Saturday 1 July 2017

How and Why I taught my Year 7s to Play Chess

Last Monday I stumbled upon an article in the Guardian titled "Schools teach chess to help "difficult" children concentrate". Whilst I wouldn't describe my year 7 class as "difficult" (at least not on a public and non-anonymous blog), the article did strike a chord with me when it talked about how "as schools grapple with screen addiction and short attention spans, chess is also seen as a way to encourage 'digital detox'." All of the year 7s in my school were given the opportunity at the start of the year to buy an ipad mini at a very very very reduced price. Almost all of them have one, and it appears to me that an alarmingly high percentage of them are addicted to it. I see them walking through the corridors with their eyes glued to the screens. They sit in the canteen at lunch time staring at their devices, not talking to anyone, not noticing anything that's going on around them. In my lessons, where I have a strict no-ipads-on-the-desks rule, I see my students reach for their ipads every few minutes, just flick the screen on and off, as if to reassure themselves that it's still there. I was frustrated when I would give my students an open-ended task or a puzzle to solve and they would look at it for five seconds before declaring it "impossible!" and giving up, and turning their attention to their fidget spinners instead. The Guardian article gave me hope that chess might be the solution to all of my problems. And so began the ---- ---- Academy Chess for Success Project.

I recruited a former chess club champion SCITT trainee and a chess-loving ex-student who owed me a favour, both of whom have been invaluable in setting up this project because, well, did I mention I had no idea how to actually play chess?  I wasn't too worried about that though, as in the timeless words of Marge Simpson, "I've just gotta stay one lesson ahead of the kid!" So during a year 13 Further Maths lesson I got a particularly nerdy student to give me my first and last lesson in chess. I learnt how the pieces move. I learnt about castling. I learnt that to win, I needed to trap my opponent's King. But I had absolutely no idea how to go about doing that.

I decided that I needed to think carefully about how to teach my students how to play chess. I knew from my experience of learning chess that knowing how the pieces move isn't enough. I had an idea of how to do it and after doing some research I found a WikiHow article (method 2) that was similar to the idea I had had, so I decided to go with that.

Here's exactly how I did it:

Lesson 1

At this point I only had one chess board for every 6 students (scrounged from the library). I started the lesson by explaining the benefits of chess and telling my students why I had decided we were going to abandon our scheme of learning for the next few lessons and play a game instead. Then I gave them the pawns. I told them where to place them. I explained the movement of the pawns. And then I told them their objective was to get one of their pawns to their opponent's end of the board. (I feel it is my duty at this point to warn any teachers planning to do something similar that the word "pawn" will be very amusing to some of your students, and I encourage you to develop a semi-Scottish accent if possible). The students played 3 v 3 and were immediately engaged in this game, which does sound rather basic but is actually still quite a rich source of critical thinking and strategising. The disadvantage of only have 5 chess boards became an advantage because it forced students to communicate with each other and verbalise their thought processes.

About half way through the lesson I introduced the Bishop. I explained the Bishop's movements, and told them their aim was still the same. They learnt how to use their Bishops to defend their pawns.

The lesson was a big success, with students that usually spend more time in the corridor than in the lesson actually engaged and concentrating for long periods of time. To my great surprise, absolutely no flicking/throwing/inserting into orifices of chess pieces occurred during the entire lesson. The students left already looking forward to their next chess lesson. And I was too!

Lesson 2

By this point I now had 9 chess boards (thank you Amazon Prime) and a ratio of one board to every 3 students. Interestingly, some students still chose to play in bigger groups. I started by introducing the Rook, and letting them play for a while. A third of the way through, I introduced the Knight, and then at two thirds I introduced the Queen. The aim was still to get a pawn to your opponent's edge of the board. The students were still really enjoying it. Several students told me they had gone home the previous day and asked their parents for a chess set. A few had installed a chess app on their ipads (sort of defeating the purpose, but oh well). A few students had even come up to the maths area at break time and lunchtime asking if they could play.

I told the class that the following week we would be having two tournaments taking place at the same time: a competitive one with prizes for first, second and third place, and a friendly one for those who don't like to compete. Several students got really excited about this, and were determined to win.

Lesson 3

As soon as the students came in they grabbed their boards, set up, and started playing. They could hardly wait! I had to interrupt them almost straight away though, as I had a new addition to make. I introduced the King, and crucially, introduced the new objective: to kill your opponent's King! I did not at this point mention check or check mate (concepts which I think are a little bit challenging), and one of my students who had already known how to play chess did give me a slightly incredulous look when I talked about killing the King (and he turned to the trainee teacher and they exchanged a look that basicaly said "pah, n00b"). After playing for around thirty minutes I approached individual games and explained check and check mate to them. In the last ten minutes or so I mentioned promotion, and with that I had pretty much finished teaching the rules of chess. I will casually drop castling into lesson 4, and some advanced players will be taught en passant too (once I have learnt it myself).

Lesson 4 is on Monday, so I'll have to let you know later how that works out. But I should have 5 more boards arriving, which means finally the students can play one on one.

What I've Discovered so Far

Everyone in my class seems to be enjoying playing chess. This surprised me, I thought that at least one or two would hate it, or would resist learning it because they perceive it as boring or difficult.

That student that I've described as "incapable of concentrating on anything for more than 5 seconds" is actually on his way to becoming a grand master and can sit in a zen-like state of deep intellectual thought for a good ten minutes as he considers his next move. So maybe it's my maths lessons that are the problem, not him?

Chess brings people together. I have never seen so much collaboration and communication in my classroom before. They are all talking about the game. There is next to no off-topic chatting and the students are talking to the people on their assigned table, who are not necessarily their friends.

The students actually feel like they're becoming cleverer. My students are proudly telling me that their memory is improving and they are becoming better at concentrating. This is probably the placebo effect but that's fine with me!

Moving Forwards

I will keep you updated with how the project goes. I'm sort of planning on spending all of my year 7 lessons until the end of term on this project. I'm lucky in that my academy is allowing me to ignore my scheme of learning and do this. I really hope some of you reading this are inspired to try the same thing in your school. If you do, let me know how it goes!

Emma x x x


  1. Hi Emma, my year 7s have been playing chess this week as well! I didn't need to teach mine the rules, but I think we work in very different schools. I will have to ask my students if they feel any 'cleverer'. I think that allowing their competitive nature come out gave mine the motivation to concentrate for longer.

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