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Game of chess enhances critical thinking in school children: New challenge for educators and parents.

  • Renaissance University Ugbawka Enugu


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Mefoh Philip C.
Ugwu Lawrence E.
Department of Psychology
University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
The world is moving toward an emerging creative class that values conceptual knowledge and
original thinking, but ironically the current educational system in Nigeria is going in the opposite
direction as if teachers are educating children for the 19th instead of the 21st century. The
educational system seems to have adopted the metaphor of the child as “empty vessel”, pour in
the facts and the child will passively absorb the material. School children are educated to think
that there is only one answer. The result: school children seldom use critical thinking skills to
solve complex and real-world problems. This paper posits that the current educational system
that pressure school children to cram academic curricula and to perceive play as a waste of time
need to be revised. If educators and parents hope that school children will join the creative class
in the 21st century, to take Nigeria to the forefront of ingenuity and innovation, then the school
curricula should be revised to allow school children learn playfully to think outside the box or to
colour outside the lines. This paper demonstrates through a robust review of literature that the
game of chess possesses a developmentally appropriate pedagogical strategy that can
systematically motivate school children into critical thinking.
Keywords: Creativity; Critical thinking; Curriculum; Game of chess; Pedagogical strategy
The situations in Nigerian public schools especially primary and junior secondary
schools, where school children are encouraged to recite answers, to fill in the blanks, and not to
go beyond the facts undermine government’s efforts to address critical thinking skills in
schools. Critical thinking is important to enable students deal effectively with social, scientific,
and practical problems (Shakirova, 2007). Critical thinking may be compared to the scientific
method; it is a systematic and procedural approach to the process of thinking. School children
who are able to think critically tend to solve problems more effectively than those who lack the
ability to use it. Scriven and Paul (2007) defined critical thinking as intellectually disciplined
process by actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or
evaluating information gathered from, or generated by observation, experience, reflection,
reasoning, or communication as a guide to belief and action.
Many educators and parents do not seem to believe that children can learn as they play
and that through play children are motivated to learn basic skills they will need for success in
life. Thus, instead of encouraging creativity (thinking outside the box), teachers are requiring
school children to memorize information. The classroom that used to display children’s work
and drawings are now devoting their walls to ‘testing tips’ designed to help children do well on
standardized assessments. This current educational trend that increasingly structure and
standardize school curricula and cut back on recess undermines critical thinking skills in school
children. The game of chess for instance is not merely an idle amusement; rather playing the
game can help sharpen a player’s wit, increases his/her foresight, and strengthens the player’s
ability to solve problems and to interpret the actions of others (United States Chess Federation,
1998). This paper therefore proposes that playing the game of chess can facilitate critical
thinking skills in school children (classes 4 6 of primary school and all secondary schools
students). The paper confronts the prevailing popular assumption that play is a waste of time or
immaterial to children’s development.
Global changes in recent times call for innovations in the school curriculum (Ogunkunle,
2009). Thus, this paper calls for the introduction of the game of chess in senior primary and
secondary school curricula (perhaps as an elective to other creative curricula, such as music and
art) to gear school children into thinking critical thoughts. The objective of this paper is to show
through an extant review of literature that the skills involved the game of chess, such as the
ability to analyze and deduce ideas from a set of general principles, could be transferred to
schoolwork to help school children think critically.
Game of chess in socio-cognitive development of school children
Many educational theorists wrote about the utility of play for children’s development.
Piaget (1951) and Vygotsky (1978) viewed play as an adaptive behaviour that is instrumental in
furthering children’s thinking processes. Children might count sets of small objects over and
over for example, because they apparently gained pleasure from consolidating and practicing
this burgeoning skill. Piaget and Vygotsky saw play as an opportunity for children to learn more
about their world, to stretch to accommodate new ideas, and to foster their imaginations.
Guided plays such as playing the game of chess bridges the gap between real events in the
changing world of a child and the imagination within the child’s head. The game of chess is an
intrinsically fascinating game; chess is a rule-based game and children learn immeasurably from
rule-based game to make decisions that could help them solve problems flexibly (Mefoh, 2007).
