[The following is reprinted with permission from November 2022 First Rank newsletter of the European Chess Union’s Education Commission. Register for free subscriptions to the newsletter at chessplus.net.]
Chess and Education – the Do’s and Don’ts
Author: Philippe Vukojevic
First Rank Chief Editor Newsletter, ECU Education
Recently, I saw that a chess federation had thoroughly reformed its board. New initiatives at last, hurrah! New opportunities at last, hurrah! And yes, the young board would even revive school chess, three times hurrah! But my enthusiasm immediately got a dent when I read in the policy intentions that the “focus” would come “on how to ensure the flow of children to clubs”.
Oh dear, we’ve been there, done that. With that focus, you signal that you don’t know the difference between educational and competitive chess, and you are not honoring the game of chess. While the game in the chess club is reduced to a learning objective in itself, the school deliberately deploys chess as a tool to achieve numerous other learning objectives.
Before I am accused of demoting the young board members even before they have done anything, let me share my own experiences.
Initially, when I gave my first chess lessons at school more than 25 years ago, I also had competitive goals. I was convinced that somewhere in our country a child had the talent to become the chess world champion. But in a country with no chess culture, the risk is very high that the child will never learn to play chess, and that is, after all, the first requirement to become a chess world champion, isn’t it? So my mission was to teach chess to all children (including the world champion).
That mission has remained unchanged: I would love to teach chess to all children, but the focus has changed. Thanks to my own experiences, thanks to parents and thanks to teachers, I know what impact chess can have, especially on children who struggle at school: better concentration, improved spatial insight, a growing number of social contacts, an increased sense of initiative, a greater affinity for a foreign language… In short, chess should not be used at school as a sport, but as an educational tool for children in whom you cannot immediately (nor later) see a world champion.
Are competitive and educational school chess incompatible then?
During school hours, I think so, because the teacher’s objective in school will not be: improving the chess skills of his or her children. However, that does not prevent a teacher from setting up a school chess club after school hours.
Anyone who puts the focus during school hours on getting children through to the chess club will automatically put the focus on competitive chess and thus leave many educational opportunities of chess unused during school chess lessons. That would not only be a shame, it is somewhat perverse. Indeed, you charm headmasters by speaking at length about the many pedagogical advantages of the game, but in the end you only offer children a sport.
So ensuring the flow from school chess to the chess club is, in my opinion, a false premise:
– because in schools you approach chess differently from how chess clubs approach the game. In chess clubs, it is a goal in itself and not a tool to achieve other goals.
– because you cannot systematize, let alone force, a flow-through policy anyway.
Advice for Chess Federations
Now, I understand somewhat the urge of chess federations to see their membership rise. So what should they do?
First of all, they can bet on a larger intake. This can happen through publicity (media, Netflix series, fairs) and through… chess in schools.
Didn’t I just say that competitive chess has no place during lessons in schools? Yes, but the step from educational to competitive chess, from a tool to a goal, is small and there are always children who are happy to make the switch and go to a club. And then the numbers come into play: if today, out of 100 children who learn the educational game at school, you have one who goes to the chess club, then proportionally out of 100,000 school chess players, 1,000 should find their way to the club.
To achieve this scale-up, cooperation with the world of education seems inevitable to me (ministry of education, municipal councils with their aldermen of education, teacher training colleges, after-school centers). Work on the basics as well: train teachers to handle chess educationally. And if you don’t have the know-how for educational chess yourself, you can always have teachers trained by those who have the know-how. Why do I involuntarily think of the ECU Education Commission here? [Editor’s note: or US-based resources.]
In this way, the chess federations are also immediately making an important social contribution: after all, every child benefits from developing skills through games.
Secondly, chess federations must ensure that the outflow is lower. That is completely outside the scope of the ECU Education Commission, although….
Once, I looked at the figures of a youth section in a chess club: I noticed an increase in the number of young people. In fact, the club had gone from 42 youth members to 45. Nice… until I heard the youth leader proudly tell me that no fewer than 15 new kids had joined ‘Uh…. So twelve had not re-enrolled? How could that be?’ ‘Well, those are just things that happen. Call it natural selection…’ ‘Natural selection or selective attention?’ I got no answer.
Federations have an important role to play in stemming the outflow. Well-trained trainers with an eye for pedagogy and didactics can ensure that all children can have fun in a chess club, even if it is clear that they do not really come to play chess as a sport and that you should therefore not expect them to have killer instincts, stress resistance, work ethics, etc. So in other words, leave room for recreational chess players too, don’t demotivate your recreational members, don’t chase them away, but provide fun times. In the end, those not competitive players might carry the club later.
So please don’t focus on the flow from the school to the club. Don’t cloud the natural flow from educational to competitive chess by recruiting members in schools as a matter of policy. You only risk depriving (weaker) children in schools of a fun tool in their development.
Do focus on quality education, both at school for educational chess and in the chess club for competitive chess, so that children like chess (in whatever variety) and continue to enjoy it.
And see in five years whether such a policy will have a positive impact on your membership numbers.