Monday, January 28, 2013

A Chess Teacher Shows Students How to Learn from Experience

When I attended Catholic schools between first grade and eighth grade, the emphasis was on conforming to the rules, not learning how to think for yourself. Things didn't change much in my four years at public high school. My experience probably wasn't unique.

And yet, to handle the challenges you face in life and to learn from mistakes and failures, you’ve got to know how to think through a situation, consider different possibilities and consequences, and apply lessons from the experience to future situations. Unfortunately, very few kids have mentors who help them learn these vital skills.

Jayvon Bullock, I.S. 318 chess team
And so Chapter 3 of How Children Succeed resonated deeply with me. In this chapter, “How to Think,” author Paul Tough describes the amazing accomplishments of the students at Intermediate School (I.S.) 318 in Brooklyn in the world of chess competition. What makes the story even more remarkable is that most kids on the team comes from families living below the poverty line.

Elizabeth Spiegel is the full-time chess teacher at the school. Year after year, her students in grades 6, 7 and 8 win top honors in national championships. And through Tough’s masterful depiction of her approach during the tournaments, we discover why.

After each match, whether it’s a win or a loss, Spiegel sits down with students and requires them to go through every single play. She then coaches them on what they could have done differently to get a better result. She combines constructive and positive feedback with questions that get them to think about what happened, why it happened that way and what they could have done differently to get a better result. Her goal is to get them to think strategically so they are better prepared for the next game.

As Tough reports, “Spiegel tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them.”

Spiegel knows that her efforts to help students with chess carry over into the real world, too, as this comment from her interview on The Creativity Post illustrates:

“When you play chess, and you put all your effort into trying to win, it’s helpful to sit down with a teacher and have them take your thoughts seriously, to help you unpack the game, so that you understand why you lost and where it came from… and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier. And I think that’s an important thing for them to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.”

Time and again in the examples Tough describes in his book, Spiegel walks one student after another through this “learning from experience” process. The impact on their performance in chess, in school and in life makes for inspiring reading.

And you don’t have to be a chess teacher to influence the development of critical thinking skills with the preteens and teens in your life. Get the free ebook by Denny Coates, How to Give Your Teen a Superior Mind, and learn how to stimulate a young person’s brain to exercise good judgment and decision making.


  1. i never win when i'm playing chess.. but i hope that does not mean i'm a loser in life


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