Reading, Writing, Chess: Experts evaluate Armenia’s progress on introducing the oldest board game at primary schools

Reading, Writing, Chess: Experts evaluate Armenia’s progress on introducing the oldest board game at primary schools

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It has been for two years that kings, queens and knights are associated for Armenian school children not only with fairy-tales, but with black and white figurines and well considered strategy.

By including chess as a mandatory subject in elementary schools starting the 2011 academic year, Armenia became the first country in the world to put the noble board game into use as a training tool for future generations of hopeful thinkers and doers.

Armenia, a country of 30 grandmasters, is a three-time champion of Chess Olympiads ( 2006 in Turin, 2008 in Dresden, 2012 Istanbul,) while its grandmaster Levon Aronian finished last year ranked No. 2 in the world.

The government- proposed initiative on making chess a part of elementary school curriculum was approved by President Serzh Sargsyan and supported by the Ministry of Education, the Chess Academy of Armenia and the Armenian Chess Federation. Chess as a subject is taught twice a week to students in grades 2-4. More that $1.5 million was spent on realizing the project, classes’ equipment and training teachers.

According to Armenia’s Minister of Education Armen Ashotyan introduction of chess as a compulsory subject is one of the cornerstones of activities aiming at qualitative changes in the education system. While describing the program on its initial stage, the minister emphasized the uniqueness and symbolism of the phenomena. Throughout its history of educational reforms, Armenia usually adopted the experience of Western countries, while now many countries consider the possibility to adopt Armenia’s chess initiative.

Unlike other educational reforms introduced in Armenia in recent years, the chess idea did not meet particular criticism from Armenian society, though some raise their concerns over the program’s implementing.

Gayane Shaverdyan, doctor of psychology, recently published an online article questioning whether Armenia’s “chessmitization” was carefully measured.

“Does anyone who made the decision to introduce chess in schools know anything about child psychology?” the doctor asks. “It is more important to form a cultural space for the children, which includes singing, drawing, poetry. A child’s thinking is imaginative; his sensual and volitional perception is formed through art, while the modern methods of teaching even without chess unilaterally develop the intellect.”

Some parents say they are unhappy that chess is a compulsory subject and say the school program was already overloaded and complicated.

“I would prefer children, instead of having another lesson, even aimed at their intellectual development, spend more time outside in fresh air for physical training,” says Anna Saghatelyan, a mother of two elementary school children. “Unfortunately, sport at schools is so neglected in Armenia, while I believe physical education is more important for kids of that age, than chess.”

Mikael Khachatryan, a chess teacher at N130 public school in Yerevan expresses concerns over the high number of students in the groups.

"Classical Chess section involves no more than 10-12 people in the group, where during two years, with three lessons a week a student can get an initial rating,” says Khachatryan, 60. “Whereas there are up to 30 children at the classes at schools, and the lesson lasts for 45 minutes and that makes the chess teaching not as productive, as I would wish.”

Khachatryan who has 30 years of experience of teaching chess at specialized schools, says the ideal solution would be if the classes are divided, as during foreign languages lessons, as in this case the teacher would have more time and chances to bring the lesson to compliance with the program.

“Of course practice shows that children like playing chess, but I cannot speak yet of high effectiveness and do not expect good results exactly because of the large number of students in the group. It would be desirable if more specialists are trained as chess teachers and the schools will have chances to hire more chess specialists.”

So far the groups for chess lessons cannot be divided as there is a lack of chess professionals and now the issue of personnel is being revised. Some schools do not have chess specialists, and chess is taught by teachers (of other disciplines) who were trained during the year. Only half of 1,200 teachers who were certified to teach chess are professsionals of the Armenian Chess Academy.

Methodologist of the Chess Academy Samvel Misakyan says that the problem of personnel will be completely resolved in 4 years, as starting next September, teaching chess will be included in the curriculum of the faculty of primary school education at Khachatur Abovyan Armenian Pedagogical University.

"In four years Armenia will have no lack of chess teachers. It is obvious that the best way is when chess is taught at primary school by the same teacher who teaches other subjects,” says Misakyan, a chess lecturer at the Pedagogical University. (In Armenian schools one teacher teaches all subjects from grads 1-4.)

Meantime, the Chess Academy organizes quarterly trainings for teachers from Yerevan and the regions, but Misakyan says the academy’s doors are open all the time for teachers who need help and consultation.

As for the low effectiveness of teaching chess in large groups, Misakyan says the same critique could be applied to other school disciplines, such as mathematics, or other exact sciences.

"Surely, generally the training process can be more effective in the small groups, but on the other hand, there will always be a certain percentage of children who will not learn the material in the volume we like them to learn, even if the group is small. All children are different and the mission of teachers is to give to all students a basic knowledge. There will always be children who will learn the material better than others regardless of circumstances. One thing is obvious – no one can deny chess’s beneficial effect on children, their attention development, logic and memory.”

While Armenian chess specialists work on raising the effectiveness of chess education in schools, this small, but significant reform attracted the attention of many countries, while the international media closely watch Armenia’s progress to see where it leads.

“Seems like everybody's talking about Chinese genomics and the art of engineering genius babies these days. But the nation that's more likely to breed a generation of super-smart, problem-solving kids isn't the global economic giant currently engaging in a complex, sinister-sounding genetics program—it's Armenia, a tiny landlocked nation, that's still mired in the shadow of a devastating genocide. And it's going to do it with chess,” reads the story “Why Armenia Is More Likely to Engineer Super-Children Than China”, published last month by Motherboard, the online magazine and video channel dedicated to the intersection of technology, science and humans. “While China may be paving the way for genetically-optimal brains in giant genomics labs, Armenia is modifying its youth's intelligence the old fashioned way—with smart policy and good education. As such, Armenian is actually more likely to boost its youth's IQ than China—using gaming technology that's been around for over a thousand years.”

The Globe and Mail Canadian newspaper also referred to Armenian chess, trying to discover the link between chess and smart kids. “Indeed, the Armenians may be onto something. One recent psychology study found that chess was associated with greater ‘cognitive abilities, coping and problem-solving capacity, and even socio-affective development of children.”

The issue of Armenian chess in schools was touched upon by Arabic television channel Al Jazeera, which tried to reveal the role of chess in the development of children. “The (Armenia’s) initiative is attracting attention from other countries. Later this year, chess will be integrated into the national curriculum of Hungary's elementary schools” says Al Jazeera. “Countries such as Moldova, Ukraine and Spain are showing interest in running similar projects. In Britain, the United States, Switzerland, India, Russia and Cuba schools have long offered chess as a subject, though no nationwide legislation making it compulsory exists.”

According to the president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Armenia has achieved unique results in the implementation of the program "Chess in Schools".

Last July, during the FIDE Presidential Council meeting at Armenia’s resort town of Tsaghkadzor, Ilyumzhinov said that the decision hold the council meeting in Armenia is not accidental, because “in recent years the Armenian Chess Federation serves as a model for development and support of Chess.”