Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Richard James On Junior Chess: 3. It's Good For Kids, Isn't It

This is the third in a series of guest posts by Richard James. If you haven't already read the first two, you'll find them here and here (or just scroll down).

Richard James on Junior Chess

5. Chess makes children smarter

There are a number of studies in the public domain which claim that ‘chess is good for you’, and these are often used as a means of justifying chess in schools. But, quite apart from the dubious methodology of many of these studies (I don’t know of any genuine ‘double blind’ chess studies in which neither the children nor the teachers were aware that they were part of the study) they claim to demonstrate the benefits of learning and studying chess, not specifically of playing chess. Nor do I know of any studies which followed up the students after a few years to discover whether the academic benefits were temporary or permanent, or considered whether the improvement was caused by the teacher or the subject. Nor do I know of any studies that compared chess with other games or activities in terms of academic benefit.

Anecdotal evidence from Twickenham Preparatory School suggests that strategy games, generally, are beneficial, but that chess is not the best choice for everyone. So perhaps schools who want to use chess to make children smarter should instead consider using a wider range of strategy games rather than just chess.

If you stop and think about it, it makes no sense to start a chess club for children who have been taught to play in a non-methodological way because a study claimed that children who have been taught chess methodologically showed academic improvement. The Kasparov Chess Foundation claims that “if taught correctly, chess can be a student’s driving force, helping him/her in every aspect of critical thinking development”. Note the words ‘if taught correctly’. Most children in the UK learn the moves in half an hour or so from a family member or friend. The people who run the Steps Method, for instance, would, I suspect, claim that this is not the correct way to teach chess.

In spite of my reservations about the studies, I suspect that, in some cases, teaching chess in a step by step way can be academically beneficial but it’s not what we’re doing here in the UK at the moment. I would also guess that you’d see more academic improvement in deprived areas than you would in affluent areas where many children are already academically successful, but it is probably in the more affluent areas where you will find more children who are potentially strong players. So before you decide on your chess policy you have to think about what exactly you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve suspected for a long time that these studies are actually counter-productive in that they give the wrong idea about chess and encourage schools and parents to teach their children chess for the wrong reasons. In an affluent, predominately middle-class area such as Richmond, parents are increasingly obsessed with their children’s academic success. They will sign their children up for the school chess club because they think they’ll gain a few IQ points which might help them pass the entrance exams for the secondary school of their choice, but won’t want to do any more than this because the time spent on chess might hamper their chances of academic success. When they’ve got all they can from the game they’ll withdraw their children from the chess club.

One other thing: a lot is said about the perceived academic benefits of chess. There are also considerable social benefits as well. We should be promoting the social as well as the academic benefits when trying to sell chess to parents and teachers. And, perhaps more than that, we should be promoting chess as a fantastic game for older children and adults, but one at which younger children can, in certain circumstances, excel. I really don’t think it’s a good idea to draw absurd conclusions from dubious studies as a way of promoting chess in schools – if indeed that’s what we should be doing. And, as I spent 15 years working for an organisation promoting chess in schools in that way, I’ve been there and done that.

Proposition 5: Learning chess in a methodological way may in some circumstances have a beneficial effect on some children.

6. Chess is a fun game for young children

Well yes, up to a point chess is a fun game for young children. I have no objection at all to children having fun playing games – indeed it’s an integral part of growing up. There are several reasons why I think chess is not the best game to be used for that purpose, and why it is not the best way to use chess, but it’s where we are at the moment, so, to some extent, we’re stuck with it.

Firstly, chess is just too hard for children below the age of about 7. Children, unless they’ve been taught correctly, will spend time arguing over the rules and any legal moves they play will be pretty random. They will gain more benefit, and probably more enjoyment as well, by playing simpler games which are easier to understand and easier to play well. Fortunately, there are lots of simpler games you can play with just some of the chess pieces which will be at least as much fun for children as ‘big chess’ as well as giving them skills which they will be able to use when they are ready to play the full game. One of the problems we have with school chess clubs at the moment is that because children know, or think they know, all the moves, they’re reluctant to play games with just some of the pieces. What seems to happen in the Netherlands is that learning the moves is the responsibility of the chess club, not of the parents. Or, if you prefer, we can provide parents with instructions on how to teach their children and only let them into the club when they are good enough.

Children can also use such games as Noughts and Crosses as preparation for chess. The principle is the same: it’s a two-person zero-sum game which you win if your opponent overlooks your threat or if you make a move which creates two threats at once; which is essentially what chess is, at a very much higher level, as well. Indeed, you could (and I would) argue that there’s not much point in doing too much chess unless you can play Noughts and Crosses well.

The other point is that if you promote chess as a fun game for young children it will automatically make it less attractive for older children, who will see it as ‘uncool’ and demeaning to play a young children’s game.

