Chess skills can be improved quickly
Does chess make students smarter?
Parents are probably much more interested in this question than their offspring. Children themselves hardly have any idea whether they will improve in school when they push the pieces across the board. For the little ones, having fun in the game - and the related test of strength - is the absolute focus. But the side effect that chess training presumably has on academic performance is extremely interesting and deserves a closer look.
Germany's greatest talent Vincent Keymer (12) has to split his week between tournaments and school. He often comes back from a chess tournament on Friday, catches up on his schoolwork on the weekend and writes a paper on Monday. Although he is absent from the Nieder-Olm grammar school for up to 30 days per semester, the youngster only has ones and two on his certificate.
Vincent Keymer with Garry Kasparov
"If you can remember openings well, then of course that also trains the brain," Keymer explained to the F.A.Z. Apparently he does not perceive the balancing act as stress: "I can do it all because I have the time." Keymer is certainly not a typical example of chess-playing students who spend much less time at the board at this age.
Various performance enhancements
Scientists differentiate the effects of regular chess training in children. A current British collection of studies (von Sala and Gobet, 2016) states that performance in mathematics increases by around 38 percent and also significantly increases in overall cognitive abilities (34 percent). Although there is an effect on literacy, it is more moderate at around 25 percent. It was found that chess training of at least 25 to 30 hours per school year - i.e. about one school hour per week - is apparently the threshold to achieve meaningful effects.
Learn to think through play
Despite the promising results, this meta-analysis also indicates that hardly any of the studies reviewed compared the chess groups with active control groups in order to rule out possible placebo effects. At present, this gap is probably the most important methodological topic in this still relatively young theoretical research field.
Practical experience shows clear success
Practice speaks a clearer language: Because not only students learn chess. In recent years, educators have also learned the game of kings in advanced training courses - in particular how to prepare and teach the rules in a child-friendly manner. For example Silvia Gerstel and Sandra Lengwenus from the Hamburg-Barmbeker elementary schools Genslerstraße and Ballerstaedtweg. Gerstel and Lengwenus notice every day how their students' chess game has a positive effect on other subjects - not only on mathematics, but also on German and specialist knowledge.
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"If we open an atlas, the children find their way around much faster because they have learned the coordinate system in chess: Queen from d1 to h5," explains Lengwenus on welt.de. Language development is also required. The students have to explain clearly what their characters are doing - according to Lengwenus, this is a successful development of the ability to express themselves.
Chess as a subject
These impressive examples do not go unnoticed and without consequences: chess as a subject (without grades) is currently taught at around ten primary schools in Germany. The starting point was a study by the Center for Psychological Diagnostics at the University of Trier. It took place from 2003 to 2007 at the Olewig elementary school: children who learned chess during these four years were significantly more productive than classmates who were taught in the usual canon of subjects. The math and reading comprehension of the chess players in a comparison test in the fourth grade was twice as good as the national average in Rhineland-Palatinate. The reading comprehension was two and a half times better, the language comprehension three times (!) Higher than that of the non-chess players. The researchers in the study also noticed that low-performing students in particular made strong progress.
Chess in school
"IoE study" raises doubts
However, there are also researchers who question such an overly clear result: A new study by the Institute for Education in London ("IoE study") has tested the Chess effect hypothesis (Jerrim et al., 2016). The study compared a large group (N = 1,965) of schoolchildren between the ages of nine and ten who were taking chess lessons (25-30 hours) with a passive control group of peers (N = 1,900) for over a year. All participants were pre-tested in public exams for language and reading skills, science and mathematics.
One year after the end of the training, the students were retested in the same disciplines. Surprising: the two groups do not differ in any of the results. This result has attracted attention in the UK press (e.g. Pells, 2016) because it not only contradicts previous research, but also challenges the widespread view of many teachers and educators about the perceived benefits of chess training.
Rostock University conducts research in Schwerin
Research is not only carried out abroad: school chess has also become fashionable in Schwerin. Around 75 girls and boys regularly compete on a board at the Lankow elementary school. The game is not played in a group as usual, but in class. Chess is a compulsory subject for first to third graders. At the University of Rostock, students from the Institute for Educational Psychology put the young chess players in Schwerin to the test. Several times during the school year, the children have to take tests to show how clever, patient and memory-strong they are. The tests are also carried out on students from the nearby John Brinckman European School. Chess is not taught there.
In a direct comparison of the schools, the scientists want to determine what effects the board game has on ambition, logical thinking and memory performance of the children, but also on their social skills such as teamwork. In chess, children especially learn to think first and then to take action. Obviously, many chess-playing students approach factual problems in mathematics and other subjects in a more structured manner.
Concentration and fun
Conclusion: a combination of previous research is necessary
The conclusion - in view of the strikingly positive impressions in practice and the more critical state of research - must be a deepening on the part of science. By combining the previous research results it can be determined that the positive results achieved through chess lessons in mathematical performance in elementary school and lower school age are short-term, but are not sustainable enough according to the "IoE study". Consequently, the value of chess as an educational tool needs to be explored more closely. A more rigorous experimental set-up is required in order to exclude the possible placebo effects of chess lessons: The cognitive mechanisms underlying the transfer from chess to mathematical skills and, last but not least, the type and duration of chess lessons are elementary.
An active control group is necessary to understand whether the observed effects on student math performance are chess-specific - or rather placebo effects (after Gobet and Campitelli, 2006). As a cross-check, other enriching activities such as music, art or literature lessons should replace chess. Such a study structure would not rule out that each of these training courses has the same effect for teaching-specific reasons. E.g. because music lessons also increase spatial awareness.
At the end of all analyzes, one thing in particular is undisputed: Chess training increases general comprehension. And that will probably be enough for most interested parents.
Photos: Detlef Lemke
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