Differences in Teaching Chess for Academic Success

Chess instruction for schools

In recent years, interest in chess as a tool for improving the lives of youth has grown. At last year’s London Chess Conference, presenters discussed chess as a therapeutic tool, the value of chess for improving academics, training teachers to teach chess, and more. Increasing numbers of schools are adopting chess as a way to develop cognitive and academic skills based both on the compelling intuitive case and years of accumulated research. Yet, overall research has been mixed (learn more here and here). Factors such as duration, frequency, particular aspects of instruction, instructor chess and teaching skills, coach-student relationship, teacher stereotypes and expectations, parent involvement, student confidence and environment (e.g., classroom space, how well resourced the school is, temperature, time of day) make consistent and comparable experimentation challenging. In addition, the studies conducted rarely implement the same thesis or seek the same outcome (e.g., chess as an intervention for substance abuse versus to improve math skills).

It is highly likely that traditional chess instruction, while naturally addressing many goals, will need to be tweaked to maximize results for particular populations and outcomes. Years of focused research will be needed to fully tease out these factors. In the meantime, we believe the topic warrants discussion to develop working hypotheses that we can use now to improve our programs. This brings us to the topic of this blog: Should chess instruction in schools differ from traditional chess instruction and, if so, how?

The argument for differentiated instruction in chess is fairly compelling and manifests itself in many other subject areas. Take the sport of soccer, for instance. Instruction often differs based on the goals of the players and their parents. If a child is so into soccer that they are considering playing in college or even professionally, their coach will need to use different strategies and emphasize different aspects of soccer training than the coach of a student who is learning soccer in their gym class or as a part of a recreational soccer team. School-based soccer coaches, for example, will need to place more emphasis on engaging kids of all skill levels, improving general fitness, increasing teamwork and fostering sportsmanship. Of course, these same factors are important for students on the “college/professional track”, but the primary focus in that case necessarily shifts to training for high-level competition and deeper skill development. When soccer programs don’t adjust for the goals of parents, players and organizations, kids drop out.

As in the soccer analogy, the ability to adjust strategies is in chess training is crucial. In fact, the main difference between traditional chess and chess taught in schools for academic and cognitive benefits is the degree to which the content of that instruction is accessible to all students. Specifically, the goals for traditional chess training are to improve chess skills and tournament performance. Improving cognitive, life, and academic skills is often thought of as a natural side benefit, but developing those types of skills isn’t typically incorporated into the objectives of the training. Alternatively, academic chess programs focus primarily on improving cognitive, life and academic skills. Whether the child is tournament ready or playing chess at a competitive level is less important than their engagement, comfort, and passion for the program. Though there is some evidence that improvement in chess skills is necessary to see the desired academic benefits, the primary goal is to improve academic skills. With this key difference in mind, good chess instruction must vary based on the specific objectives of the program.

Given these differences in objectives, how should chess instruction differ in academic settings?

  • Make more of an effort to make it interesting to all students. Similar to what is done for math, reading and other subjects, instructors shouldn’t just cater to those whose careers will rely on those skills (e.g., those who will go into STEM fields or who plan to compete in chess tournaments professionally).  A greater attempt must be made to provide differentiated instruction (some suggestions here) and to make it more interesting for those who aren’t naturally drawn to game. Crafts, drills turned into games (for an example from our curriculum, click here) and other activities keep class fun whether or not a player is interested in becoming a chess champion.
  • Emphasize different aspects of training. What are the essentials of chess training, the things you simply cannot progress without? Are some topics more or less important when your objectives are academically focused? Obviously, only detailed research could answer this question definitively, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use related educational research to help us discern which aspects of training are most likely to impact academic performance. In our curriculum, we have attempted to address this concern by including activities that integrate academic topics to increase the chances that what is learned in chess class will generalize to school performance. For example, analyzing games is explicitly compared to studying for a test (more about how analysis can benefit students here), activities that require the use of math and other skills are emphasized (for an example, click here), and puzzles thought to improve specific cognitive skills are stressed throughout (e.g., Pawn Mower puzzles).
  • Emphasize aspects that you think lead to the development of life skills. Connecting chess to life skills is one of the game’s most valuable charms. The classic ‘Think before you move’ mantra common to nearly all chess training is a fabulous way to discourage impulsive behavior, but it would be more likely to have a lasting impact if the connection to real life situations is drawn out through discussion and other activities. For example, you might ask students if they have examples of situations where they wish they had thought something through more before they acted. What do they wish they had done instead? Did they ever lose the equivalent of their queen as a result? Do they have strategies to help them pause in a real-life circumstance so that they can think before they move?
  • Craft your approach to the specific school environment. Incorporating a school’s academic strategy and culture can allay some of the objections schools sometimes have with chess. For example, the lessons might be laid out to look like lesson plans from academic subjects including objectives, materials, options for assessment and tips for providing differentiated instruction. This can help counter the common assumption that only those with a strong chess background can teach chess and make it easier for teachers familiar with that format to jump right in. See our branding article for more suggestions on how to do this.
  • Provide evidence of progress. In traditional chess training, you may not need to show evidence of progress, but in schools, it may be either required or clearly preferred. This is particularly true if we are hoping for chess to be included in the school day (See our article on branding to learn the benefits of doing this in all settings). In these cases, clear objectives for each lesson (chess and academic) and evidence of progress are beneficial. Checklists, tests, written work and other projects are easy ways to implement accountability. At the very least, these may increase adoption of and ongoing support for chess programs because having them fits in with how many schools operate.
  • Adjusting the ‘dose’. That frequency and duration of instruction impact chess’ ability to impact academic goals in significant ways seems obvious. For example, many of us have observed that kids often forget a number of key points if chess is only taught once a week. Ultimately, research will tell us the proper dosage needed to achieve desired academic outcomes. Of course, ‘more is better’ is usually true for traditional and schools-based chess instruction, but since school money, time and personnel resources are limited and need to be directed to specific objectives, it’s important to consider how to get the kids more time for chess practice while not breaking the school bank or interfering with other objectives. What can we as chess teachers and coaches do to encourage the kind of research necessary to answer this question adequately? In the meantime, are there ways we can share what we have learned as individual coaches to develop a better sense of best practices for the benefit of current programs?

  • Didactics. Should how we teach chess differ in academic settings? For example, would traditional training, disaggregated learning, or another approach be more effective? We feel the disaggregated approach is effective in both cases, but What is disaggregated learning?particularly useful in educational settings. Students often have an easier time mastering a complex subject when it is broken down into manageable bits. This also makes it easier for non-players to teach because they can master one topic at a time just like the students. Younger students, in particular may learn more quickly and get less frustrated using this approach because they tend to have a hard time remembering the rules and misunderstandings can take longer to spot if taught all of them at once.

As with other domains, some aspects of training are sure to have a greater impact on the development of desired skills than others. We have made every effort to discern and address these factors in developing our curriculum, basing our choices on research when possible. You can click here to learn more about what we have done.

If chess is to be included more widely in schools, it should be subjected to systematic study to determine what should be emphasized. In the meantime, we offer this post as an opening to discussion about what we can do now to make our programs fit more smoothly into school environments and increase their effectiveness as tools for developing the kinds of skills that are most important to academic success.

What have you learned about how to increase the effectiveness of chess programs in academic settings? What aspects of training do you think should be tweaked to improve academic outcomes?

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