Questions, Questions

Many years ago, before I was paid to teach chess, I worked in the market research industry. One thing you learn from working in market research is how to ask questions.

We can ask questions where the respondent chooses from a list of possible answers. These could be fact (“Are you male or female?”) or preference (“If there was a General Election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”). We can ask questions where more than one answer is possible (“Which newspapers did you read yesterday?”). We can ask open-ended questions where respondents can, if they choose, give many answers (“What do you like about this car?”). We can also use Likert Scales to determine strength of feeling (“Do you strongly agree, slightly agree, neither agree or disagree, slightly disagree or strongly disagree that chess should be taught on the primary school curriculum?”). We can then analyse these answers by various demographics: it’s long been a standing joke in the industry that all market researchers are broken down by age and sex.

If we’re devising a chess course for young children based on worksheets we can also ask different types of question. Typically, most questions will be task-oriented: checkmate in one move with the queen, for instance. By making the task less specific we can make the question harder: we might specify “checkmate in one move” but not the piece to be moved. We could use the same position to ask “Find a knight move forking king and queen”, “Find a knight fork”, “Find a fork”, or “Find the best move”.

We can develop our students’ depth of vision by moving then on, when they are ready, from mates in 1 to mates in 2, 3 or more moves. From one-move tactics they will learn two-move tactics and gradually learn to tackle puzzles of increasing depth and complexity.

Indeed, many worksheet-based courses are based almost entirely on this sort of puzzle. But perhaps we’re missing a trick here. There are other types of question we can ask our students which will train different chess skills along with providing a wider variety of activities to make the course more stimulating and enjoyable.

Task-oriented questions are ideal for tactics training and developing depth of vision. But there’s more to chess than that. Defending is just as important as attacking, but it’s very hard to find defensive questions where there is only one correct move. Children in the early stages of their chess development also need to learn about safety and practise finding safe moves. We might want to test understanding of positional play at a very basic level. We also want to develop our students’ breadth of vision along with their depth of vision.

We can do all this and more by using multiple choice questions: a question type with which most children will be very familiar from school.

If we’re teaching young children we start by keeping it simple: just two choices. As children develop we add a third option, then a fourth option. Young children usually find it very hard to consider more than one move at the same time. Multiple choice questions will, by their very nature, get children into the habit of doing this (and if they’re too young to do this, I’d argue that they’re too young to be playing chess). We present a simple position and offer a choice of two moves. We might at first specify the criterion to be used to make a choice, but later on we might not. Perhaps one move is safe and the other isn’t. Perhaps one move meets our opponent’s threat but the other move doesn’t. Perhaps one move is positionally desirable (1. e4) but the other isn’t (1. h4). Perhaps one move is a winning tactic but the other isn’t. Almost any position in any game can be used in this way to produce a multiple choice question.

While simple task-oriented questions are ideal for developing tactical ability, multiple choice questions can be used for very much more than this. They’re also more realistic: when you’re playing a tournament game you don’t get someone coming up to you telling you there’s a mate in 2 there.

We can also take this concept further. A popular feature in many magazines invites the reader to predict the moves in a master game. You receive points if you find the same move as the master, or an alternative good move.

We’d like our students to be able to play a game of chess against a knowledgeable opponent on a regular basis, but if there’s no one suitable at home, they won’t be able to play enough to improve. So we give them “How Good is Your Chess” exercises which parents can work through at home with their children.

To start with, these will be very short games, maybe 8-12 moves, and not necessarily played by masters. Many very low level games are suitable for beginners. In some cases it will be good to ask questions from both sides of the board. We might start with simple two-choice questions but at some point we’ll also include some open-ended questions where several moves might score points.

One of my projects at the moment is to produce coaching materials for beginners along these lines. I’d be very interested to hear from any fellow chess teachers who might be interested in producing material along these lines.

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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.