This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by
Richard James on the state of junior chess in this country, and how we teach it. Scroll down for the first three, starting last Friday.
Richard James on Junior Chess
Richard James on Junior Chess
8. The younger you start chess the better
Ah! This is not just one of the big fallacies in chess education but one of the big fallacies in education generally. Many years ago, Elo published some figures demonstrating that children who learnt the moves at 10 became stronger players than those who learnt at 14. Well, there might be a number of reasons for this, but it doesn’t follow that children who learn the moves at 6 will become stronger players than those who learn the moves at 10.
If you decide you want to fast track your children, by all means start them young. Ideally, our network of junior chess clubs will provide support for you. If you’re the head of a school and you want your school to be very good at chess you might want to do the same thing, and that is absolutely fine. This is not a route, though, that many parents or schools would choose to take. But for children who are only going to play once or twice a week there’s no reason at all to start them too young.
One of the problems is that young children enjoy board games much more than older children do, and the chess pieces are something they find particularly attractive. Although they can learn the moves easily they will find it hard to make progress, become frustrated and give up.
Many people believe that Finland has the best education system in the world, but there they do not start formal education until the age of 7. But they soon catch up and overtake countries like the UK where we do things younger and younger. The room in which I am typing this is also used for listening to young children reading. Some children are keen to do this but sometimes others are not in the mood and have to be cajoled into participating. Why?, I ask myself. There’s no hurry. If you start something a year after you are ready it doesn’t really matter, but if you start something a year before you are ready you could well be put off for life. Even Magnus Carlsen, who comes from a chess playing family, started at 5, didn’t really understand it and only returned to the game a couple of years later. Levon Aronian, currently ranked second behind Carlsen, learnt the moves from his sister at the age of 9.
It may well be true that the younger a child starts chess the more likely (s)he is to become a grandmaster, but it’s also true, in my experience, that the later a child starts competitive chess the more likely (s)he is to continue playing as a teenager and an adult. While we should certainly provide as much support as we can for parents who are fast tracking their children, we have to ask ourselves whether it’s in the best interests of the chess community to promote mass participation in competitive chess for young children who barely know the moves.
If we want lots of young children to learn chess that’s fine – but it should be done using a structured, step by step course rather than by just promoting school chess clubs for children who have learnt the moves at home.
Proposition 8: If you start children too soon or don’t teach them correctly they will give up after a year or so: the later children start competitive chess the more likely they are to continue playing as adults.
9. We should employ professional chess players to teach young children
Well, if you wanted a primary school maths teacher would you choose an Oxford professor or a trained teacher who understand how young children learn?
Something that concerns me is that one reason we seem to be promoting chess in schools is to provide employment for semi-professional chess players. But those who run structured courses in other countries will tell you that the best teachers for beginners are often not chess experts but gifted teachers who know little more than the basics themselves. I’ve met a number of children who haven’t enjoyed chess at their previous school because the lessons were too advanced for them or because they were expected to do things like writing their moves down before they were ready. I’m sure I’ve put off a lot of children myself, as well. If you instead set up a network of junior chess clubs this will provide more enjoyable, and possibly more lucrative work for semi-professional coaches who will be dealing mostly with children who are stronger and more interested in learning.
The Steps Method advises that you should spend a year over the first stage of the course (teaching the moves and how not to leave pieces en prise) – some teachers get through it in three months but it’s best not to do this: the longer you take, within reason, the better.
Spending time in a school talking to teachers and children has made me realise that there’s much more to teaching than standing in front of a class talking. You need to structure not just a lesson but a course. You’re constantly repeating and reinforcing to make sure everyone has understood, and checking again at the start of the next lesson. You’re providing more advanced material for children who are finding the work easy while looking at how to help those who are finding it hard. Being good at standing in front of the class with a demo board is only a small part of teaching chess. The children may well enjoy your lessons but unless they’ve actually learnt something there’s not much point. And of course you can’t realistically do any of this within a chess club with 30-40 children of various levels. This is why teaching beginners has to be a separate activity, and why beginners should not be admitted to clubs where competitive chess is played.
If you’re following a structured course, though, it doesn’t matter whether you know little more than your pupils or whether you’re a grandmaster. If you have the enthusiasm, the rapport with children and the ability to teach you’ll be successful.
Proposition 9: The earlier children start the more important it is that the teachers understand child development as it applies to chess – the best teachers for young children are often schoolteachers or parents armed with a manual.
[Please come back tomorrow (for more on chess teaching), and every day this week.]