Monday, July 18, 2016

What schools could learn from chess

Chess is the great equalizer. Learning and mastering chess takes ability, drive, passion, curiosity, and hard work. Chess teaches humility, patience, concentration and an open mind about people from all walks of life. It guarantees moments of defeat and teaches how to rebound from failure.

And schools could learn a lot from how it's done.

Chess tournaments group opponents based on their "rating," which is calculated from previous wins and losses. Gender, race, language fluency, or age have no bearing. Five-year-olds compete against 50-year-olds. It doesn't matter how long you have practiced the game, how old you are or where you have gone to school. Yes, you can find clubs for young children; however, real-world tournaments focus on the game, not on assumptions about inherent differences based on age or other characteristics.

A few things kids learn from chess tournaments:

  • Chess players hone their powers of concentration and focus. There is no room for distraction. They delay gratification for the benefit of long-term goals. During tournaments, they sit for long hours in uncomfortable chairs, learn to ignore that fidgety person sitting next to them, and grab a snack between games. The same distractions present in classrooms (cell phones, computers, the interesting person across the room) are just as tempting - but they learn to resist.

  • Players also develop restraint and humility. Winners don't do a victory dance in the end-zone. They politely smile and shake their opponent's hand at the end of a game. Even five-year-olds try to restrain themselves from shrieking when they win. They learn from their mistakes, see their "failures" as learning opportunities, and shrug off discouragement. They know it's just a game, even if they are rewarded with powerful life lessons.

  • Ability, talent and passion only go so far. Dedicated chess players devote hours and hours to studying moves, strategies, and plays that masters have performed. They practice with real-life opponents, coaches, and even players online. They catch games whenever they can. They quickly realize that they will reach a cap to their skills unless they study and practice. No amount of talent will propel them further.

Chess isn't for everyone. Even though it is a relatively low-cost activity, boosts academic achievement and cognitive abilities, and has shown benefits in inner city schools, it certainly won't interest everyone. Schools provide a valuable service when they offer chess classes or clubs to their students. But not every student will be drawn to chess - any more than creative writing or woodshop.

What schools can learn from chess is more than just the educational benefits it provides; it is how the framework, process, and incidental effects of the game itself can be translated into the classroom.

Some important lessons that schools could learn from chess:

1. The recognition that both ability and dedicated practice are essential challenges the grit-talent dichotomy that is raging in some education circles. This unnecessary division among educators pits the role of innate ability against so-called grit and resilience. Chess quickly dispels this false distinction.

2. Competition in chess is fun - but also steeped in a drive toward long-range goals. Winning is a stepping stone to a higher rating and a new level of competition in the next tournament - not an end goal. This is quite different from the finality of most grades, projects and presentations children are accustomed to in school. It also differs from some schools' attempts to devise artificial venues for competition, such as "field days" where half of the school competes against one another. Competition and education devoid of meaning provide few lasting benefits.

3. Most students shun academic risk-taking to avoid any chance of failing. Much has been written about the benefits accrued from failure experiences.  A recent article summed this up:
"Failure, and its close cousin, regret, teach foresight, problem-solving and (hopefully) better restraint next time. Failure also teaches us compassion and empathy, because it humbles us and knocks the smugness out of us. Best of all, it teaches resilience, which is surely the best trait any parent can foster in a child."
If schools could use failure as an opportunity for learning and personal growth (especially throughout grades K-8 when letter grades have no impact on college admissions), it could create a culture that is less risk-averse, less shame-based, and more focused on achieving meaningful and individualized progress. 

4. Schools could start to group children based on ability, regardless of age. Rigid policies about kindergarten entrance dates, refusal to accelerate gifted students, and fears about intermingling students of different ages need to be reevaluated in light of what occurs in chess tournaments. Recognizing that children develop at different rates and a willingness to accommodate this will go a long way toward eliminating boredom at school for many children.

