The South Huntington Go Program
© 2005, 2009 Milton N. Bradley
Based upon my conviction expressed above that learning Go is a superior way to train the developing mind, with the assent of then School Superintendent Dan Domenech I began the SHUNT UFSD After-School Go Program in 1991 with a small group of third and fourth graders meeting in each of the Maplewood and Birchwood Intermediate schools, and all interested Middle and Senior High school students meeting at the Stimson Middle School. The illustrations show students playing 13 x 13 line Go at Birchwood, Maplewood and Stimson in the 1997-8 school year.
With each succeeding year the SHUNT after-school Go program grew based almost entirely on word-of-mouth, with 125 children entered in 1996-7 and 146 in the 1997-8 school year, although normal attrition inevitably reduced these numbers to about 33- 40% of these figures by the school year's end. This growth was greatly aided by the arrival of School Superintendent Gerald Lauber, who authorized the program's expansion to include third graders in the Intermediate Schools, and it continued under the leadership of Superintendent Marilyn Zaretsky.
In the 1997-8 school year, for the first time I experimented by using the simplified approach of "The Capture Game" for all new beginners. The advantages of this method are that the beginner has little to learn initially and can therefore begin playing and having FUN immediately. Its primary disadvantage is that it inevitably reinforces the beginner's counterproductive tendency carried over from such simpler games as chess and checkers to focus upon the capture of opposing stones instead of on such key Go fundamentals as "shape", eyemaking and prevention, territory, "influence" creation and nullification, etc. Even after the conclusion of that school year "the jury was still out" on whether this method is more productive than the "conventional" approach. The overall attrition rate was about the same as in prior years, but the competence and enthusiasm of the kids did seem just a bit greater. However, at least part of this is attributable to a change in my teaching style, so it's unfortunately unclear whether using "The Capture Game" actually generated any real benefits.
The result was that upon mature reflection and after much "soul searching"I decided to return to the time tested "conventional" teaching method in the next school year, modifying it slightly to allow the kids to begin playing almost immediately by omitting introduction of such complications as making two eyes and Ko until they arose in actual play. As hoped, IMHO this produced a superior result!
Invariant in either approach is that all beginners start playing on 9x9 line boards because this restriction in the size of the playing field not only reduces the complexity of the resulting positions but also radically shortens the game as well. This not only accommodates the children's still largely undeveloped attention span and therefore prevents boredom by producing a quick result for every game, but also enables them to quickly obtain much needed practice in dealing with such fundamentals as recognizing the game's end, counting territories, etc.
When in my judgment the students mastered the game's fundamental mechanics of play (but certainly NOT yet either its incisive and devilishly clever tactics nor its almost unbelievably profound strategy) they were "promoted" to play on 13x13 - a significant milestone in their development to which they aspired and reacted to with great pleasure. At this point, the most marked and universally visible difference in their behavior was the vast improvement in their attention span!! From the typical 15-30 minute attention span displayed by almost all beginners at the start of the school year, almost without exception at the time of their promotion to 13x13 the children remaining in the program were not only capable of maintaining focus on playing Go for the full hour-and-a-quarter that our sessions lasted, but were enthusiastic about doing so! Since this improvement was displayed equally by the third, fourth, and fifth grade students it is clearly the serendipitous result of the Go program and not just the fact that the students were 6 months older.
If this was the sole benefit generated by participation in the Go program it would far more than justify the time and effort invested, but it really represents only its first fruit. As noted in the next section of this web page entitled TEACHING THE NEW "R" OF REASONING, the transformation of the student's reasoning processes from their initial primitive state to one of adult high-level sophistication is a far more valuable result.
In the first 6 years of the Go program I began each session with a brief lecture, but my experience during that time clearly demonstrated that the children are most strongly motivated by peer competition. This lead to the establishment of rating ladders at each school and emphasis on that mode of behavior, and my decision in the program's seventh year to end the formal lectures at the time that all children were promoted to 13x13. Although that increased their enthusiasm, the unfortunate consequence of this emphasis on peer competition was necessarily that opportunities for the children to receive formal Go instruction or to play against the instructor and to thereby gain the benefit of his knowledge and experience were far more limited than is optimal. On occasion, at my suggestion some of the children chose to play against me instead of conducting a ladder match, but for the most part their desire to move up the ladder was so overwhelming that they seized every available opportunity for peer play. So when there were an even number of children in a given day's attendees, my only available way to provide the instruction that they required to improve their still largely undeveloped skills was to flit from game to game, mentally noting key positions and then reconstructing them from memory after the game's end and then demonstrating to the participants what should have been done.
