioritized their wish list for the year ahead. We used spectrums (where people stand in different places in a room according to how they feel about a question or an issue), brainstorms, priority-ticking (you can allocate five ticks to items on a list produced during the brainstorm) and ‘I couldn’t live without’ (naming the one thing on the list that you would have the group do if only one thing was possible). Everyone got to express their view and explain their position.

(Interestingly, these things work much better when adults are sitting around the children in a circle, silently listening and paying attention. They make no interjections, but the children sense that they are being taken seriously.)

Anyhow, the highest-rated suggestion – much to all the adults’ surprise – was for a ‘strategy course’, involving military strategy, strategy games and so on. I volunteered to take this on and we’re about to have our fourth weekly session tomorrow. (There was also a taster session in December.)

From the beginning of this short course (mostly teenage boys), we’ve been dealing with critical thinking and reading (a running critique of the Readers’ Digest Illustrated History of World War II The World At Arms), and the moral dilemmas of war and peace (area bombing during WWII was the subject of session two, a visit to the Imperial War Museum).

Preparing material for the course, I’ve been surprised by some of the things I’ve found out about WWII (there was a strong wish in the group to deal with military strategy). The Nazi invasions of France and Russia have taken on quite a different aspect to the ones I’ve been familiar with.

I hadn’t understood the rationality of France’s strategy for defending Belgium – the German tank forces operated in a completely new way in going through Luxemburg, at a speed which no one could have expected (and which was contrary to the express orders of the German High Command). And I hadn’t realized the rationale behind Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, one key element of which was that the German High Command expected Russia, Britain and the US all to reach the peak of their military capacity in 1943, requiring an effort to pre-empt this extremely threatening prospect.

I’m not entirely sure what the implications of those insights are for anti-war campaigning, but I think there’s something there to be teased out.

The basic problem with the course is to have enough variety of activities to put on an engaging session and at the same time somehow also convey something of what strategy is, and how to make it.

It would help if I was more confident in my own abilities in this regard. I’ve read a fair amount about strategy and how to make it, but actually putting theoretical knowledge into practice has proven more difficult.

One lovely insight during preparation for the course came from looking at (not reading) a book called Think Like A Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov. I can’t understand the book, but what struck me is that this book, all about chess strategy, does not deal with ‘Planning’ until Chapter 3, after 135 pages on ‘Analysis’ and ‘Positional Judgement’.

Of course, in chess the question of objective is fairly simple: to win, or at least not to lose. Aims are harder to figure out in the larger social world – which sometimes includes how you manage your relationships with the people you play board games with.

What tomorrow’s strategy session is going to try to bring home (apart from the complexity of playing 5-6 player Seafarers of Catan) is that strategy is about (1) making a realistic plan (2) based on a good understanding of the situation that you’re facing and the people resources that you have to hand, and (3) with a goal or goals that are as clearly defined and agreed as possible. (We dealt with (3) last week a little bit, where we talked about the other social goals we often have when we play games with people.)

All too often I’ve been involved in campaigns and activities where I’ve not really tried to understand the environment we’re operating in, and where I’ve had only a hazy understanding of what a realistic goal might be or where what we’re doing fits into the bigger picture.

Does it matter? Well, I think it does, but it will take another post to explain my reasons for that. Meanwhile I have children (and myself) to educate.

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