Saturday, April 21, 2007

Father and Son Chess - A Learning Process


Event: A father teaching his seven year old son to play chess.
Setting: A Sunday Afternoon – February 4th 2007. A large dining room table sits at the center of a well decorated room. Father and son position themselves at one end of the table alongside each other with a chess board in between them. Chairs are comfortable but slightly formal. Room temperature and humidity in the environment appear to be set to an optimum level. The chess board used has a cardboard base, all the pieces are wooden and easy to manipulate for both parties. Both father and son are casually dressed.
Participants: Father – age 38. Son – age 7. I (the observer) sit on the other side of the table taking notes with a clear view of the activity on hand. Both participants are aware of the purpose of my presence.
Code: Language used is English with the father simplifying his terminology to facilitate the exchange of meaningful dialogue. The son’s speech is typical of a suburban upper middle class seven year old male. The father, like myself, speaks with a South African accent and is of Jewish descent.
Topic: The topic focuses almost exclusively on the father identifying each of the distinct chess pieces and demonstrating kinesthetically how each piece moves.
The purpose of the game is expounded on. My observation continues until the beginning of a real game.

Research Notes: Use of field journal to record various nuances and key observations. Point form preferred. Observer interruption minimized. Sense of informal note taking orchestrated as efficiently as possible in order not to detract from the attention of the observed parties.


Took 10 minutes or so for the two to finally settle down to begin the session. They had arranged this ‘get-together’ a few days earlier after the son had seen a program on TV that had mentioned the game.
The father opened up the board and explained to his son that chess was a thinking game and that the main idea was to prevent the king (which he picked up and identified) from being able to move. If the king of your opponent was trapped in such a way that it couldn’t move then you won by checkmate.
The son was initially impatient and wanted to know what all the other pieces were used for.
The father told him to wait as all ‘will be revealed soon’.
First piece shown was the pawn. The father explained that although the pawn cannot move far they can be very useful in a game to block your opponent. The son was impressed with the fact that a pawn can move vertically but take other pieces diagonally. The father mentioned that each side had eight pawns to start off with.
The next piece demonstrated was the knight (horse). The father explained how the knight can move in an L-shape. He placed a knight in the center of the board and then showed all the possible squares that the knight could move to by following the L-shaped pattern. He then handed the piece to his son who proceeded to replicate what he had just seen. The son’s effort was largely successful although a few times he ran ahead three squares instead of two before making the turn into the L-pattern. The father corrected him by emphasizing (with sensitivity) that the L-shape move has to involve three squares. The son then tried again and it appeared as though he had mastered the concept.
The father said that there was ‘something neat about the knight as well’ in that it is the only piece in chess that can ‘jump other pieces’. The son wanted to know what he meant by that. The father then placed two pawns in front of the knight and then proceeded to jump them. The son’s face lit up and he smiled.
Next came the bishop. The son first of all wanted to know what a bishop is. The father explained to him that the bishop was an important person in the church –‘kinda like a super rabbi for Christians’. The son nodded to indicate understanding and laughed. The father then continued by stating that the bishop was ‘Mr. Diagonal’. ‘Bishops can move right across the board but had to always stay on the same coloured square’. The son grabbed one of the bishops and started ‘zooming’ around the board with it. The father told him that he had the idea and then added that each side in a chess game has two bishops one for each colour square. The son then took the second bishop and began moving around the board with both of them together. After a minute or so the son appeared comfortable with the idea and then grabbed one of the rooks which he referred to as a ‘castle’.
The father showed how the rooks moved both horizontally and vertically. At which point the son made an astute observation that all possible moves could then be covered by the rooks and the bishops together. The father was taken aback by such a realization and smiled at me (with the kind of smile that says ‘isn’t my kid bright?’). I smiled back.
Sensing that his son was progressing through this mini-lesson., the father then introduced the Queen, which he said had ‘all the powers of both a bishop and a rook and was therefore the single strongest piece on the board. The son interrupted by stating that he thought the king was the most important piece. ‘Yes’ said the father ‘but for different reasons’. ‘In chess you have to prevent the king from moving at all in order to win but the king itself can only move one block at a time and was therefore in a way weak. ‘The queen can move across many squares but if you lose the queen the game doesn’t end’ he continued. The son seemed a bit confused by this concept and fired back with the retort ‘Why can’t the king move many squares?’ The father sat back and thought about this. ‘That’s how it was made up when the game was invented. It makes Chess matches interesting’ he said. ‘I guess you don’t want to make the king too powerful. The game becomes boring’ The son still appeared to express his doubts as indicated by his shrugging shoulder motion. Lets play said the father ‘I’ll show you’. ‘Yay!’ said the son.

The father then started to set up the pieces and instructed the son to follow as shown. Now they were ready to play. The first move by the father (playing white) was the conventional pawn to king four. The game has begun.

(Total Time of lesson to this point: 25 minutes Although the session continued for ten minutes after this point I will end this particular set of observations here to discuss the analysis of the observations).


The father chose a ‘bottom-up’ approach to teach his son the game. This involved a breakdown of the subject (chess in this case) into its simplest units (the pieces) and an understanding of the strengths and limitations of each piece before progression toward the end initiative, the playing of the game, was undertaken. This contrasts sharply with the ‘let-us-play-and-see-and-we-will-learn-on-the fly’ approach often used when first introduced to such board games as Monopoly and Careers. The latter focuses on the general, before dissecting out the specific, and carries with it a top-down philosophy.

This is not to say that the father avoided the big picture of the game. To the contrary his first concept passed on to the son is the big picture of the game’s overall intention viz. the checkmating of the king.

The dad’s systematic explanation of each of the pieces (from weakest to strongest) fits in with a rational linear explanation that to some extent may be the product of his training as an engineer, where reductionist cartesian thought is often used to unravel the complexity of a system. Thankfully for him, the son had the patience (for the most part) to follow the buildup of knowledge without giving into the inclination right away of wanting to play the game immediately.

To a large extent the father made excellent use of alternating the pure transmission of lesson with a hands-on approach. Allowing his son to play with the pieces, thereby solidifying the workings in his mind of their respective dynamics, was a very useful approach. This was most important with respect to the knight whose workings require assisted learning facilitation to incorporate into the knowledge profile.

Language was key to the learning process that occurred here. At no point did the father rush through the explanation (despite the temptation) and was justifiably rewarded by his son reaching the rich conclusion regarding the aggregate strength of both the rook and the bishop – a vital stepping stone to appreciating the power of the Queen.

Simplification of terminology was essential – such as the use of the term L-Shaped – as well as language colloquialisms like ‘neato’ and ‘Mr. Diagonal’ which contextualize the foreign nature of the knowledge learnt to better accommodate the cognitive dissonance that has occurred.

Placing ideas in a prior frame of reference were also noteworthy especially the description of the bishop as a ‘super rabbi’ - a construct which fits in well with the son’s upbringing in a fairly observant Jewish family.
My chief criticism of this learning process is that it has a feel of a monkey-see-monkey-do approach which detracts from a constructivist methodology. However on an efficiency level, it is quick and direct, bringing together the foundations which can then be linked together in the nexus of the actual game.

This I believe was the father’s intention and although he understood that all knowledge cannot be delivered immediately, for fear of assimilation overload and rejection, his decision to progress through the increment of the building block has merit. A point further emphasized by his son’s verbal acclamation of enthusiasm before the board setup.
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