In my absence, one of the things I’ve been working is my high school’s service-learning project; or, more correctly, I’ve been working on an essay I’ve done in place of my high school’s service learning requirement this year. It comprises my thoughts on the continuation of a program at my school in which volunteers taught chess to underprivileged children, and the optimal methods of its implementation. In particular, it explains the most important topics to teach beginning chess players, and how they might be conveyed to a group of students. I thought this might be interesting to read, given the topic; as always, I welcome any comments, which I reiterate here as it’s a topic with potential impact if I’m missing something obvious.
Without further ado, below follows the reformatted “A Brief Summary of Volunteer Chess Instruction.”
To begin drafting a series of guidelines which incorporate the specific constraints involved in the institution of a program at [my high school] (such as the program I facilitated in the winter trimester of the 2016-2017 school year,) it is first necessary to provide a modicum of background: namely, the principles which inform the generalities of the situation. These constituent components of the program can be broken down into two major parts: volunteer work and chess instruction, both with the aim of benefiting children. I am more familiar with the tenets of the latter; however, this paper will attempt to address both sections and their unification before folding this knowledge base into crafting a set of guidelines. This is done such that the reader may gain a broader understanding of the principles from which they are working, and to avoid the premature limitation of the applicability of this document.
The foremost point in understanding chess education, and its ideal conduction, is that its building blocks remain largely the same as those of any more general instruction; there is specialized knowledge to be disseminated (i.e. the rules and ideas of the game,) but the methods are relatively standard: the fundamentals are most important, and need to be understood fully before progression. This is true for the teacher, as well as the student; as such, below is a basic statement of the components of chess and a conception of the ideal order in which they might be learned. Because of the at times contradictory aims of the game, this is suggested to minimize confusion and maximize understanding.
Rules of the Game
1. King’s move
2. Rook’s move
3. Bishop’s move
4. Queen’s move
5. Knight’s move
6. Pawn’s move
At this point, it is likely that everyone will be on the same page in regards to knowledge. It is recommended that at this point students be left to play games amongst themselves, assuming that the rules have been covered in one session; this will allow the instructor to observe relative skill levels and dispense rules feedback as necessary, presenting teachable moments if edge cases arise. Perhaps more importantly, the rules of the game aren’t particularly interesting, and take up time with relatively little participation. Playing games is the opposite, which should help to alleviate any potential boredom.
While on this path to an increased understanding of the game, as mentioned above, general teaching principles can be implemented in more chess-specific ways. For example, the Chicago Chess Foundation’s document, summarizing teaching chess to groups, sets out ways to keep these precepts in mind. Each bullet point in that document is not applicable to every situation, obviously. However, I have kept them in mind in devising my list of those guidelines which should serve foundationally, and which can (nearly) always be used, expressed in the clearest possible manner.
1. Chess is a game. This is at once obvious, and easy to forget – the primary goal of chess is fun. Thus the presentation of any chess idea should revolve around its eventual use (e.g. the knight’s move being used to jump behind enemy lines) as both a mnemonic device, and a way to hold interest. Similarly, if a method of presentation isn’t working –isn’t fun– then switch to something else which demonstrates the same concept, or even which doesn’t. Although learning chess confers educational benefit, it’s most effectively done when using the game as an overarching vehicle.
2. Involve each student. This will be difficult, due to differing levels of knowledge and engagement; however, it is crucial, and there are mechanisms by which it is made easier: as mentioned in the previous bullet, one is to switch tracks (e.g. from solving puzzles to playing games.) Another is to set one section up with a problem, or a game, while focusing on another. If certain students participate less, call on them specifically (if they are at all comfortable with it) to ensure attention is being paid– both by them, and by the class, as the culture of the program can be swayed by students’ noticing each others’ disinterest.
3. Teach the reasoning. Perhaps the most beneficial thing chess does is in teaching abilities of time management and thinking clearly – finding the connections and applications of different strategies is what does this most effectively. It’s the most fun, it’s the most challenging, and it creates the most opportunities for engagement when there’s as little memorization for its own sake (at this stage, anyway) as possible. Examples used to build principles are helpful here, either purpose-built or drawn from real games.
These are the three key tenets I feel that it is necessary to emphasize, and to keep in mind as more general frameworks are specifically applied. The pace of lessons, of course, will vary due to outside circumstances, and ideally the program facilitator will pick up on particular weak points; however, here is a rough structure for important elements to cover moving out from the first meeting.
