Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Instrumental passage

Last summer I was having Spanish conversation classes round the house of a friend, Toni, who lives in my village. He's got a daughter, only aged about four or five at the moment, and he asked me whether, when the time was right, I'd teach her to play chess. Sure I would, I said.

I remembered that conversation when I was reading Jonathan Calder's piece in the Guardian last week, commending the idea of chess in schools. I've written on that subject before. I'm sceptical, at best, tending to outright hostility at any suggestion of chess becoming compulsory. It won't, of course, but there are people around (not Mr Calder, as far as I can see) who think it should be.

I know about the Armenian scheme, which doesn't particularly impress me. I suspect the educational benefits of chess in schools are largely imaginary, though making every child learn the game might well produce Armenian world champions and Olympiad winners in future years. Which is fine, from the point of view of the greater glory of Armenia, but I don't think education is properly about the greater glory of anything. Even chess.

But also - as I say, somewhere in Mr Calder's comments - assuming you have the time, and other resources, available for the teaching of chess: why chess? Is chess the best we have to offer children? If we are teach them something, something normally extra-curricular, that will encourage their capacity to concentrate and let their creativity flourish?

Why not, say, a musical instrument? From which of these are they more likely to gain pleasure and benefit throughout their lives? Which is the richer, which the deeper?

A world without the game of chess might well be greyer, but is it umimaginable, as (for most of us) the world would be without music? Yes, I know, you can do both: there are people, plenty of people, who have learned both chess and music, and even some rare individuals who have flourished at both. But for most, and for anybody trying to arrange the school day, time is limited, as are options. And I cannot see why we would prioritise chess above music. I can't even see why people who love chess would want that to happen. I certainly see no reason why society at large would want to.

That's what I said to Toni: yeah, sure I'll teach your daughter. No harm in it. But if she were to really take to something, better by far that she should take to music. It's a richer, wider, world by an immeasurable distance. It's as rich, almost, as life itself. But chess is just a board game. Arguably, the greatest one there is. But that is what it is.

My wife's family are here for the week: two kids, both of primary school age, both of whom I have, at one time of another, taught how to play chess. They both play musical instruments, one the violin, one the guitar. (Good choices, I think: perhaps better than mine. I learned the piano, and rather regret that I gave it up as a teenager - but it doesn't have those instruments' portability. But whatever.)

Me, I've spent a good part of my life in chess - that's the way it worked out, and to see that as either good or bad probably misses the point. I'm glad of it, mostly, to be honest. But the children - if they were to spend their lives in music, instead, wouldn't that, in all probability, be a wiser choice?


Tom Chivers said...

I wholly agree. There are many middle-aged adults who say: gosh, I wish I learned the guitar, or gosh, I wish I tried harder at those piano lessons... Only middling chess players have a comparable lament about our game; non-players aren't kicking themselves over missing out.

JPS said...

Maybe I missed something, but I do not quite understand the argument. First, music is already on the curriculum. Second, teaching children to play chess for one or two hours a week does not prevent them at all from learning how to play an instrument besides. Third, the idea is not to turn every kid into a happy or unhappy chess-junkie, but just to improve their mental and other skills. So in my view the only valid argument would be to say that chess cannot help in this regard. But recent studies seem to suggest otherwise. Finally, chess has the obvious practical advantage of being rather "cheap".

Tom Chivers said...

Music wasn't on my School curriculum - we chose from drama or dance - but maybe things are different nowadays.

JPS said...

It is and has always been in Germany, and I took it for granted that this is everywhere the same.But maybe that is not the case.
Anyway, this would not change the argument that chess and music do not mutually exclude each other. If teaching young kids chess is in itself a good thing, then it doesn't become a bad idea only because it might be even better to teach them music.

ejh said...

First, music is already on the curriculum.

It is, but it's less than entirely secure and it strikes me as the sort of thing that would be at risk if people tried to shoehorn chess into the curriculum. (Which I don't believe they will, but there are plenty of people in chess who have argued in favour of this, which is kind of why I've written the piece above.) Because I think that in terms of the school timetable, this:

Second, teaching children to play chess for one or two hours a week does not prevent them at all from learning how to play an instrument besides

isn't necessarily true. Primary schools have to find time for a lot of academic work and activities: something would have to give.

After-school clubs are a different thing, up to a point: I've meant to write something for ages about how chess operates in schools in Spain (or at least in the part of Spain I live in) and you'll sometimes find chess as an after-school activity. And of course some kids do both chess and a musical instrument.

But put it this way - given that schools, and parents, have limited resources and sometimes people are going to have to choose to a greater or lesser degree, wouldn't you actually choose music every time? And if that's so, doesn't it tell us that chess is not, really, important enough, in any sense, for us to bother about it being in schools?