This outcome seems to stem from the identical element theory which posits that transfer of
learning/skills from one task to a similar one is a specifically human characteristic. That is,
transfer of learning depends on the proportion to which a learning task and the transfer task
are similar.
Studies (e.g., Dauvergne, 2000; Ferguson, 1986; Ferguson, 1995) demonstrate that there
exist similarities in the attainment of success in playing chess game and in achievement of high
scores in school work. The game of chess has been found to enhance concentration, patience,
perseverance, as well as develop creativity, intuition, memory, and the ability to analyze and
deduce ideas from a set of general principles (Dauvergne, 2000). Chess game may lead to self-
regulation skills, and this is central to the individual’s choices and decisions that may lead to the
mastery of higher cognitive processes. Nigerian teachers and parents require her school
children to be able to solve problems and make effective decisions. Unfortunately there are
four barriers that impede the integration of critical thinking in schools. They include: lack of
training, lack of information, preconceptions, and time constraints. Elementary/primary and
secondary school teachers know their content and receive training in the methods of
instruction, but little if any of their training is devoted specifically on how to teach critical
thinking skills. Broadbear (2003) argued that teachers often are not trained in critical thinking
Studies (e.g., Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003; Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2006) show that
rather than teach school children how to think; the current school curricula teach students
what to think. Treating children like empty vessels whose heads can be filled with knowledge
leads to problems. Children who have not learned to learn (i.e., children who are programmed
and structured on core academic curricula), often learn less academically than their peers who
are being taught concepts directly but in a more playful manner. Hirsh-Pasek and Glinkoff
(2003) demonstrated that when school children are in environments where they have choices,
and where they are encouraged to follow their interests, learning takes place best. The game of
chess provides this opportunity and more. The great Soviet encyclopaedia defined chess as an
art appearing in the form of a game. Chess encourages the artist hiding within an individual to
come out, which challenges the player to become inventive. Playing the game of chess also
facilitate friendships and promote cooperative pro-social behaviours and attitudes (Scott &
Panksepp, 2003). Playing chess can be important for building social competence and confidence
in dealing with peers- a life skill that is essential for functioning in school, as well as in everyday
What studies show about the game of chess
There is a pressing need in the opinion of many educators and parents to teach young
people how to engage in critical thinking. This is based on the assumption that the earlier
people learn to think critically the better they are likely to handle challenges and solve
problems in life. Does the game of chess enhance critical thinking? Research shows that it does;
many research studies have demonstrated that critical and/or creative thinking and
entrepreneurial skills can be taught using the game of chess as a vehicle. Celone (2001)
examined the performance of 19 elementary school children, whose ages ranged between 7
and 14, and who were selected for a week-long program of 20 hours of chess instruction. A pre-
test post-test paradigm was adapted to test if the school children’s creative ability would
improve following a 20 hour chess instruction. Result showed a significant increase between
pre-test and post-test scores in both intelligence and domain specific problem-solving ability,
with school children who took the chess instruction performing better than children who did
not. In a related study, Liptrap (1997) found a sample of 67 school children who participated in
a school chess club to demonstrate twice improvement in reading and mathematics compared
to their peers in third and fifth grade levels who were non-chess players.
The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; it is one of the most powerful
educational tools available to strengthen a child’s mind. Rifner and Feldhausen (1997) showed
that the game of chess can help a player to develop skills that can be critical to school success
and everyday living. In a study that sought to determine whether school students who learned
a general problem solving skills in one domain could apply them in a different domain, the
researchers observed that this was possible only if teaching for transfer was an instructional
goal. The addition of chess instruction to mathematics curriculum showed increased gain in
mathematics problem-solving and comprehension proportionate to the amount of chess in the
curriculum. Similarly, Ferguson (1995) asked sixth grade children, who have no prior knowledge
of chess, to participate in a chess lesson. At the end of the exercise, result showed that the
children significantly improved in memory and verbal reasoning, thus suggesting that transfer
of skills fostered through chess lessons did occur. Earlier, Margulies (1993) selected two classes
each from five elementary schools in New York City, then dividing the classes into groups, the
research taught one group logic and the other basic education. Result showed that after a 2-
year period, the group that received instruction in chess obtained significantly higher
performance score on the test material than the group that were trained in basic education.
