Chess and the Developing Mind
Some time ago, I read a fascinating article in Chess Life titled, "Can Chess Aid American Schools?" by Dr. Boris Gershunsky and GM Eduard Gufeld. I found that the authors have put into words many of the same thoughts on teaching and learning chess that I and many others have had for years. It is so much more than just a game of strategy in which the main objective is to "capture and kill" the opponent's pieces and, ultimately, the king. The development of logic, concentration, self-discipline, respect for others and critical thinking are just as much a part of playing chess as the outcome of the game.
We all know that one of the reasons so many chess masters emerged from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to outclass the rest of the world was because they began learning at a very early age. Chess classes were - and I believe continue to be -routinely taught in public schools. Certainly not everyone goes on to become a grandmaster, but that is beside the point. What students gain from the study of chess makes their ultimate status as champions (or not) secondary. Students gain the qualities I have mentioned above, as well as the ability to recognize problems and seek creative solutions. These skills help them not only in life, but also in their academic careers.
How frequently have we heard complaints that American students lag behind their international counterparts in subjects like mathematics, science and other fields requiring in-depth analysis? Is it really because students in this country are simply not as bright? Perhaps we should reconsider not only what students are taught, but how we go about teaching them. All too often, learning is perceived as a tiresome chore rather than an opportunity to improve oneself, and information is memorized rather than absorbed or used in any meaningful way. This continues to be the case in school districts nationwide, despite the massive amount of evidence suggesting that students will learn best if they are able to forget that they are leaming, in other words, if they are absorbed and engaged in the material. In addition, there are numerous charges that American students are simply too lazy and undisciplined to aspire to any significant academic achievement.
Can chess change all this? In my opinion, absolutely! In his article (also in the September 2000 issue of Chess Life), "How Chess Makes a Difference in School Curriculum," Stephen F. Lampkin discusses the introduction of chess into a gifted/talented education program in upstate New York. The success inspired other schools to use chess as a means of teaching critical thinking skills to their students, and one teacher noted that her special education students also benefitted from participating. Overall, students were not only less disruptive, they also scored significantly higher in mathematical reasoning and thinking tests than the state average.
Therefore, chess can help students across the spectrum achieve, not just gifted students. A recent report on CNN's "Newsstand" program profiled a teacher who decided to offer chess classes for his elementary school students, who live in one of New York City's worst ghettos. The students not only thrived on chess, but also went on to compete in the scholastic championship tournament, with impressive results. Instead of feeling as if their future offered nothing but an existence filled with miserable poverty, drugs and crime, students can learn there are other opportunities available to them. One of the most important concepts they learn from chess is self-reliance and self-discipline, the cornerstones of building a successful future both on and off the chessboard.
It is unfortunate that when chess classes are proposed, the first thing most school districts think of is the "f-word'.': funding. How, they wonder, can they justify making chess a part of the school curriculum) ?
My answer is, how can they not? Consider the words of Gershunsky and Gufeld: "the results of the game objectively stimulate the player to critical self-analysis and consequently become a means for self-education." This is truly the greatest gift any educator can give a student.
Teachers can help shape and moId the student somewhat; they can provide the means and the opportunity for students to learn, and even learn how to learn. In the end, however, it is the Student who must take the initiative to actually accomplish their future goals by knowing how to think, and any help and support we can offer them to achieve this must be provided.