What bothers me about this "let's have chess in schools" palaver is that I find myself asking - is this really based on anything other than chess people wanting more attention paid to chess? (Or the Armenian government wanting more attention paid to Armenia.) These studies - what do they really show? That chess provides something other activities cannot? How so?

The point about chess being cheap will, of course, always be a good one (provided we're talking just about the board and pieces, it probably costs a little bit more once your promising child starts wanting to play tournaments). That's one of the things I like about chess. It's a good game, everybody should get the chance to learn it at some time or another. But more than a good game? Worth more than that? I raise my eyebrows.

Richard James said...

As you might guess, I have a lot to say on this subject and will write in much more depth about it at some point in the future.

Wearing my chess player hat I'm outraged by your suggestion, but wearing my teacher hat I'm entirely in agreement with you.

Firstly, all children should have the chance to learn chess. Trying to force every school to do chess might work in Armenia, where it's part of the national culture, but won't work here in the UK. So what we should be doing instead is setting up a network of junior chess clubs/schools/academies, call them what you will, which will provide outreach for those schools who want to do chess and chess lessons for children who are unable to do chess at school.

Then you ensure that children's chess education is guided by solid educational principles, and not just taught by well-meaning amateurs who don't know enough about how to teach the game, or by GMs and IMs who go much too fast. I've said this many times before, but, the way we're doing primary school chess here at the moment makes it if anything less, not more likely that children will continue to play chess later in life.

Music on the curriculum? Maybe it is but only in a vague and fairly useless way. I think what you mean is that all children should be able to access individual or small group tuition in at least one, preferably more than one instrument, and have the opportunity to play in an orchestra and sing in a choir, and have access to lessons in music appreciation and history covering a wide range of genres including classical. The provision for this sort of music education in the state sector is, I believe, currently in decline.

Finally for now, there are some children for whom, because of their differences/disabilities, chess is the only possible thing. We need to encourage schools and parents to be proactive in identifying these children and pointing them towards chess. I should know - I was one myself.

dfan said...

I'm a middle-aged adult whose two most time-consuming extracurricular activities are chess and music (in that order). If I had to give up one, I'd give up chess. And that's despite simultaneously wishing I had spent more time on chess as a kid so I'd have a better foundation now.

ejh said...

chess and music do not mutually exclude each other

They don't, of course, but if chess were to take up any time in the curriculum, I think they'd necessarily find themselves competing with one another sooner or later. Particularly if sufficient time were to be devoted to chess to produce the claimed improvement in general educational performance.

JPS said...

"... if chess were to take up any time in the curriculum, I think they'd necessarily find themselves competing with one another sooner or later."

If a kid lacks time to concentrate seriously on both chess and music (and even sports), at least for a couple of years, then something seems to be wrong with the whole educational system anyway. Time shouldn't be a decisive factor in this debate.
Furthermore, I think the idea is to deduct the time for chess from the traditional subjects, like mathematics. In Hamburg, where I live, they had this pilot project where each week one hour of mathematics was dedicated to chess instead. It seems to have worked well, although I agree that these empirical studies should be read with great care. Especially the example of Armenia seems a bit pointless to me as long as it is not proven that chess in schools has brought benefits also outside chess. You might even try to prove the opposite, i.e. that the effort currently put into chess is badly lacking elsewhere.

"... is this really based on anything other than chess people wanting more attention paid to chess?"

Some chessplayers might indeed have greaty exagerated hopes for new sources of income and social recognition, but that does not automatically mean the idea is flawed in itself. Egoism and vanity have often been the driving factors of social progress. Besides, who shall promote chess if not the chessplayers? It is also the musicians who promote music.

Jonathan B said...

Third, the idea is not to turn every kid into a happy or unhappy chess-junkie, but just to improve their mental and other skills. So in my view the only valid argument would be to say that chess cannot help in this regard. But recent studies seem to suggest otherwise.

Could you perhaps provide a specific example of a study which demonstrates that playing chess improves academic attainment?

Richard James said...

OK - where should I start?

There's an enormous difference between 'doing' chess and studying chess just as there's an enormous difference between 'doing' music and studying music.

There are plenty of studies which suggest that studying (not 'doing' or playing) chess might have a short-term effect on academic performance but the methodology is in many cases questionable. (I don't know of any genuine double-blind test of chess as a tool for academic improvement.) I don't know of any tests which have looked at the long-term effects of studying chess: perhaps the non-chessers caught up or maybe even overtook the chessers after a year, or 5 years, or 10 years. Nor do I know of any studies comparing the effectiveness of chess to, for example, playing Scrabble, playing poker, learning the violin, practising meditation or doing Brain Gym.

Even if we assume that studying chess is good for you it doesn't follow that we should be promoting chess clubs in schools in which children who have learnt the moves at home will be encouraged to play low-level chess. We might or might not want to do that anyway but there's no reason to expect that children attending this sort of club will gain any academic benefit from it.