Frydman and Lynn (1992) studied the mental abilities of young Belgian chess players;
their mean aged was about 11 years old, using the French version of the Wechsler Intelligence
Scale for Children (WISC), a widely used IQ test consisting of a verbal and a performance scale.
The researchers found that their sample had a higher general IQ than the population mean, as
well as a higher performance and a higher verbal IQ. In another study with children, Horgan and
Morgan (1990) found that the best chess players in their sample (mean age around 11) scored
higher than the age-relevant norms on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (an intelligence test
measuring reasoning and “pure” intelligence) and on the Piagetian plant task (a task aimed at
measuring children’s ability to use combinatorial logic in formal operations). Indeed, many
decades of chess research has consistently shown the same result: chess is potentially essential
tools that can be utilized to teach young people how to think. The game is fairly easy to play, it
is like learning a language or music, and an early start can help a child become proficient.
Utility of chess instruction in schools
The demand of the present world calls for innovations in the school curriculum
(Ogunkunle, 2009), and this proposal for the introduction of chess instruction in senior primary
(classes 4 6) and secondary schools is a reaction to this clarion call. Child development experts
proposed that children should be active to enhance their physical and cognitive competence.
However, to assume that only excitable or boisterous forms of play are necessary for child
development is to take a rather limited approach (Bergen, 2002). When a child plays a game of
chess, it is just as much playing as when it is running around and shouting. Quieter forms of
play, such as a game of chess, may probably be more powerful in providing additional
opportunities for children to learn than most people realized. Studies (Dauvergne, 2000;
Mefoh, 2007) show that rule-based games, such as a game of chess, can be a powerful teaching
tool that offers a road to learning. The sophistication of interaction which players share with
one another tends to impact positively on children’s cognitive abilities. The game of chess
facilitates cognitive engagement, and the skills required to comprehend or win the game are
making children smarter.
Several researches (Celone, 2001; Ferguson, 1995; Frydman & Lynn, 1992; Liptrap, 1997)
have shown that chess instruction leads to improved academic performance. Probably, this
improvement is mediated through enhanced critical thinking involved in analyzing the game of
chess. Chess is a fairly easy game to learn and play; anyone from ages seven or eight can play
the game. Unlike many other sports, old age is not a barrier to the game of chess. In fact, a
young person can play an older person, and vice versa. Chess promotes imagination and
creativity, it encourages a player to be inventive, and because the game is solution-based, it has
a positive impact on children’s cognitive skills such as critical thinking. Playing the game of
chess is like doing schoolwork, it demand intellectual labour which makes a player to think
deeply on how to achieve or reach a checkmate (i.e., to cease the queen and win the game),
and these processes sharpens a child’s cognitive skills.
In conclusion, incorporating chess instructions and encouraging children to learn to play
the game from their early ages can help build their minds in problem solving and to think out of
the box or colour outside the line. This way, the children can discover new ways of solving
problems or of becoming creative and more entrepreneurial. When children learn to think
critically, the condition breeds a thinking generation that can foster economic development of
the nation. Chess is a required curriculum in nearly 30 countries (Ferguson, 1986). Chess
instruction has been part of the curriculum in Russia for over 40 years. In Russia, adolescents
are encouraged to play chess at a very early age, and this probably increases their problem-
solving and reasoning skills (Milat, 1997). In recent times, chess instruction is gradually
becoming popular in many privately owned primary and secondary schools in Abuja, Nigeria
because of its usefulness in promoting the creation of creative and entrepreneurial skills.
