Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chess in the classroom: left-brained, right-brained, or hare-brained?

The state of Idaho, today's NYTimes reports, will universalize coverage for First Move, a chess curriculum that currently serves 100 grade school classrooms. Next year's education budget guarantees funding for all 40,000 Idaho 2nd and 3rd graders. The estimated cost, $200,000-$250,000 a year, includes DVDs, DVD players, training sessions for teachers, and take-home chess sets for students.

What exactly does First Move accomplish? No studies show chess actually benefitting children. State Superintendent Tom Luna cites anecdotes.

One First Move-trained teacher, for example, observes how video games, iPods, and TV isolate today's students, whereas with chess “they learn give and take." She adds, "There are courtesies that you follow. It has been really beneficial for them.”

“One of the things that we hear is that too much of what we do is based on rote memorization,” says Superintendent Luna. “The part I really like about this program is that kids are thinking ahead.”

Chess strikes me as at least as analytical and left-brained (chains of likely logical outcomes) as it is holistic and right-brained (whole-board configurations). Indeed, for skills both left-brained and right, it may be the perfect fusion.

But classroom chess, as characterized by these Idahoans, sounds like yet another unequivocally right-brained Constructivist move: a time-consuming and empirically unfounded substitute for rote learning; a vehicle for vaguely defined "higher level thinking" and social development rather than academic achievement.

Furthermore, we must ask:

--Does First Move pair up students with similar chess skills? Or, as with so many other contemporary classroom practices, does it favor mixed ability groupings that stress good sportsmanship over cognitive challenge?

--What are they giving up during the hour per week of classroom chess? Rote facts like where Afghanistan is and who sits on the Supreme Court?  Math and science problems in which, as much as in chess, they learn to think ahead?


Anonymous said...

Nothing like learning to play chess from someone who barely knows how to play it themselves. I don't see much benefit in that.

lefty said...

Very true. Then there are those kids who already know chess well, who may learn little not only from their teachers, but from most of their classroom opponents.

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

Math and chess are analogous activities. In math you memorize by rote the properties of some mathematical object and use those properties to "move" pieces of an equation around to attain a particular result.

In chess you memorize the rules and use those rules to move pieces about to attain a particular result.

This is not such a bad activity. Hopefully they are using US Chess Federation rules and prepping the kids for competition if the kid chooses. Perhaps rather than replacing reading and math, it's replacing an activity like cheerleading, football, ping pong or a giant school project of folding paper cranes.

If they really believe that chess is somehow more creative and requires more "thinking ahead" than math does it's only because they haven't been teaching math the right way.

lefty said...

Yes, let's hope it's replacing the giant paper crane project! (Is this happening at your local school???)

I'd be curious to know more about whether there's actual transfer between math skills and chess skills, or whether (like those courses in symbolic logic that don't make people behave much more logically in daily life) what's learned is contained to the subject in question.

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

The paper crane project was a project when I was in elementary school.