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

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

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”.

Spot­ting pat­terns

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

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