The Four Wise Men

The London Chess and Education Conference last month gave me the chance to find out more about the chess study run by the Institute of Education, which, you may recall, did not demonstrate that chess improved children’s academic performance. Unusually, the tests were based on public examinations which the children took a year after the end of the chess course, which may have been one reason for the negative result. Another reason might have been that the children were following a relatively ‘fast’ course designed to get them playing chess fairly quickly (I should know: I wrote it) rather than a course specifically designed to use chess to improve children’s cognitive skills.

We also learned more about recent studies in Italy and elsewhere, but it seems to me that, while most studies demonstrate a short-term improvement in scholastic performance, there is little or no substantive evidence that studying chess provides any long-term academic benefits.

So why is so much effort being put into promoting chess as a learning tool in schools, and even, as we saw last week, using it to introduce very young children to music and movement?

Imagine for a moment you’re the headteacher of a primary school, or, if you’re in, for example, the USA, the principal of an elementary school.

One day four wise men, wise women if you prefer, but I’m writing this a few days after the Feast of Epiphany, come knocking at your door, all bearing gifts.

The first Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of music. I’m going to immerse your school in music, bring music into every lesson in every classroom. Your children will sing in choirs and be able to learn musical instruments. I’ll give your children to listen to music from a wide range of genres and countries: classical, rock, jazz, folk, music from India, China and Africa. I’ll give all your children a passion for music, although I’ll only expect a few to want to take it very seriously. I can also show you a lot of research to demonstrate that learning and listening to music will improve children’s academic performance.”

The second Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of language and culture. I’ll teach all your children to speak and read Mandarin Chinese. The world is getting smaller and China is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage. Being able to communicate in Mandarin Chinese will provide many potential employment opportunities for your children when they grow up. I’ll also introduce them to Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine. They’ll also be able to play Go, a great Chinese game. I’ve also got a lot of evidence to prove that learning a second language from an early age is academically beneficial”

The third Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of philosophy and thinking. I’ll teach children about metacognition – thinking about thinking. I’ll teach them how to reason, how to differentiate between real and fake news, how to concentrate and focus, how to control their impulses. I’ll also demonstrate meditation techniques and introduce them to concepts of philosophy, from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. My course will improve behaviour as well as academic results and will also benefit children’s mental health. I have a lot of peer-reviewed research in front of me to demonstrate the effectiveness of my approach.”

Finally, the fourth Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of chess. I’ll immerse your children in the Royal Game. I’ll introduce your younger children to chess through chess songs and dances, and through doing PE on a black and white squares. Then all children will have one lesson of chess a week instead of maths and I’ll also show you how you can integrate chess into everything else on the curriculum. There’s evidence to show that chess brings some limited short-term academic benefits, and at the end of the course, some of your children will be quite good at moving plastic figures round a chequered board.”

While all four gifts have their attractions, there’s only room on your curriculum for one of them. Which one would you choose?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I guess if I had to make the choice it might depend on what sort of area my school was in, what the intake of pupils was like, and, of course, what costs were involved. But, even though I’m pretty fanatical about chess, I know which one I’d be least likely to choose.

In one of the Conference sessions I put it to the panel that by taking this approach we in the chess world were competing against other activities which claim to ‘make kids smarter’, all of which have their own devotees and apologists. The panel didn’t disagree with me.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of great material out there for schools which really want to go into chess in a big way, much of which I’ve seen over the years at the conference. You can only admire the quality of the products and the effort and dedication of those who produce them. I suppose it’s worthwhile in that there will always be a few schools who want to take this approach. And when they do, the children have a great time: many of them really enjoy playing chess, taking part in competitions and perhaps visiting the London Chess Classic, and some of them eventually compete at a high level. There was a primary school in my area which really went into chess in a big way some 25-30 years ago. Two of their pupils went on to become IMs. I’m not saying it can’t work, more that there are are other, perhaps more important or worthwhile things that schools could do. After all, chess is just a game. An amazingly wonderful game, yes, but not a big thing like music or philosophy.

If it was my decision I’d be looking at very different ways of promoting chess, but it’s where we are, internationally as well as nationally, and I’ll just have to live with it.

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.