It bothers me when I hear about how any new initiative in schools has to be “research-based.” It’s often a code word for “go on a wild goose chase for some citations, and then we are going to say no anyway.”
If schools really wanted research-based practices that improve student learning, here’s a short list: recess, art, music, and chess. Let’s just talk about chess. It’s a fact that learning and playing chess gives kids skills and habits that help them succeed in school and in life. It’s been proven countless times using all kinds of measures. (See below)
My own introduction to the power of chess in learning began when I worked at Knowledge Adventure, an educational software publisher (then known as Davidson & Associates). I was the producer of a new line of chess products that would range from beginners learning chess to a professional chess engine. The goal was to compete with Chessmaster, then the top selling chess playing software in the world. Knowing very little about chess other than the rules of the game, I was tossed into a fascinating world of rival chess engines and offbeat personalities.
Then I met Maurice Ashley. At the time, Maurice was the first African-American International Grandmaster and had written a book about teaching chess. He worked with young people in Brooklyn, taking them to national championships. He also “called” chess games for ESPN, using a telestrator like John Madden. I went to New York to meet him and watch him work. I sat on the floor of the TV booth for six hours, fascinated at his mastery of the game and the power of his language. This was no dusty, boring exercise – he brought it alive with words that conjured images of galloping knights, brooding, sneaky bishops, and sweaty game-day warriors grinding out a victory with their sacrifices for the common goal.
The task then was to not simply capture his ideas about teaching chess, but also his personality and make it into a software experience that would reflect the passion and active engagement of Maurice Ashley. The result was “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess” – probably the favorite software program that I was responsible for. (I can’t believe it’s still for sale!)
Maurice Ashley was recently named to the Chess Hall of Fame and profiled in an NPR series about 50 Great Teachers, Chess For Progress: How A Grandmaster Is Using The Game To Teach Life Skills.
Maurice Ashley’s YouTube channel has other gems – like him beating a trash-talking chess player in Washington Square Park and a TED Talk about working backwards to solve problems.
I’m glad that my friend Maurice is getting some well-deserved attention. He deserves all this and more. He’s directly impacted thousands of young people through his teaching, and even more broadly through his books, software, and media exposure. His message should be widely heard, especially in schools.
But for too many schools, chess (or recess, art, music..) is not on the agenda while they chase higher test scores using test prep methodology that is not evidence-based. And if the test prep predictably doesn’t work, there is a new trend of “motivating” students to do well with parties and goodies. So bribes (proven to destroy motivation) – good, but chess – there’s no time.
Evidence, you ask? Decades of it – hundreds of studies, piled up the ceiling of the we-don’t-really-care-about-research room.
- US Chess Federation – research on chess in the classroom (resource list)
- John Hopkins School of Education – the educational value of chess
- The Benefits of Chess in Education – a report on research, useful papers, and a presentation
- Chess in Schools and Communities (UK) – resource list
- Chess in schools research portal from the St. Louis Chess Club
Also published on Medium.