Notation

Two articles about education caught my eye recently. The first one concerned science education, and asked at what age children could be taught Scientific Method. You can read it here. Most young children enjoy science at school, particularly if it involves experiments producing bangs or smells. At one level science is about understanding how the natural world works, but in order to become a scientist rather than just learning about science you have to learn how to conduct experiments, which means understanding Scientific Method.

There’s a connection with chess here in that Scientific Method is one of many thinking skills you’ll use if you’re a proper chess player. If you’re solving a puzzle with a specific aim, such as Mate in 2, you will create a hypothesis, that a particular move is the answer, test it by checking all possible replies, and either accept or reject your hypothesis. If you reject the hypothesis you must formulate an alternative hypothesis. (Returning for a moment to the Chess Heroes project, this is explained in Checkmates for Heroes.)

It’s an interesting subject and the author of the article doesn’t claim to have an answer.

Similar discussions have taken place over the years concerning history teaching. Should you just tell children about history or should you teach them how to become a historian: how to assess primary and secondary sources. When I was at school you just learnt about history, but, looking at secondary school history books (there are lots of them in the classrooms where Richmond Junior Club meets), I see that there’s an emphasis on evaluation of sources.

Should you spend time teaching young (perhaps pre-school) children, how to become a scientist or a historian, or just about science and history. I don’t know for certain, but, given the amount of fake news and bad science available on the Internet, I rather suspect you should.

A few days earlier, the normally sedate world of classical music was thrown into turmoil by an article by Charlotte C Gill, protesting that music was taught in an over academic way, with too much emphasis on notation. “This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education.”

The pianist and blogger Ian Pace, incidentally a specialist in avant-garde music, sent off a reply which has, at the time of writing, attracted over 700 signatories. Among many other responses was a blog post from Frances Wilson, a pianist and teacher from my part of the world.

Although I’m a music lover, not a musician, there’s a lot I could say, particularly about the assumption that learning notation, or placing ‘classical’ (serious, art or whatever you want to call it) music above pop, rap, house or grime, is in some way elitist. You may well think that the elite will always exist, so promoting anti-elitist education policies will only make it harder for others to join the elite. But for now I’ll return to chess.

In chess, just as in music, we have notation, although its function is rather different. Music notation tells us what to play whereas chess notation is a way of recording what we have played. But understanding and being fluent and confident with notation also introduces us to the world of chess literature, enabling us to understand, appreciate and learn from the games that others have played. If you want to be either a ‘serious’ chess player or a ‘serious’ musician, however, notation is essential. Chess notation is much easier than music notation, so can be taught younger, although many children will find it hard or ‘boring’. Within the restricted confines of a primary school chess club you’re probably not going to have very much time to go into any detail or expect children to record their own games, but if you run an ‘elitist’ chess club, which you might prefer to describe as a ‘centre of excellence’ you most certainly will insist that all children learn to record their games.

Coming back to the discussion of the difference between being a scientist and knowing about science, or between being a historian and knowing about history, we might want to make a similar difference between being a chess player and knowing about chess.

The children who tell you they enjoy science at school probably just enjoy the experiments: they might think they’re scientists but unless they’re applying scientific principles to their work, they’re not really scientists at all.

Likewise the children who go to their school chess club once a week and enjoy playing chess might think they’re chess players, but unless they’re applying the appropriate cognitive skills rather than just playing more or less random moves, they’re not really chess players at all.

The scientists, historians and musicians are having interesting discussions about what actually makes you a scientist, historian or musician. Perhaps we, as chess players, should be having the same discussion. At one level it’s good to introduce young children to science, history, music or chess in a fun, unchallenging, inclusive way. Beyond that, we have to get the message across to schools, parents and children, that playing random moves is not really playing chess. Yes, there is a chess elite comprising serious competitive players, and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to become a real chess player.

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.