The data are incontrovertible; they have been telling the same story throughout the
many decades of chess research. Playing a game of chess promotes critical thinking skills,
enhances concentration and perseverance, as well as develops the ability to invent creative
solutions to problems (Dauvergne, 2000). Most children love to play, and guiding them to play a
game of chess is a win-win exercise: chess entertains the child and motivates academic, artistic,
and creative skills in the individual. These researchers condemn the popular opinion, which
view play, such as a game of chess, as a waste of time or that try to eliminate recess periods in
schools. Rule-based game (e.g., chess) can lead to cognitive engagement, which can have
positive impact on children’s cognitive skills (Johnson, 2006). Recess is adaptive; after recess
school children return to classrooms refreshed and ready to learn. In Finland, a country that
exceeds the United States by far in academic achievement, school children are given a 15
minute break every hour (Alvarez, 2005). Thus, rather than eliminate recess or play in schools,
educators and parents need to discern the purposes for and the conditions under which play is
an optimally useful pedagogical strategy. The call for the inclusion of chess instruction into the
school curriculum (or at least into extra curricula activities) is a clarion call that is likely to
benefit school children of senior primary and secondary school age. With a pedagogically
friendly approach, a game of chess encourages the player to be inventive. Today’s school
children require critical thinking to excel in what Friedman (2005) referred to as ‘flat world’,
where everyone has ready access to the facts.
Alvarez, L. (2005, April). Educators flocking to Finland, land of literate children. New York times,
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Broadbear, J.T. (2003). Essential elements of lessons designed to promote critical thinking.
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Celone, J. (2001).The Effects of a Chess Program on Abstract Reasoning and Problem-Solving in
Elementary School Children. Ann Arbour, MI: Bell & Howell Information and Learning Co.
Dauvergne, P. (2000) Chess and education research United States Chess Federation, Retrieved 30th July, 2008.
Ferguson, R. (1995). Chess in education research summary. Paper presented at the BMCC Chess
in Education “A Wise Move” Conference, New York, NY.
Ferguson, R. (1986). Teaching the fourth “R” (Reasoning) through chess. School Mates. Chess
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Friedman, T.L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York:
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Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2003). Einstein Never used flash cards: How our children really
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Students during a chess
... Critical thinking is defined as a purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Demirhan & Köklükaya, 2014;Facione, 1998;Watson 1980). Teacher education in Nigerian universities, is overwhelmed by teaching approach that does not encourage critical thinking (Adeyemi, 2012;Agbedia & Ogbe, 2014;Mefoh Philip & Ugwu Lawrence, 2014;Peter, 2012;Visande, 2014). The application of conventional approach to learning was prompted by many factors such as lack of adequate resource needed for teaching and learning, behavioral and environmental factors, lack of computer literacy among teachers to adopt to modern technological shifts, inadequate infrastructural facilities (Anene, Imam, & Odumuh, 2014;Dotong, De Castro, & Dolot, 2016). ...
... A number of research studies have pointed out that considerable number of pre-service teachers do not have the required critical thinking skill (Adeosun, 2014;Ijaiya, Alabi, & Fasasi, 2010;Mefoh Philip & Ugwu Lawrence, 2014;Peter, 2012;Sada et al., 2016;Shardlow et al., 2015;Visande, 2014). For example, Adeosun (2014) asserts that there is elevated level of concern for the quality of teachers produced by institutions in Nigeria. ...
... This has become boredom to the authorities because most of graduate do not have the required skills to fill up the vacuum in the civil service and the output of prospective teachers is mostly lack in skills of critical thinking to pass on to their future students. Report have shown that in order for student to solve problem in life, there is the need to teach them to be critical thinkers (Mefoh Philip & Ugwu Lawrence, 2014). ...
