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A Chess Master's Guide to Reform

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I have earned my Doctor of Acronyms many times over. APEX, ITEP, TESSA, C.P.S., O.B.E.--I've been a disciple of them all and many more of education's initialed savior programs (E.I.S.P.).

The strange thing about school reform is that people like Madeleine Hunter, Benjamin Bloom, William Glasser, Theodore Sizer, and others are all correct. Their postulates, when properly applied, do elevate student learning. So am I now the consummate 5th-grade teacher? Yes and no.

I am paid to teach reading and writing. I teach chess for free. My readers and writers are learning at the national-average pace, if one accepts the premise that subskill scores, when added together, represent the total process. My chess players are progressing even more rapidly based on victories in local, state, and national tournaments. Even though I lack comparative measurements, I would, in my professional judgment, say that my chess students are outlearning my "2 R'' students by double and probably more.

Why the greater success in chess? Even when I consider the differences in subject-matter complexity and the smaller class size, it still comes down to teaching and learning. Our chess program uses superior instructional principles. Consider that the chess program involves:

  • Choice: Every child in the club has chosen me. The 10 or 12 children who spend most of their recesses with me are true volunteers. They stay as long as they perceive the value received from chess is greater than the recess pleasures given up. When value received drops, so does attendance.
  • Outcome-Based Criteria. I have defined the exit outcome as "successful participation in the state elementary championship.'' I then worked backward from the tournament lessons all the way to learning the basic moves when planning the curriculum. This system of planning has proven effective in terms of end results. Last year's students won 83 percent of their tournament games.
  • Individual Responsibility for Learning. There is no parent-to-teacher pressure exerted on my young chess masters to learn specified skills. Each child moves at his or her own comfortable pace. Learning occurs as the need arises. Quality performance doesn't require coercion when the learner is excited.
  • Individualized Monitoring and Instruction. I also play chess every recess. This gives me about a half hour per student per week of direct contact. I know my pupils' needs as I mentally track their progress. It doesn't matter that they are all at different skill levels; instruction is specific and timely. Attitudes are also monitored so the proper corrections can be made.
  • Immediate Feedback. The rightness or wrongness of a decision is usually apparent shortly after the move is completed. Incorrect thinking is punished while correct thinking is rewarded. There is no "grooving'' of improper reasoning as sometimes happens when feedback is delayed.
  • Self-Paced Mastery Learning. The players progress on their own timetables. There are no forced promotions to higher levels. Seat time is not factored into the success formula. One of my players needed three hours to learn the pawn moves. He lagged behind in every area of the game for his first year. The second year he caught and passed all of his teammates. He was forced, by repeated losses, to master the basics before moving on to higher skill levels.
  • Holistic Instruction. Chess, like reading and writing, contains complex sets of skills and subskills that combine to form the whole. These skills can be isolated, sequenced, and taught from workbooks. We learn the skills as we play. Lessons are taught as the needs arise, thus increasing retention.
  • Cooperative Learning. Evidence indicates that we learn best by sharing ideas. Rarely is a chess game played without "what if'' talk. The post-mortem analysis is standard. Even the kibitzers are not without value in the learning process.
  • Technology Is Available. Our classroom has chess computers, computerized instruction, and videotapes. This technology is reasonably priced and highly effective. It has proven to be of more value than the textbooks I have been given to use for academic instruction.
  • Character Improvement Is Required. Nearly every student comes to me lacking in circumspection, foresight, and self-control. They move fast and lose fast. The "Nintendo mentality'' has to be conquered. Also, cx0 el10lvery few of them know how to lose properly. They get angry, rationalize the losses, and want to give up too quickly. Good chess requires mental toughness. Losses, no matter how painful, must be viewed as steppingstones to improvement. Honest analysis is a must if the valuable insights are to be gained. Character weakness can be more damaging than skill weakness to the young chess student.

The obvious question is, "Why, if my chess instruction is so superior, don't I apply the same learning principles to my other instruction?'' Is isn't that easy to do.

I have shifted toward holistic cooperative learning while minimizing textbooks, workbooks, dittos, and lectures despite some severe tutting from my colleagues. I have also tried to lessen teacher coercion while increasing personal responsibility. Quality work and personal satisfaction are actively sought. I think Dr. Glasser would commend my intent, if not my results.

But three of chess instruction's greatest advantages cannot be transferred to my academic curriculum. Not every child wants to become a better reader and writer. I still waste much effort getting some horses to drink.

My student contact time is limited. I can average one half hour per child per week for chess. I assume a half hour per week for each R would also suffice. That puts me in need of 54 hours per week of individual instruction time.

But even if I had ample time with motivated students I would still need a method of developing strong character. Diligence and perseverance are generally lacking, as are originality, objectivity, and curiosity. Without these qualities, reading and writing can only be trivial and pale representations of the real things.

Maybe it is time for me to write my own book, Challenges Hurled at Education's Savior Systems (CHESS). It will tell why our acronymed reforms can only go so far in our present school systems. That might ease the frustration that comes with knowing what to do and not being able to do it.

Henry Benjamin is a teacher at Northwestern Elementary School in Eaton Rapids, Mich.

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