I'm all in favour of promoting chess for children, but instead of going about it in scattergun fashion let's think about exactly what we want to achieve and how best to achieve it.

Jonathan B said...

"There are plenty of studies which suggest that studying (not 'doing' or playing) chess might have a short-term effect on academic performance but the methodology is in many cases questionable."

This is exactly why I asked. While they're are plenty of people willing to say 'research evidence' of some kind supports the idea of the educational benefits of chess, I've yet to see anything that remotely backs-up the claim.

This doesn't mean they don't exist - and I'd be genuinely pleased to read of one that does - but what you normally get is a link to a webpage that lists 'studies' without giving any details of methodology that are supposed to have been used (the most questionable methodology of all) and without giving any details of where - if anywhere - the alleged study was published.

I find the many claims of a research base without any *evidence* of a research base very curious indeed. Perhaps our friend JPS will buck the trend.

Richard James said...

The study everyone quotes is this: - but it's very easy to pick holes in the methodology.

Jonathan B said...

Thanks for the link. Where was this published Richard?

Richard James said...

It's been widely available for many years - local businessman Stanley Grundy read this in the early 1990s and as a result started the Richmond Chess Initiative. Every time I questioned the value of what was happening in school chess clubs he waved this at me and told me I must be wrong. It didn't occur to him that he was promoting 'doing' chess whereas the paper concerned studying chess.

Another committee member, a former (and future) headteacher and, at that time, a schools inspector, was very critical of the methodology of the study.

Jonathan B said...

Thanks again.

Does "widely available" mean "lobbed out onto the internet"? Do I take it that the 'study' has not actually been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal?

Richard James said...

Good question - it's dated 1991 but a quick search doesn't come up with any reference to where it was first published. It was certainly widely distributed and publicised at the time - which is how Stanley Grundy, not a chess player, found out about it.

There's also this, for instance:

The 1979-1983 Venezuela ``Learning to Think Project,'' which trained 100,000 teachers to teach thinking skills and involved a sample of 4,266 second grade students, reached a general conclusion that chess, methodologically taught, is an incentive system sufficient to accelerate the increase of IQ in elementary age children of both sexes at all socio-economic levels.

Note the words METHODOLOGICALLY TAUGHT. I'm sure that there is SOME benefit in teaching chess methodologically - which is very much how it's taught in other countries. (I'd be interested to hear from Justin about what happens in Spain.) But it's not how we teach chess here. Instead dad shows little Johnny the moves in half an hour so that he can join the school chess club.

In effect we're using studies which report results gained from teaching chess methodologically to justify encouraging school chess club where chess will be taught, if at all, in the wrong way, and encouraging parents to teach children in the wrong way so that they can join these clubs.

My conclusion, from thinking about this for many years, is that this approach is wrong and is one of the main reasons for the decline in English chess over the past 30 years.

JPS said...

Can't offer any water-tight evidence either, unfortunately. The mentioned project in Hamburg was generally regarded as a success, but I don't know to what extent it would withstand scientific scrutiny.

I mainly wanted to make the point that it seems at least very plausible that chess is beneficial for kids, and highly improbable that it could have a damaging effects on them. So why not go ahead with some well designed projects on a smaller scale and see what happens? There is very little to lose, but a lot to gain.

ejh said...

We kind of need to know what proponents of chess in schools actually want, specifically, to happen. Do they - and of course, "they" may have all sorts of different views - just mean chess clubs? If so, what's meant by chess clubs? (And in what kind of schools?)

If it means providing a few sets so that kids who want to can play - much the sort of thing we had in my secondary school - then that's fine, I can't imagine any objection. But the problem is, once you start getting on to teaching chess in schools, I find my automatic reaction (and, come to that, my considered reaction) is - why not teach almost anything else creative? Music? Poetry? Painting? Cookery?

Why chess? Of course chess should be available and accessible to kids, if they and their parents wish it. Outside school. But haven't schools got many better things they can offer to teach to children?

Jonathan B said...

it seems at least very plausible that chess is beneficial for kids

I'm afraid I don't find that plausible at all. I suspect chess is fun for children who enjoy it. That's probably it. I see no reason why chess should be particularly good for children - i.e. all children. Certainly not as good as teaching them how to count and spell.

Anonymous said...

Another question is - Why just Chess. If you're going to place 1 traditional strategy game into the curriculum, why aren't you adding Bridge, Poker, Go, Mancala, even say Age of Empires. There is nothing in Chess that makes it especially superior to any other traditional game. Creating a wider range might actually allow you to create a proper academic treatment of the subject, rather than an obvious shallow attempt by some to force people to play their favourite game.

Richard James said...

