Chess Makes the Grade
Schools that encourage chess are reacting to studies like that of New York City-based educational psychologist Stuart Margulies, Ph.D., who in 1996 found that elementary school students in Los Angeles and New York who played chess scored approximately 10 percentage points higher on reading tests than their peers who didn't play. James M. Liptrap, a teacher and chess sponsor at Klein High School in Spring, TX, conducted a similar study in 1997. He found that fifth-graders who played chess scored 4.3 points higher on state reading assessments and 6.4 points higher on math tests than their non-chess-playing peers.
Further proof comes from the doctoral dissertation of Robert Ferguson, executive director of the American Chess School in Bradford, PA. He studied junior-high students, each of whom was enrolled in an activity -- either working with computers, playing chess, taking a creative writing workshop, or playing Dungeons and Dragons -- that was designed to develop critical and creative thinking skills. By the time the students had spent about 60 hours on their chosen activities, the chess players were well ahead of the others in several psychological tests, scoring almost 13 percentage points higher in critical thinking and 35 percentage points higher in creative thinking.
Experts attribute chess players' higher scores to the rigorous workout chess gives the brain. Studies by Dianne Horgan, Ph.D., dean of the graduate school of counseling, educational psychology, and research at the University of Memphis, has found that chess improves a child's visual memory, attention span, and spatial-reasoning ability. And because it requires players to make a series of decisions, each move helps kids learn to plan ahead, evaluate alternatives, and use logic to make sound choices.
Science aside, anecdotal evidence is enough to convince some teachers and parents of chess's benefits -- behavioral as well as cognitive. In 1990, for instance, the principal at Russell Elementary School in Brownsville, TX, had become concerned about some boys who were being dropped off at school early and getting into mischief. But when she visited J. J. Guajardo's fifth-grade classroom one day, she was surprised to see some of those boys quietly engrossed in chess games. So she asked Guajardo to start a before-school chess program. Soon kids from kindergarten through sixth grade had signed up to play, and by 1993 the Russell team was winning state championships.
"We were a public school with a lot of students from low-income families, but we were beating magnet schools with gifted students," says Guajardo, who's now a high school teacher. "And I noticed that every one of our kids who played chess was also passing the state assessment tests in reading, writing, and math."