The Franklin Chess Center's 2nd Floor Tournament Room with a portrait of Paul MorphyNovember 28, 2019 – As much pride as we take in the courses that Chess in Schools has developed for teachers, we are always keen to discover how other experts in the Chess in Education (CIE) field conduct teacher training.

Part 2 of this article discusses the training content of the Introduction to Teaching Chess in Schools (ITTCIS) taught by Dr. Jeff Bulington. Students know him as “Dr. B.” To the adults who attended the two-day course at the Franklin Chess Center in Meadville, MS, Dr. Bulington (the doctorate is in education) comes across as a modern-day Renaissance man: educator, philosopher, intellectual, adventurer (signing up for a 10-year stint in rural Meadville, MS), and master story-teller who can weave together tales of chess, language arts, mathematics, and life skills in ways that keep primary children enthralled.

I wanted to learn about Dr. Jeff Burlington’s methods and to understand the similarities and differences with the Chess in Schools course. Jerry Nash and I had also taken similar training offered by the European Chess Union, so that too was a baseline for comparison.

There were a number of similarities between Bulington’s ITTCIS and the Chess in the Classroom courses offered by Chess in Schools. Both programs share common assumptions about:

  1. the benefits of CIE
  2. the importance of teacher-driven instruction; that is, having training delivered by persons with training in pedagogy, child psychology, and classroom management.
  3. Recognition that CIE is distinctly different from competitive chess. [Although if you are fortunate enough to engage a trainer with Dr. Burlington’s talents you may be able to deliver strong results in both realms.]
  4. To justify a role in the classroom, CIE needs to impart cognitive skills that are transferable to the 21st Century Skills training that drives much of today’s educational goals.
  5. A deep appreciation of the importance of pedagogy and psychology to good CIE training. Both Bulington and Nash come at this with different styles: Dr. B as in a serious intellectual fashion;  Jerry Nash with a folksy humor: “My wife tells me about some of the problems she encounters in her primary grade class room. Now I realize you probably don’t have students like this, but ….”

Several differences stood out between Bulington’s ITTCIS class and our own Chess in the Classroom – Level 1:

  1. 2-day vs. 4-day class. Dr. Bulington’s 2-day course corresponds closely to what Chess in Schools (CIS) offers as its 2-day Advanced course.  The 2-day course, like the Introductory course of the European Chess Union, demands more of its teacher participants. In my opinion, it had a “master class” quality which has much to offer to teachers who bring education credentials and classroom experience as well as some experience in teaching chess to children. Many of the teachers who went through our (CIS’s) 4-day training were from schools just starting chess programs; teachers needed the extra 2 days to gain confidence in their chess skills and making the connections to 21st Century skills. Still, it is easier to sell a two-day course than a 4-day course, particularly if training takes place during the school year.
  2. Chess as children’s theater. Pieces on the chessboard come to life in various stories that cross lessons. Little Elizabeth (a pawn on her e7 home square) needs to get to school (e1) in order to be promoted, but she spots a creepy king standing on the a2 street corner a few blocks from her school. Her Dad is asleep in the corner bedroom on h8. Dad can be grouchy if she wakes him up early. Should she run for the school or wake up Dad? The lesson employs a wonderful blend of drama, relatable childhood dilemmas, impulse control, risk assessment, critical thinking, and life skills with dives into language arts (the meaning of “vulnerability”) and math. (Can Elizabeth make it safely to the school if she tries to run for it on her own?) Such stories are powerful teaching tools that we will be adding to our CIS courses.
  3. An absence of explicit connections of chess to education standards. These connections are implicit in the teaching delivered by Dr. Bulington. The assumption is that teachers will recognize them and use them on their own. In our experience, this may be problematic for teachers who have not taught chess before, or have limited chess experience. Our CIS 4-day course devotes some time to explicit discussions of the connections, development of lesson plans, and the importance of being able to make the case for CIE to parents, administrators and other teachers.
  4. Abundant (too much?) use of chess exercises having to do with recognizing visual patterns and piece mobility, and control of squares. [Not just exercises in recognizing tactics.] One consequence is that such puzzles do help student shift being overly focused on the squares that have pieces on them, to being aware of the significance of empty squares. Dr. B takes many of his puzzles from an old software program called Chess Tutor. I did not have an opportunity to talk with Dr. B about his rationale for giving these such prominence.
  5. Use of Minigames. Like the European Chess Union, the ITTCIS class makes heavy use of minigames. Elizabeth, now a Knight, goes Berry Pickin.  Chaos & Order is employed as a technique to dispel youthful energy before switching to and activity requiring focus. As a general rule, minigames are very time-efficient exercises that exercise one or two elements of chess training in a game context that takes no more than a few minutes. We recognize minigames as a best practice and have added more of them to our CIS classes.
  6. Location Offerings: Introduction to Teaching Chess in Schools is offered periodically in Mississippi. Chess in Schools will work with sponsors to offer programs at any location in the US.

Dr. Bulington’s Introduction to Teaching Chess in Schools successfully incorporates many of the CIE concepts and best practices that we have encountered abroad and incorporated in our own training. The University of Mississippi’s Center for Mathematics & Science Education deserves kudos for sponsoring this class and sets an example for how universities can play a role in bringing the United States catch up with other developing countries in realizing the benefits of CIE. We appreciate the open exchange of ideas (both shared and differences) which help to advance best practices. From this we all gain clarity as to what does and what does not work.

Dr. B has been asked by the US Chess Scholastic Council to chair their Chess in Education subcommittee. We are delighted that he has accepted.

Article by Neil Dietsch