Knowledge and Skills

A few weeks ago a poster on the English Chess Forum posed a question about whether chess education should be based on skills or knowledge. I was tempted to answer but before I got round to it the discussion on that thread had moved onto something else, so I decided to write a blog post instead.

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘skills’, doesn’t it?

When you think about chess skills you might interpret it as the ability to put knowledge into practice. For instance, I may know the basic procedure for delivering checkmate with bishop and knight against king, but not necessarily have the skill to put it into practice with my clock ticking in a quickplay finish. We’re talking here about domain-specific chess skills.

You might also think about the cognitive and executive function skills you need to play chess well: the ability to handle complex abstract logic, concentration, impulse control.

But I suspect the poster meant neither of these type of skills, but rather the skill of, if you like, thinking like a chess player. How to consider what will happen next. How to choose between alternatives. How to make decisions. How to solve problems. And this is precisely what the worldwide scholastic chess movement is aiming to do, claiming that using chess in this way will ‘make kids smarter’. Compare the knowledge of history or science with the skill of thinking like a historian or a scientist. (‘Scholastic chess’, in this sense, means using subsets of chess as a learning tool in the classroom, and has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as played in clubs and tournaments. Its proponents, however, will hope that many children will want to move onto competitive chess later, and, having learnt both the basic rules and the required thinking skills,

You’re probably aware that there’s been a continuing debate over many decades about the respective merits of ‘traditional’, knowledge based learning versus ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’, skill based learning, particularly within primary schools. My views, as they do on many subjects, occupy what I’d like to consider the sensible middle ground. Yes, I can see the merits of ‘traditional’ education where children sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, and there’s an emphasis on rote learning, facts, worksheets: after all it’s what I grew up with, and it served me well enough at least in my early years. But some children, in some subjects, will benefit from a more progressive approach where children sit round tables working in groups to develop skills and solve problems, because, after all, the traditional education I had eventually failed me. But that’s a story for another time and place.

The countries that regularly top the international league tables, though, tend to take an extreme view. Finland, for example, considered by many to have the best education system in the world, uses ‘progressive’ methods. Here’s a recent article outlining a proposed move away from a subject-based curriculum to a project-based curriculum. On the other hand, the East Asian countries which excel at maths use extremely ‘traditional’ methods.

The scholastic chess movement, it seems to me, is much more suited to ‘progressive’ than ‘traditional’ education. It ties in very much with the idea of children working together to solve a problem and aims to promote the skills of a chess player, as opposed to chess playing skills. On the other hand, worksheet based courses, such as the Steps Method, or the methods used in the former Soviet Union, focus mainly on domain-specific chess skills. There are many other courses, such as my old chessKIDS academy course, which are specifically knowledge based.

The education blogger David Didau is very much in favour of traditional education. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, his posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking. Here he’s discussing ways of reframing the debate between the two methods. You might think he’s actually presenting three different false dichotomies, but it will certainly make you think. Here he visits the controversial Michaela School in North West London, which favours fairly extreme traditional teaching methods. Didau is no fan of educational fads and has in the past been critical of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, Brain Gym and VAK (Verbal Auditory Kinaesthetic) teaching. He’s never written about chess in the classroom, and, while I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, I rather suspect he’d be sceptical.

My view is this: either type of teaching can be successful, but it’s much easier to teach effectively using traditional, rather than progressive methods. To be successful, though, a school has to decide what it’s doing and stick with it, not being swayed by the latest fads, not reacting to parents knocking on your door telling you should do this or that, and trying not to be affected by the ever changing diktats of different education ministers.

Furthermore, there’s a general misunderstanding of the nature of child-centred teaching. There’s been for several decades now, both here in the UK and perhaps also in the US, a rather vague ‘niceness’ about much of primary school education, an obsession with ‘fun’ rather than serious, rigorous work. Many people feel that, unless you make a subject ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ you won’t get children interested. It seems that parents no longer ask their children “What did you learn in school today?” but “Did you have fun in school today?”. And it was probably wishy-washy liberal baby boomers like me who were responsible for this. Which is why, when I suggest to parents of children in school chess clubs, that they should do some serious work on chess at home, they reply that they don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t be ‘fun’. But we all know that primary school age children who receive proactive parental support can do very well, but those who lack that support will make little progress and soon give up. It seems to me that one reason why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in junior chess is the mistaken ethos supported by both teachers and parents, that education for young children should be ‘fun’.

To return to the original question, chess is, like maths, by its nature a knowledge-based discipline. Most non-players are unaware of the amount of knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that exists, and fail to understand that a player with some of that knowledge will almost always beat an equally talented player who is making it up as he or she goes along. You might want to use chess to teach both non-chess skills and chess-related cognitive skills, although that will depend on your educational philosophy. Children will only do well at chess if, as well as those two skill types, they are putting a serious effort into acquiring domain-specific chess skills.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.