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Teaching Chess with the Socratic Method
Quote of the Month: Saying 'I don't know' is quite different from saying 'I refuse to guess.'
I hope all my readers know about Socrates, the Greek philosopher. The Socratic method of teaching was named after him. Using that method, the teacher helps the students learn by asking leading questions.
I believe teaching chess lends itself to the Socratic method very well. Did you ever notice that if you simply tell someone to avoid a certain type of danger: a pattern, a bad thought process, a poor way of managing the clock, an opening trap, they rarely learn just from listening. They have to experience the situation – one or many times – for the full implication to sink in and for their brain to fully recognize "Oh yes! That is what my instructor was talking about! That hurts! I better avoid that in the future."
In a similar manner, just regurgitating information to a student – a "lesson lecture" as it were – is likely to go in one ear and out the other, despite the best of student intentions. But if the student has to think about the information, maybe even try to formulate it themselves, then maybe, hopefully, the information has a better chance of sticking.
In general, a Socratic instructor should ask questions that expands the student's scope of knowledge and allows him to draw new conclusions from information he already knows. Usually the instructor asks questions where the student does not know the answer but, in thinking about it, he/she might be able to draw a correct conclusion. Occasionally the instructor will ask a question where the student surely knows the answer, just to elicit the correct answer and put him on a trail that will lead to new (or better) knowledge – we could call that type of question a hint.
However, it would not make sense to ask a question where none of a student's prior knowledge would be helpful nor would the question allow him to draw useful conclusions. For example, for me to ask someone what my middle name is would serve no purpose. Similarly, asking someone something that he already knows the answer and cannot draw any useful conclusions would almost always be useless as well. Asking a student what their first name is should fall under this category.
It is notable that, when using the Socratic method, an instructor's question often elicits the answer "I don't know." That is not only acceptable, but actually expected in many instances. If you are trying to expand their knowledge from existing knowledge then, they will not know – but you want them to extrapolate, even guess if they have to. However, a student often expects that his answer "I don't know" should elicit the same response as "I am not in the mood – I do not wish to figure that out or guess anymore." To "I don't know" I might reply something like "Good! Then if you think about it – or even guess – you might learn something new." Of course, if they answer "I give up – I do not want to think about it – just tell me," then I will with alacrity – after all, they are the boss – they are paying for the lessons!
Let's provide a couple of examples of using the Socratic method to teach chess concepts.
Suppose the instructor wants to teach a student the main goals in the opening. He could straightforward ask, "What are the main goals of the opening?"
Or he might choose to make it a little easier by quantifying what he is looking for by asking, "What are the three main goals of the opening?"
Or the instructor might differentiate a goal from a principle by saying, "A goal is something you are trying to achieve, while a principle is a short phrase or heuristic that might tell you how to best or efficiently achieve something. For example, 'Move every piece once before you move any piece twice, unless there is a tactic' is the most important principle in the opening, but what are the main goals?"
Suppose the student answers "To checkmate!"
Then the instructor might say "That is a noble goal, but it is more a goal of the entire game than what you are trying to do specifically in the opening. Can you name some goals that are primarily related to the opening?"
"Develop your pieces."
"The knights and the bishops."
"So you think the other pieces should just be dormant in the opening?"
"So which ones should you develop?"
"Rooks and bishops?"
"No, in that scenario the poor knights are left behind. What is a better goal?"
"As many pieces as you can?"
"Yes, and you can bring out all your pieces, leaving the king in safety, so the answer is to efficiency, effectively, and safely develop all your pieces. In this use of "pieces" we are referring to the non-pawns, but obviously moving out several – but usually not all – pawns is part of the process to release the bishops and gain space. And "develop" in this sense is a chess term meaning to activate from the initial setup; later in the game you would activate a dormant piece, but you would not generally think of developing it. OK, can you think of a second goal? Earlier I gave you a strong hint."
"To castle the king?"
