Tactical Advantage

May 01, 2002 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
Students take to the boards in a Dallas chess program designed to improve their critical-thinking skills and academic performance.

Competing to see who can solve the problem first, seven pairs of students eagerly raise their hands. “Coach,” they cry, “we’ve got it!” Prompted to reveal the solution, several shout in unison: “Q on E1 to E5.” Then they smile broadly as the teacher concurs.

These 5th graders gathered at the Daniel “Chappie” James Learning Center, a public elementary school in the heart of Dallas, aren’t deciphering a complex algebraic equation. Instead, they’re identifying the chess maneuver for checkmating an opponent in one move. But their instructor, University of Texas at Dallas education student Jim Stallings, hopes the strategizing will have an academic payoff.

The class is learning the game as part of a new pilot program devised by chess aficionados at UTD. Launched in January at two elementary schools, it targets at-risk students, particularly those who don’t have other enrichment programs in their lives. If the 5th and 6th graders involved show improved behavior or academic performance, the district may work with the university to form chess clubs at other area schools.

“Chess is spreading like a prairie fire,” remarks Tim Redman, founder and director of the UTD chess program, which offers courses on using the game in education and oversees the university’s chess club and champion team. That’s because there’s a growing body of research indicating that students who play chess do better in school, he says. “We think further studies need to be done— and we need to have more peer review work—but initially the results are very positive,” he enthuses. “The students seem to acquire greater self-esteem, critical-thinking skills, and do better on math and reading tests.”

In one study, educational psychologist Stuart Margulies found that a group of inner-city elementary school students who participated in chess programs for a year had better reading skills than their non-chess-playing counterparts. Some scholars have suggested that learning the patterns in chess—which are much like those of language—helps students absorb linguistic relationships.

UTD is just the latest institution attempting to help kids improve academic skills through chess. The Seattle Chess Foundation, for example, is in the second year of a multi-year study on how the game is used in elementary schools throughout the world, with the ultimate goal of producing a curriculum based on its research. In April, Chess-in-the-Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit, celebrated its 15th anniversary of teaching chess to inner-city kindergarten through 8th graders.

UTD’s effort is notable for its rigor. Classes run an intensive nine hours per week, both during enrichment periods and after school. Two UTD instructors lead sessions in the history and language of chess, then teach the kids the basics: how to set up the board, move pieces, use a chess clock. As the semester continues, the instructors discuss strategies, managing emotions during a game, and tournament rules and etiquette. The kids get a chance to battle on the boards at the end of most classes and during the after-school sessions.

By the end of March, the students have learned a lot of the lingo. The names of the game pieces—pawn, knight, bishop, rook, and so on-are the easy terms, but much of the rest is German or French. “If I had to figure out a move ‘in- between’ [an unexpected maneuver],” Stallings asks one class, “would it be a zwischenzug or a zugzwang?” Most kids answer correctly with the first choice.

The students work toward certificates of accomplishment and prepare to compete in chess tournaments, including a citywide contest that boasts a grand prize for the top 6th grader: a four-year full-tuition-and-fees scholarship to UTD.

Although college scholarships for chess may change the lives of a lucky few, UTD educators maintain that all students can benefit from simply playing the game. “You’re building on Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences,’ ” Stallings explains, referring to Howard Gardner’s theory that seven intelligences—including linguistic, spatial, logical/mathematic, bodily/ kinesthetic, and interpersonal—are needed to function productively in society. “The more modalities you appeal to, the better off you are.”

Still, that’s not something the coaches and teachers tell students. Instead, they emphasize the amusement factor—to great success. Fifth grader Aluante Feeney says he plays the game with his friends on the school bus, while classmate Kevin Davidson likes to challenge his 14-year-old brother to games at home. (“Sometimes I beat him, and sometimes I don’t,” he says.) “Most teachers can’t count on their students doing math problems at home,” Stallings observes. “But I can count on my students playing chess.” Redman adds: “I like to call this stealth teaching. They don’t know they’re improving [academically]. They’re just having a ball.”

Courtney Johnson, a 6th grade teacher at Daniel “Chappie” James who works with Stallings during and after school, says he’s noticed changes in his students already: “Academically, I can see it is increasing their higher-order thinking skills, and that’s what we’re trying to get.” He says his students seem better “able to evaluate a problem and make critical judgments on it.” And 5th grader Tiarra Session attests to chess’s confidence-boosting powers. “It looked like a hard game, but I got my certificate on my first try. So I felt really smart,” she says.

—Kristine Hughes

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP