"The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions, for life is a kind of chess. ....Benjamin Franklin.

Commentary of the Day - April 16, 2012: Chess - Only a Pawn in the Game.   Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

During March and April, the real March Madness starts in public schools.

In these two months, most students are subjected to standardized testing which starts in third grade, and continues throughout high school.

They learn these tests matter.  A lot.

They learn that scores might appear in their Permanent Record.

They learn that their school and even their teachers' career may depend on how the student performs.

They learn that grapes, string cheese, and granola bars will be provided as a motivator and a brain booster.

They learn about the clear importance of #2 pencils in the general scheme of things. 

Full Disclosure forces me to note that I am a Standardized Test Skeptic.

What I believe students learn is that

a. there's always a right answer.

b. one kind of test method sums up their abilities

c. sitting for a long time bubbling in circles hurts the backside.

Students are often used for guinea pigs for the allegedly bright ideas of consultants who may never have taught, and were themselves in the top percentile in high performing schools with parents who pushed, hectored, and helicoptered them into success.  They do not know the rest of the student body from the neck down.

What's one more bright idea going to hurt?

Proposal:  Chess

Schools have cut electives drastically in schools.  In the frenzy of both budget cuts   and the added costs to schools for the products of testing companies, schools have lost music, art, dance, theater, photography, citizenship and whatever home economics is being called now.  Anything resembling a vocational course has been moved far away to a different school where 'other kinds of students' go.

Computers, text books, and sports equipment are all big ticket items.

I've seen chess sets for five bucks in a local wholesale store.

And I'm convinced that students who learn chess will learn a lot more than the game.

Some research, as far back as 1925, has shown that concentration improves once the basic moves are mastered.  Students could gain not just a better visual memory, but an ability to see the whole picture.  How many students insist they are 'visual learners.'  (They've been tested.)  Their sense of logic and predictability would develop, all in the spirit of genteel competition.  Memory improvement could also be a benefit and spill over into other aspects of student life, such as where they left their jacket, and whether their term paper is due in a week.

In 2000 an Australian researcher at the University of Sydney produced a sweeping assessment of both the variety of skills and variety of student learners, who learned chess.

An article and video based on an NBC feature in 2010 backs up some of my observations and predictions.

A podcast on NPR reveals that Armenia’s public schools started mandatory chess classes for every second, third and fourth grader" in 2011.

"Twice a week, 7- to 10-year-old Armenians are getting 30 minutes of instruction in chess basics.  The goal is they are able to play a competent game by the end of fourth grade."  (PRI)

When I taught high school, our English department offered a chess elective due to the availability and expertise of a colleague.  The instructor would start each block period with a lesson or group problem-solving setup.  The rest of the class time would be spent playing chess.  Mr. G would move about the class, watching, encouraging, figuring out how to create fair opposition in future classes. 

According to Mr. G, magic happened.  First, he noted, while the boys who signed up initially were already players, the Guidance Department started using the elective as a "dumping ground" the way they used my theater workshop class.  Anyone with a hole in a schedule got placed in an English elective.  Students turned up on my theater roster who had no idea they'd have to appear on a stage.  Reading for Pleasure, a silent comfortable reading room, became filled with malcontents for whom the title of the course was an oxymoron, and chaos broke out.  But not in Chess Class.

Second, he said, boys who were known as restless disrupters in other people's classes were somehow soothed or mesmerized by the demands of a match and the reality of immediate feedback for every move they made.  Music played softly in the background and student music providers took their role seriously.  This was, after all, Chess. 

Third, they policed each other.  "Shhhhhh.  No loud talk in Chess."   "Hey, no  trash talk.  This is Chess."  "Whoah.  Stop.  What if they cancel Chess because of you?"

At first, mostly boys signed up.  Girls stepped up after a couple of years. Clique related barriers came down.  Athletes played with clarinetists.  Honor students played with allegedly limited outcasts.  People became mannerly, generous in spirit, and open to mixing it up, if they had not been this way before.

As a result of my general grumpiness regarding the time spent teaching to the test and high stakes testing itself -- which leads to pay for performance dumped on teachers who have little control over their often fluid, morphing classes -- I'm suggesting.....add chess.

What I would love to see in schools everywhere: parents who do not want their students to be taking these tests every year, being able to opt out for an alternative --namely; chess.  From third grade through high school, each year parents or students would be given the choice.

Students would, of course, take all the other requirements needed for a diploma, but they would have an exit exam designed for their curriculum by town, county, or state standards.   I want to see if there is a statistical difference between the two groups.  I'm betting on chess to impart some critical skills that cannot be calculated by standardized tests and the companies who make big bucks off supplying them, at the expense of salary increases and budget increases.

I'm not sure at all that educational reformers understand The Big Picture.  A dedicated chess player, just might.

What I am also not sure of is whether chess boxing might make some sense too.

© 2012, Beverly C. Lucey.
Beverly C. Lucey cannot seem to leave the classroom.  She is now an adjunct professor of writing at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and considers herself a life-long educator.

The Irascible Professor comments: (Full disclosure, the IP usually plays a daily game of chess against his computer to keep his mind sharp, well at least as sharp as it can be at his advanced age.)  Chess sounds like a great idea for school kids, and "chess boxing" might be a good idea for the rowdier kids provided that the liability issues could be solved.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2012 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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