There seems to be a general misunderstanding, at least in this country, about what ‘chess in schools’ means. Let me try to explain.
If you attend the Chess in Schools conference you’ll be informed about what they call Scholastic Chess. Last year it was suggested that Educational Chess might be a better term, as Scholastic Chess, at least in the US, means something totally different. So, for the purposes of this article, at any rate, Educational Chess it is.
Educational Chess has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as you and I know it. Instead it involves using the chessboard and pieces for non-competitive activities across the curriculum. For instance, it might involve very young children using the chessboard to learn about up and down, left and right, black and white. Slightly older children might learn songs and dances explaining the moves of each piece, which could be used both in Music and PE. Beyond that, children might spend time in maths lessons working collaboratively to solve puzzles based on subsets of chess: for instance the Eight Officer’s Puzzles. Here’s a recent report on a major project of this nature.
Now you might well think this sounds great: all children will learn how to play chess in a fun way which will also have other benefits across the curriculum.
You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting it as an activity for very young children, and that this will be counter-productive in terms of encouraging older children and adults to take chess seriously.
I have no very strong views one way or the other myself as to the effectiveness of this approach as I have no personal experience. There are, to the best of my knowledge, very few schools here in the UK using this sort of method.
I would, however, question whether or not there are more important skills that 21st century schools should be teaching children, and whether or not these methods are the best way to teach music, PE, maths or whatever.
Wearing my Chess Hat I can see that it’s wonderful to teach all children to play chess. But if I take off my Chess Hat and put on my Education Hat instead there are all sorts of questions I might choose to ask.
What happens in most primary schools, at least in my part of the world, is very different. There are a small number of schools who take chess seriously and see it as part of the life of the school. But in most cases the only chance children have to learn or play is an after-school club running for an hour once a week. These tend to be geared towards low-level competitive chess such as the heats of the UK Chess Challenge. Children who are getting help at home will do well at this level and make progress. Children who are not getting much help will make little progress, but will have fun and enjoy winning their fluffy mascots.
Now you might well think this sounds great: children are introduced to competitive chess at a fairly early age, and those who show talent will be able to qualify for higher level competitions and will perhaps be encouraged to join more serious chess clubs.
You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting competitive chess as being suitable for mass participation by young children, and that, by promoting a structure in which the vast majority of children won’t get very far, you’re actually lowering the standards of chess.
I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on this, and, if you know me or if you read my articles, you’ll be aware of my views. However, it’s where we are, and it’s clearly better than nothing.
Other countries take a different approach: one specifically designed to produce strong players. Armenia has been doing this for some time, as recently reported here by the BBC. I must say the mothers and grandmothers waiting for their children to finish their games don’t look terribly excited. Leonard Barden pointed out on the English Chess Forum that there’s little evidence that, despite the claims made in this article, there’s no evidence that Armenia are producing many – or any – exceptionally talented young players. The closest match I can find to ‘Mikhael’ has a rating of 1550 and is ranked 1165th in the world for Under 12s. Of course it’s possible there may be some strong players not taking part in FIDE rated competitions: the old Soviet methods disapproved of young children playing in rated events.
Now you might well think that this sounds great: what could be more admirable than producing a generation of ‘chess whizz kids’? Your country will have lots of grandmasters, win lots of Olympic medals and encourage more young players to take up chess.
You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re taking up two lessons a week which could be better used for something else. My understanding is that one of the chess lessons replaced a PE lesson, which would have been great for me, but not necessarily for everyone. You might also ask what happens to the young children who show promise but fail to make the grade.
Another country taking a similar approach is Turkey. I recently saw some photos of a Turkish junior tournament posted on Facebook. I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking bunch of young people.
So, there you go. If you want to talk about ‘chess in schools’ it’s a good idea to be aware of what sort of ‘chess in schools’ you’re talking about.