"Yes! Very good! A slightly more accurate way to put this is to find a place where the king should be safe for the middlegame and get it there fairly quickly, before it can be prevented. In most positions this requires castling but occasionally a king might be safer in the middle or can castle 'by hand'. Do you have any ideas about the third goal? A hint is that many students guess this one first."
"Get a good position?"
"Ha! Can't argue with that, but you are always trying to find the best move and get the best position you can, so that is not really just an opening goal. Another hint: where are the pieces most effective?"
"In the center."
"Well, they would be if they were not vulnerable there. So the question of whether you want to occupy the center or control the center was one of the central issue between the Hypermoderns and the Classicists about a hundred years ago. So for now let's just call it 'Try to control the center.'"
How would this conversation go if the instructor was dictating information instead of eliciting it? Very short and possibly forgettable:
"Please get out a pencil and paper and take the following note: the three main goals of the opening are to
1) Safely, efficient, and effectively develop all your pieces.
Among the many problems with this "dictation" approach is that it becomes very easy to miss some of the key parts, like developing all your pieces, it is easy to forget what you wrote if you do not discuss it, lesser goals may not be considered and dismissed, reasons for the goals are not often considered.
Let's provide another example of the Socratic method, this time to help a student find candidate moves in a position.
Heisman-Oberholzer 2001, White to play after 19...dxc5
Instructor: "Can you list all the candidate moves in this position?"
Student: "I forget, exactly what is a candidate move?"
Instructor: "A candidate move is one that possibly does something positive. This usually falls into one of four categories:
"Note that a candidate move does not have to be a good move; it is just a move that might be a good move. Often a move that superficially looks unsafe is actually a strong candidate – it might actually be safe or a good sacrifice, so eliminating potentially damaging moves (especially ones that attempt a tactic) just because at first they do not look so good can often be a big mistake (see Quiescence Errors). Keep them as candidate moves until your analysis reveals they indeed are not so good; sometimes you will be surprised (see Initial and Final Candidate Moves.)
"In this position the key is that Black is threatening 1...Rxb6 winning the knight. That means that most of the candidate moves will be ones that either save the knight or capture/counterattack something equivalent. That is not always the entire list, but it is certainly a good start."
Student: "So White can play 20.Na4 or 20.Nc4"
Instructor: "Good, anything else that might be safe?"
Student: "Another check, capture, or strong enough threat might be possible. How about 20.Bxe5, 20.Qc3, or 20.Ng5?"
Instructor: "OK, but after 20.Ng5, suppose Black just tries to win two pieces for a rook with 20...Rxb6 21.Nxf7 Kxf7?"
Student: "But you asked for candidate moves, not necessarily good moves!"
Instructor: "Good point! We do not know if 20.Ng5 is a good or bad move until we examine the capturing sequence, and in this case it is possible that 20.Ng5 is playable, so it surely should be at least an initial candidate. Any other moves that do not just lose a piece to 20...Rxb6?
Student: "How about 20.f4 counter-attacking the knight?"
Instructor: "Very good! Now you are thinking. It may turn out that after 20.f4 that 20...Neg4 attacking e3 may be good, but that leaves c4 unguarded, so 21.Nc4 may then be even better. But that is the point: without including 20.f4 as a candidate move, we cannot analyze it further to see whether it is good or bad. As I often say "You can't play what you don't see" and, as Purdy said "Look wide before you look deep."
Student: "I don't see anything else."
Instructor: "So let's summarize. Black is threatening 20...Rxb6 and White should investigate 20.Na4, 20.Nc4, 20.Bxe5, 20.f4, 20.Qc3, and 20.Ng5. Of course, if this were a speed game, by the time we found all the reasonable candidate moves, we would have made one of them, but that is the fundamental difference about what you do with more time in a slow game – you look for better moves! (see The Fun of Pros and Cons and Chess is Decisions)."