JPS - do you know what teaching methods were used in Hamburg. I know that the Dutch Steps Method - which is, as the name suggests, a methodological, step by step approach, is popular in Germany.

Justin - you're asking the right question: what exactly do we mean and want by 'chess in schools'? There are lots of ways of doing chess in schools and we should explain that choice. In principle there's not much wrong with getting some sets and encouraging kids to play but a) there needs to be somewhere (a junior chess club for younger kids) they can go if they want to take the game further and b) we should be giving parents advice on the best way of teaching chess. It's exactly this casual approach to chess for young kids, though, which, from the evidence I've seen, both locally and nationally over the past 30 years, has done much to lower the standards of chess in this country.

Jonathan - I don't entirely agree with you. The way we're doing chess at the moment you're right, it's fun for kids but nothing else. If you look at what happens in other countries, though, things are very different. I think the type of system used in the Netherlands, Russia and elsewhere is much better, although I suspect you may well not agree.

Anon - again I don't agree. I think chess does have unique teaching properties. It's quite possible to write a chess course for beginners which breaks down the different cognitive skills (and indeed life skills) used in chess and teaches each one separately while also introducing the pieces and also provides the sort of cross-curricular links which many schools like. In fact I'm writing just such a course myself and will be piloting it at school with a small group of 6 and 7 year olds starting next week. I really don't think you could do the same thing with any other game.

Mike G said...

Arguably schools should (at least) intruduce children to a wider choice of activities which might enrich their lives once they have left. The real question is why we spend so much time teaching them things which are of no real use to them in their future lives and make no lasting impression on them.

(I know it is all supposed to be about imparting basic skills and putting them in touch with (our) culture, but it doesn't really work for most, does it?)

Anonymous said...

Richard James - would you mind giving an example (or two) of a skill that would be present in Chess, but not present in another traditional strategy game?

I'd find it hard to imagine that Shogi and Chess didn't share common skills. Spatial control, square of the pawn, Fork, all techniques present in Go.

JPS said...

Richard, unfortunately I don't know which method was used in Hamburg. On the internet you can find a lot of press articles who covered the story, but I didn't find anyting very specific. But I think the main protagonist was Björn Lengwenus, who is a highly respected school/chess teacher and who was also involved in the creation of the "Fritz und Fertig", the very sucessful PC-programme that teaches chess to kids.
In one article they also referred to a study conducted by the University of Trier, but again I don't know if and where it has been published. Probably it would be a good idea to create some international network where information on the subject can be shared.
The comparisons to Go, Shogi etc. some people are making here I find a bit pointless.The claim is not that chess is the best and noblest of all strategic games.But it happens to be the game that is best known in Europe and has the longest tradition (if the others have a tradition here at all).If Go is shown to be the ultimate game in terms of developing mental skills, I will be delighted. But it is not the task of chessplayers to prove this. We can only show what our game has to offer.

Richard James said...

Mike G - I have a lot of sympathy with your views, but that's a whole different discussion.

Anon - I think you didn't quite understand my point. I'm not just talking about chess skills but about thinking and learning skills such as decision making, logic, concentration and focus, long-term and short-term memory, impulse control. I'm also talking about cross-curricular links with Maths, English, Art, Science, Humanities, Languages etc. as well as the opportunity to develop social skills and make friends by joining clubs and taking part in competitions. I'm sure Shogi and Go offer just as much in terms of teaching game skills and quite probably as much in terms of more general teaching/learning skills, but, at least in this country, you will have a lot fewer opportunities to make new friends by meeting others who share your interest. So I would say that, within the Western culture, no other game matches chess in the combination of advantages it offers if it is taught correctly, and that it is therefore a very powerful learning tool. (But if you just teach kids the moves in 10 minutes so that they can play some fun games with their friends you will get virtually none of these benefits.) In Japan or Korea, for instance, you might well choose Shogi or Go for cultural reasons.

JPS - thanks for the further information on the Hamburg study. Fritz und Fertig/Fritz & Chesster includes, IIRC, quite a lot of pre-chess activities.

Anonymous said...

If you want to use Chess as a medium to teach Children how to think, well yes, I imagine you could. It doesn't feel very genuine though, there is a distinct air of "and you know Johnny, in a way, Chess is just like Jesus too..". As you admit, other traditional strategy games can be used to teach exactly the same skills, which was my point. :) Really, this still feels like shoehorning Chess into the curriculum in order to get people to play it. If you're going to use strategy games to teach children how to think, i'd prefer a wider range to be used. I'd actually prefer a more academic treatment of strategy, but I suppose that wouldn't be welcome in schools these days.

Nick said...

A lot of countries nowadays have already incorporated chess to their school curriculum. This is due to the mental development it brings to the younger people more especially kids. Parents must be the first ones to encourage their kids to learn how to play chess. Later on, when they're in school they will have better discipline and focus towards their lessons.