Worth a check, mate
It’s a game of strategy, patience and calculation, but can chess help children with their academic studies? And should it be taught at school? Andrew Hankinson hears the arguments for and against
Can playing chess improve children’s academic prospects?
At the ATL teaching union’s conference in April, Hank Roberts, a retired teacher and former president of the union, suggested that chess should be taught in schools. And it wasn’t the first time he’d brought it up at the conference. On a previous occasion he’d made a speech that included the paragraph: “Chess covers or comes into many areas of the curriculum. It’s not just about kings, queens, rooks, etc – it’s about quadrants and coordinates, thinking strategically and foreseeing consequences. It’s about lines and angles, weighing options and making decisions.
It’s about teaching patience.”
At this year’s conference, he ad-libbed a speech and was met with resistance from a critic who queried why chess was special compared with other board games.
“Chess is a worldwide game with set rules,” he now answers, a few months on from the conference. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what colour or creed you are.”
He fears British pupils are missing out on the learning power and global experience.
“At one time, there were the Russians and then us in the chess world. [Now] we have virtually disappeared from it,” he says, “and that’s because of the number of young kids getting involved.”
To some, embracing chess may seem a bizarre suggestion; an unnecessary and pointless addition to an already crowded timetable. To others – those who think like Roberts – it is pure common sense. So who’s right?
Traci Whitfield, director of Junior
Chess and Education at the English Chess Foundation, is, unsurprisingly, on Roberts’ side. She says that the current state of chess in schools is mixed.
“We used to have an awful lot of chess in secondary schools, grammar schools, going way back, which was quite often primarily run by sixth formers,” she explains. “That culture has tended to go into abeyance. I suppose it’s disappeared somewhat.”
In primary schools, however, she said “the reverse trend has occurred”.
Across the age groups, there are still significant numbers of young people playing chess; she says that about 50,000 children entered the national Chess Challenge competition last year. And those children have an advantage over their peers, she says.
“If a child can develop the ability to concentrate and focus, they’re more likely to get better results at school because they can revise better,” she argues. “[With chess], they develop better memory processes, it improves calculation and pattern-spotting. Chess is an awful lot about spotting patterns and looking at lines and quadrants, and that’s really good for maths.”
Sounds promising. But the evidence to back up that claim is, apparently, a little flaky.
Fernand Gobet, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Liverpool, along with psychologist Giovanni Sala, reviewed existing studies into the cognitive benefit of learning chess. When asked if there is a benefit, Gobet replies: “Probably not.”
Gobet believes most of the studies showing otherwise were flawed.
“Typically there’s a comparison between one group learning how to play chess and the control group, which is simply children who don’t do anything special. But you need a third group – a placebo group – to control for effects of expectation or things like that.”
Gobet and Sala conducted their own analysis, which was published in June. In this
test, they had a group of children playing chess, an active control group playing checkers, and a passive control group. In another experiment, the active control group played the board game Go.
“In both cases, there was absolutely no effect at all,” says Gobet.
So chess should not be taught in schools?
“If you expect that by teaching chess you are going to have huge improvements in academic outcomes, I don’t think it’s the case,” he replies. “It depends on your goal. If your goal is to make children better in mathematics, English and so on, you should teach them mathematics and English, not chess.”
There is belief in the power of chess beyond direct impact on academic subjects, though: competition, patience and thought.
“I think there are some things about chess that are good for children’s understanding of the world, in that if you win it’s only because of what you’ve done, and if you lose it’s only because of what you’ve done,” says John Stanier, an assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon. “You can’t blame the weather or what you’ve had for breakfast.”
He adds that in schools “where there’s a tendency to overpraise pupils or pretend they haven’t failed when they have”, it helps children to “realise, in a safe environment, that it’s actually because you didn’t think hard enough or you didn’t practise hard enough that you win or lose”.
He continues: “There’s a really strong message through chess about how through effort and in-depth thinking you can improve. There’s also the strategising element of it, so being able to predict what’s going to happen and being able to make contingency plans for what’s going to happen.”
The benefits have persuaded Stanier that chess should be on the curriculum. He says it only takes him an hour to teach the students to play, and it gives children not already on sports teams experiences they would be unlikely to have otherwise, such as visiting other schools to compete.
He recalls one visit to a local private school: “The children on the minibus were going, ‘Oh my God, it looks like Hogwarts,’ and they treated us to supper after the match in a wooden panelled hall. For the children to experience that was amazing. These are children that probably wouldn’t represent the school at anything, yet here they are enjoying huge amounts of success.”
Whether it should be given lesson time, in the wake of Gobet’s research, is, of course, another matter. But that will continue to be debated by people like Roberts and Stanier. So far they’re doing it in a very considered, logical and strategic manner – they are chess players, after all.
Andrew Hankinson is a freelance journalist