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This study aims at investigating the effects of station rotation model in blended social collaborative learning environment in enhancing pre-service teachers critical thinking skills in university of Maiduguri. A sample of 108 pre-service teachers registered for methods of teaching science course were selected through quasi-experimental study (Experimental group n=54, control group n=54), studying a teacher training program. Two different questionnaires on critical thinking skills (general critical thinking and teaching method related critical thinking questionnaires) were administered to obtained pre-test and post-test scores from the research participants. The results of the study were analyzed using an inferential statistics of mul-tivariate analysis (MANCOVA). The results indicated that there is significant difference in all the five sub-dimensions (in-ference, assumption, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of argument) of general critical thinking tests between the experimental group and control groups, whereas the result of the teaching method related critical thinking test indicate significant differences in four out of the five sub-dimensions with the exception of deduction. Therefore, the findings of the study revealed that station rotation model in blended social collaborative learning environment group scored higher than those of the conventional approach group.
... As proposed, the result showed that participants in the two-practice condition solved more arithmetic problems than participants in the single-practice condition. This finding supports previous studies (Ahonniska, et al. 2001;De Anique, et al. 2014;Ericsson, et al. 1993;Mefoh & Ugwu, 2014), which demonstrated that the more one practices, the better one gets regardless of initial talent and ability. ...
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The present experiment investigated the effects of reward and practice on adolescents’ solving of arithmetic problem. One hundred and twenty senior secondary school students, of equal numbers of males and females were participants in the experiment. Their ages ranged from 14 to 17 years (Mage = 15.48 years; SD =2.53). Two-way random-groups analysis of variance (ANOVA) was adopted. Results showed that participants in the reward condition significantly solved the arithmetic problem task (APT) better than participants in the no-reward condition (p < .05). Also, participants in the two-practice condition significantly outperformed participants in the single-practice condition on arithmetic problem task (p < .01). There was also a statistically significant interaction effect between reward and practice on arithmetic problem solving (p < .05). The effect size (ES) values of .29, .31, and .21 for reward, practice, and the interaction showed that the results were reliable. The major finding was that the effect produced by manipulating practice depends on whether participants received the reward or no-reward instruction. Implications of the findings were highlighted. Also, the limitation of the study and recommendation for future research were stated. Keywords: adolescents, arithmetic problem task (APT), practice, problem solving, reward.
Describes the use of chess instruction to develop abstract thinking skills and problem solving among gifted students. Offers suggestions for starting school chess programs, teaching and evaluating chess skills, and measuring the success of both student-players and the program in general. (PB)
Reviews the book, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood by Jean Piaget (1951). The current work by Piaget is another stimulating and provocative contribution to the literature on the development of children's thinking. In this well-translated volume, Piaget has as his basic goal an explanation of the evolution of "representative activity," which is "characterized by the fact that it goes beyond the present, extending the field of adaptation both in space and in time." Such an activity is essential in reflective thought as well as in operational thought. Two theses are presented by Piaget in the book: (a) the transition from rudimentary, primitive, and situational assimilation of experience to the operational and reflective adaptation of experience can be studied by the analysis of imitative behavior and play activity of the child from very early months of the life; and (b) various forms of mental activity--imitation, symbolic activity, and cognitive representation--are interacting. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the many connections between cognitive competence and high-quality pretend play. This article defines the cluster of concepts related to pretend play and cognition and briefly synthesizes the latest research on the role of such play in children's cognitive, social, and academic development. The article notes that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that high-quality pretend play is an important facilitator of perspective taking and later abstract thought, that it may facilitate higher-level cognition, and that there are clear links between pretend play and social and linguistic competence. The article also notes that there is still a great need for research on the relationship between high-quality pretend play and development of specific academic skills. The article concludes with a discussion of the challenges and potential policy directions suggested by research findings.
Thirty-three tournament-level young Belgian chess players aged 8 to 13 were tested with the French WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The mean full scale IQ = 121, verbal IQ = 109 and performance IQ = 129. The results suggest that a high level of general intelligence and of spatial ability are necessary to achieve a high standard of play in chess. The high spatial ability of these young chess players suggested by the high performance IQs may go some way towards explaining why males tend to be more numerous than females among high-standard chess players.