Interestingly, when I have a student who plays long-time control games very quickly and we have the exercise of having him indicate all the candidate moves in a position, he often takes longer to find all the candidate moves than it did, on average, for him to play a move! And I was not even asking how good those candidate moves were, much less which one was the best; just find the moves worthy of further investigation. That tells you how much (or little) these "fast" players follow Lasker's Rule "When you see a good move, look for a better one."
It may be only peripherally related to the Socratic method, but I have augmented my lesson puzzle-giving with an important twist. In a game you have to commit yourself to a move and live with it because of the "touch-move rule" and the irreversibility of pushing the clock. During lessons, we practice that decision "conclusion" via a stolen idea from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: "final answer" – when a student says that after answering a puzzle with a move (or whatever the answer requires), it is like pushing the clock. Once stating "final answer," they cannot change their answer and have to defend it. Doing so in a lesson makes a lot of sense since there is a skill to determining when you are finished analyzing and are willing to hit the clock (see The Two Move Triggers and The Room Full of Grandmasters). If you want to practice the skill of knowing when you are finished and ready to commit, then doing so "live" on puzzles is that added bonus. No sense being indecisive during practice when in a game a "partial answer" is not possible.
My bottom line: Using the Socratic method has its drawbacks – for example, sometimes it makes the student feel like he is "on the spot" – but I believe the benefits far outweigh these drawbacks. It seems particularly suitable for teaching chess since, in many cases, the understanding of the subject matter being taught is more important than the rote material itself.
Question Do you feel Chess960 has any value to someone who wants to improve?
Answer Any chess activity has some value to someone wanting to improve. However, the two questions one needs to ask are
1) Exactly what are you trying to improve (e.g., slow OTB chess vs.
In some cases the activity is helpful (positive correlation), but has very low correlation toward achieving your goal. In this case, depending on your goal, Chess960 (assumed played at the same time limit as your goal) probably has decent positive value, but possibly not as much as some other activities (depending on your needs) toward that goal.
Question I am currently in the process of creating a website called "chess-by-patterns," which will focus on training players to recognize very basic and fundamental chess patterns by repeating the same pattern until players are able to quickly recognize it. Can you give me any advice for what you would like to see in such a site?
Answer Sure, I would like to see many "Counting" problems. Counting problems involve positions where you need to calculate to see if any sequence of captures can win material (or lose, from the defensive side). When these possible capturing sequences cascades/affects many squares, calculating the result can become incredibly difficult. See my Novice Nooks A Counting Primer, The Most Important Tactic, The Two Types of Counting Problems, and The Safety Table. That should keep you busy with some good stuff! Let me know how it goes!
Question Has computer analysis of the Fried Liver Attack been updated since your CD on it ten years ago?
Answer Yes, very much. Ironically, things have turned around 180 degrees.
Instead of 6.d4 (Lolli) being best and 6.Nxf7 (Fried Liver Attack) being questionable, as was thought the case for almost 100 years, now 6.Nxf7 is clearly better; it has been shown by computers to be close to winning(!), 6.d4 not so much. I am proud to be part of this discovery; my objections to 6.d4 as possibly no longer leading to a white advantage were published in a New In Chess Yearbook and expanded and reprinted in Chess Life, and verified by GM Larry Kaufman using his engine Komodo.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6?! 4.Ng5! d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5? (5...Na5 relatively best) 6.Nxf7! (no longer 6.d4) 6...Kxf7 7.Qf3+ Ke6 8.Nc3 Nb4
Now the main two ninth moves for White these days are
1) 9.O-O Jon Edwards' move as published in
Chess Life about three
Both are possibly winning and likely better than the older moves 9.a3 (old main line) and 9.Qe4. The CD still has a lot of good, relevant stuff on it, though.
Novice Nook #154
In PDF format. Viewable in any PDF viewer.
© 2013 Dan Heisman & BrainGamz, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Dan welcomes readers' questions; he is a full-time instructor on the ICC as Phillytutor.
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