Monday, September 28, 2009

Chess and Self-Control

Chess Squared from Schools First on Vimeo.
I have been thinking about the effect of chess on self-control, especially as educators like myself have become more interested in self-control as a predictor of school success. In "Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control" (New York Times Magazine, September 25 2009), Paul Tough writes about the new interest that programs for young people have in self-regulation:
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.

There is a popular belief that executive-function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior. In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period. In laboratory studies, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps; when children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it. But when researchers try to take those experiments out of the lab and into the classroom, their success rate is much lower.
Tough goes on to describe a program being developed in some pre-schools that immerses kids in serious make-believe play activities to keep their attention focused and motivate engagement. It's an interesting idea, but you have to wonder if just getting kids to play games like chess could be as effective and readily available as a curricular addition.

Part of the recent interest in self-control stems from the rediscovery of Walter Mischel's famous "Marshmallow Test" (which is both documented and re-enacted on YouTube), discussed by Jonah Lehrer in his excellent article "Don't: The Secret to Self-Control" (The New Yorker, May 18, 2009). In this classic experiment, Mischel and his associates presented a series of individual pre-schoolers with a single marshmallow on a plate. Researchers then said they were going to leave the room briefly in order to get an entire plateful of marshmallows, which the children could have if they could avoid eating the first marshmallow until the researchers returned. As you might predict, most kids ate the marshmallow as soon as they were left alone, and quite a few ate it before the researcher even left the room. But what Mischel found is that some were able to distract themselves from eating it and succeed in delaying gratification. Later, and almost by accident, he discovered that the kids who could delay gratification were much more successful in school, and still later (as Lehrer documents) more successful in life. After all, if you can delay gratification (or learn to delay it), then you can accomplish a lot of things. Many studies have followed Mischel's and demonstrated just that.

Oh, The Temptation from Steve V on Vimeo.

The critical question with all issues of chess and self-control is whether or not self-control can be taught. And if it can be taught, can chess teach it? After all, you have to ask whether chess teaches self-control or whether kids with good self-control are able to succeed at chess and therefore stay involved with a chess curriculum. I certainly believe that chess teaches self-control, but it would be nice to have proof. It would also be useful to have ideas on the specific type of chess activities or chess instruction that will encourage self-control most of all. After all, my own experience of teaching chess to young kids is that it often resembles barely controlled chaos. But if you are going to have a chess program to encourage self-control, then maybe you need to emphasize certain aspects of the game and have policies that require self-control in the classroom.

In my initial research, I see promising signs. At the very least, many seem to agree that chess can teach self-control even if they are not pointing to conclusive proof of the matter. The New Jersey Legislature passed a law in the 1990s that allowed chess to be taught as part of the second grade curriculum because, in part, "When youngsters play chess they must call upon higher-order thinking skills, analyze actions and consequences, and visualize future possibilities" (quoted in "The Role of Chess in Modern Education" by Marcel Milat) -- which are skills important to self-control. After all, if you can think ahead, you are likely to wait for the plateful of marshmallows rather than eating the one in front of you.

The Chess-Squared Program in Australia (see video above) is clearly having a positive impact on students, and there is some suggestion that this is because of the ways that chess impacts self-control and engagement. Math teacher Steve Carroll has written some excellent posts about this at his blog, where he points to the work of Fernando Moreno, whose book, Teaching Life Skills through Chess: a Guide for Educators and Counselors, suggests that self-regulation, concentration and foresight are among the skills that chess imparts:
It is widely claimed chess is a game that engenders and encourages positive cognitive and attitudinal traits, also known as the affective domain, in those who embrace it. The attitudinal traits it encourages are; impulse control, improved concentration, resilience, managing feelings and deferment of gratification.

The skills in the cognitive domain it develops, amongst others, are; self talk, problem solving, forward thinking, anticipating consequences, meta-cognition and reflectivity...

It has been suggested students aren’t encouraged to think ahead at school. When students play chess they are encouraged to set clearly defined goals for themselves and choose strategic methods to achieve the desired outcomes. They then evaluate and compare results with their objectives, and evaluate the outcomes in terms of the strategies they adopted.

Chess is a game of prediction, calculation and pattern recognition. Predicting consequences and pattern recognition are key elements of mathematics and chess. In chess games players have to visualize and predict consequences. This is an area schools seldom teach students how to improve in.
Other programs (such as Chess for Success or a program in Kansas City) make similar claims, and these all make intuitive sense. I'd just like some hard evidence.

I hope to explore this topic further and welcome input. I am interested because I have begun working on a program at Rutgers where I have developed courses in writing, math and chess for the young people, and I think self-control should be an important part of the curriculum. I have started research and will likely put together a bibliography in these pages. There appears to be a lot of good material coming out, especially from Alexey Root, whose books I have begun reading. Reader suggestions for further reading are most welcome.


Brad Rosen said...


I haven't stopped by in a while, but once again you have all the goods.. very interesting post!!

And I'll send the posse your way, despite your close affiliation with those loathsome NJ Knockouts..

best chess regards,

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks, Brad. Glad you can get past my being from NJ...

Steve Carroll said...

Thanks for the commnets Michael. An interesting blog.
Steve Carroll

Anonymous said...

I don't believe a word. Pseudo science...pseu psue psuedio....

....just look at Bobby Fisher. Best Chess player (for a time) who ever was. AND! A certifiable maniac.....terrible emotional development...became a Adolph Hitler. Absolutely a the disappointment of so many fans. Chess has its place....but, emotional I.Q.....WRONG! NO WAY! Like Al GoreBall Warming style science.

Julia said...

I would like to teach my children to play chess this summer - Could you recommend a book?

Michael Goeller said...

Hi Julia --

Depending on whether or not your children are themselves of reading age, you might be better off getting a computer program to help teach them and then using material online. Good computer programs include Learn to Play Chess with Fritz & Chesster (which comes in various formats for MAC, PC and game system -- and there are three different volumes at increasingly difficult levels, best for age 5 plus), Dinosaur Chess (PC only, fine for age 4 even), or Majestic Chess (a little darker and reading-involved, so best for older kids, 7 to late teen). There are lots more computer programs and such, but these are three I know that are good for learning the game.

Otherwise, there are lots of books for teaching chess to kids. Chess for Children, How to Beat Your Dad at Chess, etc. are all good and can be found at many stores. You should also check your local library. You might also get ideas from my series on teaching chess to kids, which includes downloads.

Julia said...

Thank you so much! They are 7,9, and 10 and like fantasy novels so the Majestic chess sounds like something they'd enjoy. We're also reading Through the Looking Glass this summer so that should be a fun connection to chess once they learn the basics.

I really appreciate your advice :-)

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Ella Schiassi said...

It is good to know that chess has a nice effect on our self control. I love playing chest with my siblings because of the excitement and competitiveness that I feel.

Unknown said...

Chess & self control plays very important role to expose one to other. Control of emotion makes it possible. Hope this will help visitors.

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