Silence in Class

Last week I asked a question which was posed at the London Chess & Education Conference:

“Silence, Touch Move, Timers: how strict should chess classes be?” We might also ask other questions such as whether or not we have scoresheets, or whether or not we allow children to play Bughouse (Exchange), Suicide and other chess variants?

Thinking about this you might like to bear in mind Neil Postman’s views (as discussed here last week) about the difference between adult play and children’s play and consider which is better for young children.

Well, it depends, doesn’t it, what sort of chess class you’re running. I’ll consider the classes I’m involved with.

After-school chess clubs in my part of London are little more than child-minding sessions. The children just want to be able to play once a week with their friends, and they and their parents, for the most part, are too busy to be able to spend any more time on chess. Even if I offer parents free books and free lessons I don’t get any takers. So how strict should these clubs be? I guess Neil Postman would think they shouldn’t be strict at all. I don’t entirely agree.

First of all, some of these children will take part in external tournaments: some of them will qualify for the Megafinals of the Delancey UK Chess Challenge, where they’ll have to play touch move, and also have to play in silence. So if we introduce the idea of competition in this way we have to be pretty strict about enforcing touch and move for any child able to play a complete game. I’m slightly uneasy about it, for reasons that Postman would have understood, and I’m also uneasy about putting children who know very little about chess into any sort of competition, but it’s where we are and the kids enjoy the fluffy mascots so there’s not much I can do about it.

I think, to be honest, the discipline of touch move is, generally speaking, good for children, as it helps them in developing self-regulatory skills such as impulse control. So, yes, we play touch move in school chess clubs.

Silence is slightly more of a problem. Children have been working hard at school all day and are usually coming straight to the chess club without a break from their last lesson. It seems to me to be verging on cruelty to expect them to spend an hour sitting in silence. On the other hand, if there’s any noise it’s going to be very hard for them to concentrate on their games. Here is the crux of the issue about the difference between adult and children’s play. In some schools the chess club is seen as part of the school day and there is a teacher present in the room to keep noise levels down. In other schools it is seen as something separate from school and the noise level is the chess tutor’s responsibility. Some chess tutors have a strong classroom presence and are able to keep the kids fairly quiet, some, including me (which is why I’ll only do school clubs where a teacher is responsible for discipline) struggle with this, while others don’t mind if there’s a lot of noise as long as they get paid.

Clocks and scoresheets: by and large I don’t use them in schools. If a school is really big on chess, all children learn the moves and they can play at any time, then only the stronger players will join the school club and using clocks and scoresheets would be appropriate. But for most school clubs there’s really no need: children who are serious will be fed through to more serious clubs where they will learn these skills.

Inevitably children at this level will need arbiters, and in this sort of club the chess tutor will also be the arbiter. The role of an arbiter in school chess clubs is mostly to answer questions like ‘is this checkmate?’ and ‘can you remind me how to castle’. In an ideal world children would know all the rules and be able to identify checkmate and stalemate before taking part in a competition, but it’s not where we are, so there’s not much I can do about it.

Whether or not to allow chess variants is another matter on which opinions differ. My view, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. I don’t allow Bughouse at all (and don’t teach it) but have no problem with children, once they’ve finished their tournament game, playing Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess. Some of them will also play mini-games such as variants of Capture the Flag. As far as I’m concerned this is all part of chess culture and shouldn’t be discouraged. Children will often try to invent their own variants, which will usually make little sense: should this be encouraged or not? Neil Postman considered that inventing their own rules is an integral part of children’s play. On the other hand, I have some colleagues who won’t allow any chess variant at all, while, at the other extreme, some let children spend the entire session playing Bughouse.

I’d be interested to hear your views about school chess clubs. More serious chess clubs, such as Richmond Junior Club, are very different. I’ll consider this next week.

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.