What might work in schools

In an effort to develop innovative programming to help children of all abilities - from at-risk students to those who are gifted - schools could learn some lessons from chess. Although chess participants tend to be self-selecting, they still comprise people from a range of cultural and economic backgrounds, and include people of all ages who exhibit varied strengths and weaknesses. Schools might consider that what works at chess tournaments - meaningful competition, respectful engagement, grouping individuals based on ability rather than age, and using failure as a springboard for further growth - could work in schools as well.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Labels stick: The harmful impact of mislabeling children

In recent times, diagnosing ourselves and others has become commonplace. How often have you heard someone randomly labeled as "bipolar" just because of mood swings? Or presumed to have ADHD if they keep losing their keys?

What is it about labels that make them so inherently appealing? Why do we throw out psychiatric terms, make pronouncements about someone's functioning, and offer lay diagnoses without background knowledge or training?

But it feels good...

It can be reassuring to summarize symptoms, to wrap up information in a neat package, to proclaim that we have an answer. It feels good to think we have figured it all out. The problem is... this just might minimize, devalue, and inaccurately pigeonhole someone - and cause immeasurable harm. Especially when it comes from an authority figure.

What happens in school...

Children can be difficult. They try our patience. They drive teachers crazy. Whether due to frustration, ignorance, or genuine concern, children receive labels from those who lack the training or certification to diagnose them. Popular diagnoses come and go - oppositional-defiant, ADHD, "on the spectrum..." When children raise trouble, the problem is simplified if it is reduced to a disorder to be treated, rather than a behavior to be managed in the classroom.

Mental health diagnoses exist for a reason - to convey specific and presumably accurate information, carefully chosen by professionals trained and licensed to make these determinations. But when words are tossed about carelessly, the long-term damage of such labeling is rarely considered. Many teachers or other professionals who casually mention diagnostic terms to parents may not appreciate how these words become imprinted in parents' hearts and minds - even long after such diagnoses may have been discounted.

Case example 1: 
A parent of Jonah,* a 6-y/o gifted boy, was pulled aside by his first grade teacher. She shared her concerns that he was well-behaved, but often preferred to play by himself, building lego castles, drawing, even writing elaborate stories. While she marveled at his academic strengths, and claimed that he interacted well when he was "forced" to socialize, she wondered if he might have some Asperger's traits, and suggested that the parent keep an eye out for this. 
Gifted children are often misdiagnosed. After speaking with the parent, I was able to reassure her that his behaviors sounded typical for a gifted child, and that his teacher was not in a position to diagnose him.

Case example 2: 
Derek,* at age 7, was in occupational therapy due to fine motor skill deficits. He was pulled out of class once a week with several other students, one of whom was a close friend. The pull-out was a fun experience, and he and his friend had a great time together. At an IEP meeting, the occupational therapist suggested to the parents that he might have ADHD because he seemed so active and distractible, despite no other corroborating evidence of ADHD behavior in any other settings. 
This occupational therapist could not appreciate two rambunctious seven-year-old boys having fun together. Unable to contain their energy, he assumed that there must be a problem. So he interjected his opinion, which was both unfounded, and quite distressing to the parents. After reassurance from the child's teacher, pediatrician, and school psychologist, the parents were able to relax and realize that the therapist was off-base in his claims. But years later, they still worried and wondered if they were missing something, ever alert to concerns about a problem that did not exist.

The problem with labels 

Labels follow children throughout school, even when they are not verified. Rumors of oppositional traits, for example, may be passed from teacher to teacher, affecting expectations about the child each year in school. Parents may feel devastated to learn of potential problems that do not actually exist. Even when a child's behavior, learning problems or psychological functioning warrant a diagnosis from a trained professional, there are sensitive and useful methods for sharing that information with the family. No child (or adult) is their diagnosis; it is critical to support recognition of the whole children with all of his or her strengths, abilities, quirks, struggles and uniqueness.

The language we use matters. Let's be careful with how we label others. We teach our children to refrain from name-calling and bullying. We teach them to be culturally sensitive. We also need to model restraint when it comes to labeling and diagnosing the behaviors of others.

* Names have been changed for reasons of confidentiality