Common Ground

One of the key points I make to new chess teachers is the idea of getting to know your student’s interests outside of chess. There’s a very good reason for this and it has to do with your ability to convey knowledge in the most efficient way. Your job as a teacher is explain something in terms that the student will fully understand. Teaching is not a one size fits all affair in which everyone learns in the same fashion. Some people are more visual learners for example. Visual learners need to make learning connections visually. A child who is a visual learner would have an easier time understanding the basics of addition if they were able to use physical (visual) objects such as wooden blocks to represent the quantities involved in the problem they’re trying to solve. They could easily see that if you had two blocks to start and added two more blocks to the pile, you’d now have four blocks. However, you’ll never know whether or not a student is a visual learner unless you get to know a little about the way in which they think.

Knowing how a student thinks means getting to know something about them, namely their interests outside of the subject you’re teaching them. What a student is interested in or has a passion for can tell you a great deal about how they think in terms of learning, more specifically what sparks their thought process. A person’s thought process is ultimately what allows them to learn a subject. Connect with this way of thinking (thought process) and you’ll be able to tailor your lessons for that student.

Case in point, I have a high school student who loves studying diseases (he loves The Addams Family as well). He is a walking encyclopedia of every dreadful microbe known to humankind. Through my own amateur microbiology studies, I can hold my own with this young man when it comes to discussing Ebola, for example. One day, we were talking about the idea that a single bad move can lead to a slow positional death on the chess board. Wanting to drive this point home, I suggest that a bad move was comparable to being exposed to the very microbes that cause the common cold or flu. When you get exposed to a bug (microbe), you don’t get sick immediately. The illness comes later on after the virus that causes the cold or flu has had a chance to do its damage behind the scenes. He suddenly got it. Like the virus that slowly sets up shop within the human body, making things worse and worse until you’re stuck in bed day’s later, sick as a dog, bad moves can slowly do cumulative damage. I use sports analogies for those students who are sports fans when trying to explain an idea on the chessboard. It doesn’t matter what the student’s interest is. What matters is first discovering that student interest and then creating an analogy based on it. You’re now speaking in terms the student can understand.

This is why you should make a point of getting to know what your students like to do away from the chessboard. Providing them key chess ideas via familiar territory, something the student already knows and understands, allows them to soak up the information in a familiar environment. This allows them to strengthen their new found knowledge because it’s built on an already established intellectual foundation. Difficult concepts make sense when there are familiar landmarks to guide one’s thought process.

I’ve always been a student, perpetually taking colleges classes all my adult life. Just as important as learning is knowing how to learn. Successful learning comes down to finding the learning techniques best suited to your brain’s wiring. Again, we all learn differently. Fortunately, chess is a very visual game with pattern recognition being a key factor. However, this visual nature doesn’t automatically make it an easy game to master. Because I teach chess five days a week, I’ve gotten fairly good at recognizing patterns. I mention this because I sometimes catching myself wondering why a student isn’t seeing something I see so clearly. Then I remember, I’ve had more experience in this department than my student. Teachers should always be on guard when it comes to going over a student’s head, knowledge-wise, or expecting them to easily understand something you know inside out.

You can simply approach teaching pattern recognition as an exercise in basic geometry. However, some students don’t think in this way. You need to determine how they’re seeing the situation and what interest they have that you can turn into an analogy. This means asking questions and honing in on a teaching solution. Plenty of my students love American Football. Therefore, if I can turn the geometrical aspects of pattern recognition into game plays made by opposing football teams, I can make the recognition of patterns easier for my students. All it takes are a few simple questions to create an analogy your students will understand.

The other important reason for getting to know your students interests is to keep them engaged during your classes. I regularly ask students how a given chess concept would apply to something they’re interested in off of the chessboard. I use a Socratic method of teaching where a chess lecture can turn into a five way discussion regarding the issue. Common ground allows you bring your students into the lesson rather than simply having them sit through it (they get enough of that from their so called teachers during the day). Talk to your students. Get to know what interests them and you’ll find a more successful path towards chess enlightenment (for both you and your students). Here’s a game to mull over until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).