You Can Bring a Horse to Water but…

There’s an old saying, “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” That neatly sums up what many chess teachers face, the student who just doesn’t want to learn how to play the game. Of course, in every teaching environment, there’s always at least one student who just isn’t into the subject matter being taught. However, when you’re extremely dedicated to teaching and have even one student who isn’t learning, you ask yourself “what am I doing wrong?” It can eat away at you, causing you to focus on that one failure. Rather than think about the many students who have learned from you, you fixate on the one student that didn’t. I once suffered from this problem but have come up with a way to put your mind at ease when it comes to not reaching every single one of your students.

It’s easy to become discouraged when you first start teaching, especially when you’re not connecting with a student. You question your own skills as a teacher. Teachers want every student to feel as passionate as they do about the subject being taught. One of my greatest joys in life is watching my students debate the merits of an opening or specific move. I teach employing the Socratic Method which encourages debate and verbal exchanges of ideas between teacher and student or student and student. I teach my students to question everything, including what I teach them. They are engaged and love their chess class, well at least 99% of them. This leaves 1% who have been brought to the waters of chess knowledge and refuse to drink!

I’ve been teaching and coaching chess for a while so I know that the overwhelming majority of my students have learned a great deal from me and enjoy their chess classes. However, that one student who doesn’t want to learn troubles me. He or she concerns me because, before I dismiss that student as someone who has no interest in chess (which happens), I need to ensure that I’m not part of the root cause of this lack of interest in chess. Therefore, I ask myself a series of questions to help determine the actual problem.

As teachers, we must always remember that learning is not a “one size fits all” affair. People learn differently from one another. People experience things in a way that are unique to themselves, learning being included in this. Of course, in a classroom environment, there is a general structure that students follow but that structure must be altered, even ever so slightly, to accommodate these unique learning personalities. Thus, the first question I ask myself is “am I getting through to my uninterested student? Is the student having trouble comprehending the information I present to them.? To answer this, I spend some one on one time with the student in question, just the two of us sitting at a chessboard. I will try giving a lesson to this student and determine his or her level of comprehension, again one on one. This can often be the root of the problem, an inability to make sense of the information being presented which leads to frustration and an eventual dislike of the subject matter being taught. One thing I ask of all my students is that, should I give an explanation that doesn’t make sense to them, they should raise their hand and ask me to explain it again, in a different way. Just because one explanation works for the majority of students doesn’t mean everyone will understand it. I keep simplifying my explanation until the student who initially didn’t understand now comprehends it fully.

Some of the students I’ve had trouble engaging have been turned around by lightening things up or presenting chess in terms of real life situations. When I teach in Juvenile Detention Facilities (the polite way of saying jail for teenagers), I present the game of chess using a gang analogy. This makes sense to guys who come from gangs. They understand the the overall game principles I’m teaching them because they have a real life example included in the explanations. I use sports analogies as well. I make a point of finding out what my students interests are outside of their chess class so I can create analogies specifically for them. The only way you can come up with analogies that work is to know something about the students you teach. If you’re teaching a large class, which I do a lot, try asking the question “what’s your favorite sport” to the group. You’ll find that the majority of students will hone in on one particular sport. You now have a basis for your analogies and often the one student that doesn’t show an interest in chess will have a keen interest in sports.

Keep it light as well. Chess needs to be fun for children and teenagers. If you make your lessons dry and boring your students will feel like they’re watching paint dry. I come up with some outlandish stories to accompany the games I use in my lectures. My students are completely engaged. In my classes, it’s not uncommon for a lecture game to have been played between a blind Samurai and a clever Wolf. Engage your students by asking them questions. Don’t stand at a demo board for an hour muttering away and expect your students to stay awake. I’d fall asleep and I love chess. It’s supposed to be fun!

Lastly, you sometimes have to accept the simple fact that not everyone wants to learn how to play chess. There are students whose parents stuck them in the chess class either thinking it would help them become smarter or give the parents something to brag about. In the end, the student isn’t going to take up chess as a hobby. With these students, there’s not much you can do. Personally, I have them sit down with me at the chessboard, start talking about sports and music and have them make a few moves on the board. A little more talk and a few more moves. After a while, a full game has been played and perhaps the student views the game in a better light. Sometimes it works, some times it doesn’t. In the end, if you’ve honestly given it your best shot, you can sleep well at night. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).