The Smartest Kids

In her new book The Smartest Kids in the World (Simon & Schuster 2013), journalist Amanda Ripley, trying to find out why the US lags behind other countries in international education statistics, follows three American students who spend a year at school abroad, in Finland and South Korea, two countries with very different education systems but which both feature regularly at or near the top of international league tables, and in Poland, a country with a rapidly improving education system.

There’s nothing directly about chess in the book, but perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from Ripley’s conclusions.

The first point she makes is that the countries that are most successful are those which teach critical thinking in maths, science and reading. Their students were learning to solve problems rather than just remember facts. I think there are several lessons we as chess teachers can learn from this. Firstly, we should teach chess in terms of solving puzzles rather than just memorising openings, traps, patterns or procedures. Memorisation is important and can be useful but it’s only part of learning chess. Using critical thinking as well, children learn to ask questions about the possible advantages and disadvantages of each move we consider rather than just playing the first move that comes to mind. If we’re using this sort of chess instruction we can then, if we choose, promote chess as a means of teaching critical thinking.

The next point is that countries with a successful education system see teaching as a valued profession. Teachers have to be highly qualified, not only in their subject, but in the whole process of teaching. I made the point two weeks ago that chess courses for children should be written by a combination of players, teachers and psychologists. Many books which are marketed as being suitable for children are actually adult books with added cartoons, which do not take into account the fact that young children do not learn and process information in the same way as adults. These books are usually written by strong players with little or no experience of teaching beginners. Again, if you’re a strong player, a nice person and good with children, the members of your after-school chess clubs will have a good time, but unless their parents are exceptionally supportive they won’t become good players, and much of what you teach them may well be counter-productive because they’ll just remember things out of context.

Ripley also proposes that the purpose of schools should be for education: sports and other extracurricular activities should take place outside school, in clubs or community centres, and shouldn’t be run by schoolteachers. Many American schools, she suggests, are more interested in success on the sports field than in academic rigour and success. Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin, in G is for Genes, the book I considered last week, put forward a different model: of schools running extracurricular activites after hours.

The final point I’d like to consider is that of the role of parents in education. In the US, parents tended to support their children by joining the PTA and getting involved in the school’s extracurricular activities. Korean parents, on the other hand, were coaches: “…they spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder.”

“This type of education”, Ripley adds, “was typical in much of Asia – and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States”. It’s noticeable that a large number of the top young chess players in the US, and also in countries such as Canada and Australia, are Chinese, and here in the UK many of the top players are of Indian or Sri Lankan origin. A child who does no chess other than one game a week at primary school and possibly the occasional game at home against a parent with little knowledge of the game, will make little progress. Children of this age will be too young to teach themselves, so if we want to produce young players who are successful and take a lasting interest in the game we have to find a way of involving parents in the learning process.

I’ll write a lot more about these issues in future posts. I think they’re of vital importance in considering how we should teach and promote chess. For now, consider young Harmony Zhu, from Toronto, Canada. Last month she became the World Girls’ Under 8 Champion. Here’s a short game:

But chess is not Harmony’s only talent. She also plays the piano.

Like this.

I’ll just leave you with one more thought. Do you consider improving children’s IQ, maths and reading scores the only purpose of education? Or even the most important purpose of education?

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 ( or 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 ( 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.