Slowing Down - Learning how to think

by Heather Lang

The chess bit

This weekend, I went to the zonal round of the National Primary Schools Chess Championships with the school under 9 team. It's a very young group - half of them are six-year-olds who have a good eye for the game but haven't been playing for very long.

The point? They had 35 minutes each to make all of their moves, meaning that a game could last for 70 minutes. In the first two rounds, most of the games were over in 5-10 minutes (with a lot of banging the clock!). They were spending at most a couple of seconds on each move - and were missing lots of things that they were capable of seeing if they took the time to look.

Chatting with the team after losing 4-1 in round 2, I realised that saying "take your time" was worse than useless. If you tell a kid that but don't try to explain how to think during that time, they'll just stare into space for a bit before mentally coming back to the board and taking approximately two seconds over their next move!

I found that the best way of explaining it was to give them guidelines about how to think. Use the time to try to imagine more than one move ahead. If you think of a move that looks good, then fine - keep your hands under the table and see what you think your opponent might do in reply. This means your blunders happen in your head rather than on the board! I demonstrated what I meant by "thinking" out loud about a position from a game where half of them wanted to make one move and half of them wanted to make another. I showed them how I would go about deciding which of the moves I wanted to make.

The Head First bit

Many people are stuck in the "I don't get it" rut when it comes to learning. It's a horrible place to be. Someone gives you a problem and you spend the same couple of seconds thinking about it as the young chessplayers take over each move. Except it's much worse because you can't transfer the tension to someone else by playing the first move that comes into your head. You have to sit there feeling that you don't get it, and that you haven't a clue what to do next.

From the very start, I've looked at the Head First books to be first and foremost about how to think so you can solve problems by yourself. The actual content is secondary to this. So instead of just showing you the right answer and the right way of doing something, we look at working out how to go about it - how to think - the bit that most books miss out. As with the chess advice, we do this with a mixture of guidelines and practical examples.

It worked at the weekend - the team won the rest of their matches, finished second and qualified for the national semi-finals.


2006-02-01 09:44:15
O'Reilly should do high school text books
I wish O'Reilly would do a Head First series of text books for schools- this idea of teaching the guidelines for thinking rather than regurgitating facts is essential to education and will determine who has bean-counter jobs vs. who are solving complex challenges and shaping the future with forward thinking ideas. Right now if you pick up a random text book from a highschool you'll see why it's no wonder kids are bored by education in its current form.

It's especially important in the tech industry as there's no possible way one person can or should try to retain all the answers in their head (knowledge of weird language-specific syntax & other minutia multiplied across many systems). It becomes less important _what_ you know at any given time as much as it is _how_ you are able to think critically and develop good heuristics for arriving at an answer.

If there was a Head First series that covered high school and even elementary school curriculum i would feel a lot more comfortable about our educational system going forward. Someone at O'Reilly should try and pull some strings and break into that market as it represents not only a new-market opporutnity for O'Reilly but also the potential to do good for the USA in an educational capacity.


2006-02-01 16:46:32
Head First Chess
hi there,

it would be nice to have such a title for people to learn chess :-)

For sure, I will buy one for my daughter(and myself).