You Shouldn’t Be Teaching

When I first started teaching chess in schools, the Headteacher of a local Primary School told me “You shouldn’t be teaching chess. You’re competitive and elitist.”

Well, I think his reasons were wrong (and I may have more to say about this, and about him, in another post) but I’m increasingly of the opinion that his first sentence might have been correct.

Here’s another story for you. Several years ago I was controlling a local junior tournament. I was interested to note an entry from a boy from a long established and highly successful local prep school. They’d produced several very strong players in the past, as you would expect, but since their current chess teacher had taken over we hadn’t seen very much of them. After losing his first three games, this boy came up and spoke to me. “It’s not fair. All my opponents are cheating.” “Really”, I replied. “Can you tell me what they’re doing?” “Their knights keep on jumping over my pieces”, was his answer. “My chess teacher says knights can’t jump.” “That’s interesting”, I continued. “Can you tell me the name of your chess teacher?” He confirmed what I already knew, giving the name of a much respected grandmaster.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If you were looking for a maths teacher for 7-year-olds, would you choose an Oxford professor charging £150 an hour or a teacher who has received professional training in how young children process information related to maths charging £50 an hour?

Consider how young children learn other subjects. They learn reading one letter or sound at a time. They start with short words, short sentences, short books before progressing to long words, long sentences, long books. Some children (I was one, as it happens) can learn reading just like that, but most cannot. Showing children all the letters in one go and expecting them to read Finnegan’s Wake is not a good idea. Similarly, when teaching maths we teach addition before subtraction, multiplication before division. We make sure children are really good with small numbers and know all their number bonds before moving onto large numbers. We don’t teach all the operations in one go and expect them to perform differential calculus. Children who are learning the piano, likewise, learn step by step, one note at a time. We don’t teach them all the notes in one go and expect them to play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.

Yet this is what happens, at least in my part of the world, with chess. The parents note with approval that their child’s school has a grandmaster chess teacher so they show little Johnny the moves in 20 minutes, play a couple of games with him, and sign him up for the school chess club. What does he find there? Maybe 40 kids aged 7 to 11 (the chess professional wants as many children as possible so that he can make as much money as possible): some don’t know the moves, some know the moves but little else, some have been playing several years and may be reasonably competent, some are interested in playing seriously, some want to chat while playing with their friends, some perhaps don’t want to be there at all. And the teacher has to cater for all of them in 30 minutes if they’re unlucky, 60 minutes if they’re lucky.

Young children, by and large, learn step by step through memory and mimicry. They need a lot of repetition and reinforcement. If you try to teach them too much at once they get confused and misunderstand or misremember what you tell them. There’s no way they’ll make very much progress by just doing half an hour or an hour a week in a school chess club.

Some years ago I put this to one of my chess teaching colleagues, an International Master. “Yes, Richard, I’m sure you’re right”, he replied, “but I can’t do anything about it. It’s my livelihood.” I was fortunate enough not to need the money, so, being unprepared to continue promoting a system which gave most kids a bad deal out of chess, resigned most of my chess teaching commitments and went away to look for a better solution.

Perhaps, then, the English Chess Explosion was, in some way, the cause of the English Chess Implosion. Our successes in the 1970s and 1980s produced a generation of players wanting to make a living teaching chess, and choosing to do so by trying (and sometimes failing) to teach young children how the knight moves.

In a later post I’ll look at how young children in other countries get very different experiences of early years’ chess, and consider how we can improve what we do here in the UK.

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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.