T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

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.