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Is your chess program educational?

Do you have a child or students in a scholastic chess program?  Or are you a teacher wishing to start a chess program at your school?

Perhaps you have seen or read about different approaches to chess and wish to understand which is best for your child or students. In this post I explore six different chess program approaches. These categorizations may be controversial, but they are based upon my encounters with dozens of different chess promoters, organizations, educators, researches, and international leaders involved with scholastic chess.

Not all chess programs are educationally nutritious. Programs vary in their focus, educational premises, delivery methods, and metrics.  None of these approaches listed below are necessarily wrong. Each can be appropriate in different situations, but each needs to be considered in light of the school’s (or individual’s) goals and strategy.

Since our focus is from an education perspective, we separate the six approaches by whether they do or do not fall conform to the generally accepted definition of “Chess in Education”.

What Chess in Education is Not

In the past decade educators have begun to move away from traditional chess training services and products focused exclusively on developing competitive chess proficiency, toward more targeted training methods that focus on development of 21st century skills and behaviors.

1) Traditional (or Sport) Chess Training

The goal of training is to strictly to develop student proficiency in chess.

  • Focus: Teaching methods focus on developing competitive chess skills. Some of these skills are transversal (transferable to other educational domains); some are useful only in the chess domain. Curriculum is strictly within the chess domain.
  • Educational Premise: As a byproduct of learning and playing chess, the student gains important thinking skills. (executive functions).
  • Delivery: Typically Taught by: chess coaches or facilitators using chess training apps.
    • When: Outside normal classroom hours, or during periods devoted to optional club activities.
  • Metrics: Chess proficiency; competitive chess success
  • This is the most common scholastic training approach. It is, by definition, not CIE. [Reference: FIDE EDU’s Educational Chess vs Sport Chess].

2) “Cotton Candy” Chess Training

It is worth noting that there are some quite profitable chess training businesses whose goals are neither educational nor competitive. I use the term “Cotton Candy” to signify a colorful product or service that looks good but is lacking in educational benefit. Trainers in such programs often have no teaching credentials and minimal chess experience. The chess training vendor hires such “coaches” for their ability to entertain and provide a fun experience, but may lack the skills or awareness of how to impart the educational benefits possible with chess.

  • Focus: Teaching methods focus on entertainment and providing a “fun” experience. Since coaches often have neither teaching nor significant chess experience, “chess benefits” are often not realized.
  • Educational Premise: As a byproduct of learning and playing chess in a fun environment, the student gains important thinking skills. (executive functions).
  • Delivery: Typically Taught by: dynamic, enthusiastic individuals employing customized or commercial chess training applications.
    • When: Outside normal classroom hours, or during periods devoted to optional club activities.
  • Metrics: Are the kids having fun?
  • Warning signs:
    • Coaches have neither educational degrees nor significant chess experience
    • Advertisements focusing on a fun experience rather than educational or competitive goals
    • Minimal use of the language of chess; dismissing the use of chess notation

Such an approach has some value and may be appropriate for some ages. It may succeed in reaching some students who might not respond to other approaches. (Hey, it beats video games.)

What Chess in Education Is!

In practice there are several CIE approaches that arguably deserve to be classified as “Chess in Education”.

3) Traditional Chess Training + Classroom Admin Add-ons

This is Traditional Chess Training augmented by administrative add-ons for the classroom such as student registration, homework assignment, and tracking individual student progress.

  • Focus: Developing student proficiency in chess.  Curriculum is strictly within the chess domain.
  • Educational Premise: As a byproduct of learning and playing chess, the student gains important thinking skills. (executive functions).
  • Delivery: Typically Taught by: Educators, chess coaches or facilitators primarily relying on chess training apps.
    • When: Outside normal classroom hours, or during periods devoted to optional club activities.
  • Metrics: Chess proficiency; competitive chess success
  • These are features added to traditional chess training software to appeal to schools. For teachers who wish to teach traditional (competitive) chess training independent of educational connections, this is an improvement. While not true CIE (by our definition), it can be used to supplement the CIE approaches that follow. Its greatest use is in optional club or after-school  programs, but the software may also be useful in the classroom as a differentiation tool. For example, teachers can give access to traditional internet-based chess training products to more advanced chess players while they give personal assistance to other students.

4) Chess with Education Enrichment

  • Focus: Teach Chess and Chess Variants using methodologies based on educational research and good teaching [pedagogical] practices. Priority is given to aspects of chess that develop executive functions and promote far transfer learning. The curriculum may omit or de-emphasize study of some traditional chess training topics that are not relevant to educational goals. Teachers focus on the aspects of chess that are academically nutritional, and promote social-emotional learning (SEL).
  • Educational Premise: The selective use of chess training by teachers is focused on developing executive functions, critical thinking and other 21st century skills. As a result, the lessons selected engage more students and yield greater educational benefits than traditional chess training.
  • Delivery: Typically taught by: Educators
    • When: Normal classroom hours
  • Metric: Improvements in focus, executive functions.
5) Education with Chess Enrichment   

Teaching the educational curriculum employing elements of chess.Chess and Life Skills

  • Focus:  As students become interested in chess, it can be used as an attention magnet for teaching other domains. For example, a math training course might employ 50 math problems that use chess pieces, or a chess board but require little or no knowledge of the rules of chess. History or Language Arts training may involve stories about characters represented by chess pieces. Lessons such as these require only a beginner’s knowledge of chess.
  • Educational Premise: References to concrete chess elements gain student attention and interest. As a result students pay closer attention to the teaching of abstract material when they can connect it to familiar concrete elements.
  • Delivery: Typically taught by Educators
    • When: Normal classroom hours
  • Metrics: N/A; whatever metrics are already established for the  educational curriculum topic being taught.

6) Full Duplex CIE

This is a blend of the chess and educational approaches outlined in #2 an #3 above.

  • Focus: Teach chess with educational connections and selectively incorporate chess examples into traditional educational teaching.
  • Educational Premise: Combines the benefits of the two preceding approaches. The selective use of chess training by teachers focused on developing executive functions and critical thinking engages students. Student engagement increases when chess elements are introduced into teaching of core educational domains.
  • Delivery: Typically taught by Educators
    • When: Normal classroom hours
  • Metrics: Improvements in focus, executive functions, other 21st century skills.
  • Best practice!

<More: Keys to Choosing a CIE Approach for Your School>

Biographical Note

Neil Dietsch is the coordinator of the CIE Coalition and an editor and webmaster of the chessineducation.org website. After a career as a information systems and technology project manager, he was president of the Alabama Chess Federation from 2010 to 2019. He is the Managing Director and co-founder of Chess in Schools.

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