As anyone who plays competitively knows, chess is, or can be, a very difficult and demanding game for intelligent people who like a mental challenge. The children who just play fun chess at a low level are the ones who, you can be absolutely sure, will quickly get bored and will not take a long-term interest in the game. If you are, or have been, a serious competitive chess player, you might well think, as I do, that it’s rather insulting to suggest that the game to which we devote so much time and which, at least in my case, we play rather badly, is so trivial as to be suitable for 7-year-olds, or even for 5-year-olds.

Proposition 6: Chess is a game at which some young children, in specific circumtances, can excel - but there are many fun games children can play with chess pieces.

7. The more children who learn chess the better

Why? If my first mantra is that every child should have the opportunity to learn chess my second is that every child who wants to learn chess should be taught in the best possible way.

When I asked Cor van Wijgerden, the co-author of the Dutch Steps Method, what he thought of the UK Chess Challenge he replied: “I don’t want to teach 70,000 children to learn to play chess, as Mike Basman apparently does (or I must have 7,000 trainers available) and lose almost all of them (although … the turnover of the first step will rise!) I want to teach 1,000 children and I would like that at least 100 will have a fantastic hobby for the rest of their life. I know that I must raise their playing strength to a certain level otherwise they will quit. So that start must be perfect. Skill developing from the beginning (playing games as in the first 6 lessons of Step 1). Not starting with whole games because chess is too difficult.”

Well, I guess it depends on what you want out of chess. If you just want as many children as possible to have fun playing chess and you’re prepared to sacrifice it as an adult activity then by all means go ahead and teach 70,000 children badly. But if you’re looking to increase the number of serious teenage and adult players, then you should, in the first instance, aim to teach fewer children well rather than more children badly.

What do we mean by teaching children well? According to international experts in early years chess it means starting from first principles, going very slowly, teaching in small groups (4-12 children), following a highly structured and methodical course. What it certainly doesn’t mean is Dad teaching little Johnny the moves in ten minutes so that he can join the school chess club next week and play in the UK Chess Challenge. The implication of Cor van Wijgerden’s answer is that schools and clubs should be teaching absolute beginners, rather than just assuming children can already play. It’s also interesting that, although the Steps method is used in both schools and clubs, he refers to clubs rather than schools.

We need to put across a clear message about what chess is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t, and, as I wrote earlier, to be proactive in identifying children who are mostly likely to benefit from chess. Once we have a system that works we can then go about training more teachers and teaching more children well.

Proposition 7: It’s better to teach a few children well than a lot of children badly.

[Please come back tomorrow (when Richard looks at chess teaching methods), and every day for the rest of this week, for more in the series.]


Jonathan B said...

I really don’t think it’s a good idea to draw absurd conclusions from dubious studies as a way of promoting chess in schools


I was planning an article on the 'research base' Chess in Schools and Communities claim for their activities. Frankly, it's a total embarrassment.

The programme itself might well be a very good one, but I don't see how spouting obvious bullshit helps the cause. Especially, when, as the paragraph that the quote above is taken from makes clear, there are many genuine reasons that it might be a good idea that children learn how to play chess.

Richard James said...

Well, they quote a lot of papers, some of which have some sort of validity. I like the way they refer to papers 'hand-picked' by me when in fact they were written by me.

Most children in most primary school chess clubs, though, just enjoy playing casual games with their friends. They are doing little more than playing random moves and have no real interest in learning to play better. It's just the chess equivalent of kicking a ball around in the playground or splashing around in the shallow end of the pool. Good fun, but, given the level at which they're playing, I really don't see that they are gaining any cognitive benefit from it.

Jonathan B said...

My problem with that page is not so much the articles it links to - although, I'd say that as a general rule if you're really serious about proving something you probably don't want to be citing anything Susan Polgar publishes as evidence - it's the claims that are made for it.

I was at the LCC in December when I picked up a brochure that claimed something along the lines of: there's evidence to prove learning chess makes children smarter. Look at our website for details.

Then, when you look, there's no evidence at all since, as you say, all the studies are hopelessly methodologically flawed - or the methodology isn't described so there's no way to know whether they're flawed or not. Equally often there's no details of where the 'studies' have been published.

J.A. Topfke said...

So Cor van Wijgerden on the one hand criticizes a chess program that will "lose almost all of them", yet on the other hand his goal is a 90% fail rate (100 out of 1000)?

Aim low.

Richard James said...

Hi J.A. and many thanks for your comment.

Actually a 90% dropout rate is good (I wouldn't say 'fail' - I dropped out of piano lessons after 2 or 3 years but I did enough to give me a lifelong interest in music.) What happens these days is that young children start off by trying out a lot of different things and, as they get older, restrict themselves to 2 or 3 major interests so with everything there will be a high drop-out rate. We in the chess community have to promote chess in such a way as to persuade as many kids as possible to make chess one of these major interests.

At present we're very unsuccessful in doing this - our drop-out rate from primary school chess is more than 99%, probably, using CvW's terms, more like 99.9%.