Control of the Center
Bull’s Head Model
Queen/Rook/non-central pawn moves: often unnecessary early on
Weakness of the f2/f7 pawn
Opening principles are most important to teach, both because they occur every time, and because they inform the rest of the game; in particular, they’re necessary for beginners to learn so they’re not losing immediately and become discouraged.
The Tactical Checklist
What’s my opponent’s idea?
Check all Checks
Forks (two main types, although all pieces can)
[The first two items] are among the simplest ways to prevent blunders, which are particularly demoralizing to the beginner; consulting these questions on each move leads the student not to glaze over simple threats. The first step towards avoiding mistakes is to cultivate the awareness of their possibility on each move.
The Strategic Checklist
Active Pieces, Central Control
Improving piece position
Likewise, the remainder of the strategic checklist progresses from the most important to lesser considerations (each of which are relatively subtle, and can be explained over the course of an individual session.) These comprise the majority of all considerations during the middlegame. Slowly expanding the range of things to consider each move over the course of a trimester (or other period of sessions) is ideal, which allows students to focus on one new idea at a time.
King and pawn vs king
There are a number of other endgame subtleties which are rare enough to be insignificant for these purposes (for instance, there are many more possible checkmates,) as they are excessively complicated; mastering the above confers a significant degree of proficiency.
With the material to be covered over the course of (the introductory and/or intermediate sections of) a program (since I have only run those previously) covered above, I will now turn to the primary methods of teaching this material.
1. Presenting the material, while offering examples. These examples can take the form of a brief game or position– it is ideal here to illustrate static concepts such as pawn structure, king safety, or piece placement. These concepts are best placed here because there is one clear viewpoint, which must be expressed, and they are often relatively unintuitive. The instructor should make attempts to allow students to draw their own conclusions and understand the principles behind their reasoning, but a more didactic approach is at times called for. (To be used sparingly, however, lest attention be lost!)
Students (typically as a group) solving puzzles. This requires more preparation, and a class which is relatively attentive/tenacious, but fosters a group sense of togetherness. In addition, it allows quick cycling through concrete examples of the idea introduced; this works best with tactics.
2. An outgrowth of puzzle-solving, playing from an example position. This constitutes setting up a position which demonstrates an idea (working best in the endgame, with clearer and fewer options to work through,) in which the students suggest approaches, with the instructor taking the other side and playing moves through to one outcome before resetting.
3. Students playing stripped-down mini-games from set positions. This works best, again, with endgame ideas. For one example, students might play a game through with only kings, rooks, and pawns, to focus on the most common endgame scenario in isolation.
I have observed that a typical session (which may last roughly ninety minutes, though the time-specifics don’t matter much) is best broken up into three rough sections. The first is best spent on a brief review, particularly with a week between meetings, and its importance cannot be understated. It is tempting to quickly rush to the next concept, but leaving a more fundamental or important one prematurely can waste time in the long run by damaging later understanding; therefore, as much time as necessary should be allocated here. Secondly, a new concept should be introduced, using a method from the list above. Thirdly, I find it useful to let the students play amongst themselves:
4. Students playing games amongst themselves. This should be done after a major point is made, or at the end of some instruction. Thus, the lesson can immediately be implemented. While this occurs, the instructor should occasionally offer feedback, stopping the game temporarily to point out a mistake or missed opportunity; this allows the student to learn in real time, in a competitive situation.
Not only is it useful for information processing, but it is practically useful for two main reasons. Firstly, these games can be easily stopped or given a time limit if time has elapsed, unlike a more structured activity. Secondly, they require less immediate focus from the students, and thus can be a relief after paying closer attention for a relatively long time (depending on the children’s age.)
Overall, I hope this document will serve as a suitable outline with which to run a chess program as I did at [my high school]; certainly in its articulation I have drawn forth a number of conclusions, both directly, in terms of concrete steps, and indirectly. Reflecting on my time running this volunteer program, I’m forced to remember how I did affect positive change there, and how I owe it to my community to continue to pursue similar endeavours. I write “similar” here because I do believe in the power of teaching chess to children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to learn it, and the benefits it confers. I pray that this program will find its place at [my high school], and that I can help people elsewhere as I’m forced to leave it behind.
Discussion Thread: Thread 181559
Thanks for reading.
All the best,
Orion Lehoczky Escobar