If schools really cared about research, students would play chess

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 Ashley71T-1NCrQ7L.jpg. 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.

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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.


Also published on Medium.

2 thoughts on “If schools really cared about research, students would play chess”

  1. Thanks for tagging me on Facebook with this, Sylvia! It was a pleasure producing the chessplaying portion of Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess for you in the 90s, and you rendered great advice to us as we founded Chess Magnet School. Please check out the work we are now doing with Sunil Weeramantry (one of America’s leading chess teachers,and father of one of the top players in the world today, Hikaru Nakamura) and with the exec producer of Brooklyn Castle, Robert McLellan, to provide professional development training to teachers to teach or lead chess in their schools and communities:

    http://nscfchess.org/…/flori…/next-move-teacher-training

    This program has been piloted in Broward County, Florida, and is now piloting in Fresno and Tulare Counties in California, as well.

  2. I should mention that I owe my having won a National Merit Scholarship to the test-taking ability I developed through playing in chess tournaments from the time I entered high school. Now, I cannot say for certain whether my fellow life master at chess, Adam Robinson — author of the ground-breaking bestseller “Cracking the SAT” in 1986 and co-founder of The Princeton Review — similarly attributes any of his academic opportunities to chess, but certainly books and services such as those he produced didn’t exist when he was in HS in Illinois, nor I in NJ, in the mid-1970s.

    I can also say with certainty that chess at a Title I middle school in Brooklyn, NY — I.S. 318 — gave inner city kids like Rochelle Ballantyne a path that led to a full-ride scholarship to Stanford — a story which is told in the Emmy-nominated documentary Brooklyn Castle, and a program which produced numerous young high achievers from a less-than-advantageous start in life.

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