But when there were an odd number of children at a given session an opportunity for individual instruction was presented because no child was ever left without a game! In that case, I announced that because of the odd number someone would get to play with me until an opponent became available, and then requested a volunteer. These games were conducted either at handicap or "even", at the child's option, because I explained that they were not playing against me to win but to learn! And as soon as any ongoing game finished, our game was aborted (unless the child wanted to finish it, as sometimes happened) and that child was replaced by one of those who just finished his/her match. In this way, in a given session I might get to play at least part of a game with as many as 10-15 kids!
The signposts of a child's progress when playing against me on 13x13 at a 5 stone handicap were as follows:
Stage 1. All of the Black stones die.
Stage 2. Black makes a live group somewhere.
Stage 3. Black makes more than one live group, but still has a high negative score (I have captured many more prisoners than Black has territory).
Stage 4. Black has a low negative score.
Stage 5. Black has a positive score, but is very far behind.
Stage 6. The game is fairly close.
Stage 7. Black wins!
That summer I created an "Advanced Go Seminar", open to all interested Go Program participants, which met every Friday evening. Free of the pressure of school and homework, it was hoped that the opportunity thus provided would enable those interested to devote more time and effort to their Go than was possible during the school year, leading (hopefully) to a quantum leap in their skill level. Unfortunately, although 24 children signed up for the seminar other family commitments resulted in an average attendance of not more than 8 or so, and a number of those students who had professed the greatest interest had the poorest attendance records! But those who did attend made significant progress, with the result that the very best of them actually improved to the point that she consistently achieved a positive (although still far from winning) score in a no-handicap 13 x 13 game against me!
Teaching these children was a rare privilege for me! Most of them were bright, funny, effusive, witty, clever and charming, and for the most part superior students, although my greatest success was probably in motivating a few "difficult" kids who weren't otherwise successful either socially or in their regular classes.
All of the children were very competitive and obviously enjoy playing Go very much, but despite
this and the impressive numbers noted above I do not yet consider this program to have been
more than a marginal success at best, because no participant has progressed to a point at which
the program's design objective of significantly improving his/her REASONING skills was been
achieved, although there were many indications of progress in this direction. Perhaps my
personal standards are unrealistically high in this regard as several have claimed, but I'd much
prefer to err on that side rather than give myself accolades when there was much still to be
For a number of reasons it became reluctantly necessary for me to end the after school Go program at the end of its 8th year. Undoubtedly the most important of those reasons was the lack of positive support from the School District, and especially from Supt. Zaretsky herself. Although never explicitly stated, it was apparent that her attitude toward my program could best be described in terms made infamous in the fight for civil rights - “benign neglect”. And this was exemplified and made abundantly apparent to me when the school hired a photographer to document the various groups participating in all of the District’s after school programs for inclusion in the District’s Newspaper “Spotlight”. But my Go program wasn’t included, even though the number of its participants was several times greater than that of most of the others, even including the vastly popular sports programs. When I protested this, the bland rationale provided for the omission was that my program, despite its manifestly great success and popularity, wasn’t an “official” District program! Well! To say that this displeased me greatly after 8 years of selfless dedication to the District’s children would be a monumental understatement! But that alone, devastatingly discouraging as it was, wouldn’t have been sufficient for me to abort the program. The decisive factor was the onset of phlebitis in my legs, which made it infeasible for me to stand or walk around for any extended period, and that was the final straw that impelled my decision to end the program. As unfortunate consequences of this premature program end, I was never able to unequivocally demonstrate the superiority of the “conventional” teaching method over that of “The Capture Game”, nor was I ever able to bring any of the program's participants to the desired high skill level. As a consequence, until just recently I had no solid "proof" that the program had in any substantive way achieved any of its goals, or produced any real benefits for its participants. But that uncertainty recently ended on what for me was a very high note!
At a recent regular Wednesday night meeting of the Long Island Go Club in our local Barnes & Noble bookstore, I was approached by a huge, smiling young giant who I instantly recognized as the now grown up version of one of my program's "regulars". And when he told me that he had fond memories of my "great program" and that he thought that it had helped him in his studies, I was uplifted. A few weeks later this was even more strongly reinforced when I visited my local pharmacy to pick up my prescription, and the woman behind the counter revealed that she was the mother of another of my former "regulars" who had just been admitted to Manhattan College and - this is the key point - who told his mother that he felt that the reasoning skills he had gained from my after school Go program had been the reason for his academic success!!!
All of that was topped by what happened at the LIGC's meeting on Wednesday, Dec 7, 2005 when I was approached by a woman who noticed the Go board I had just set up. As we began to converse about Go she suddenly recognized me, and, adressing me by name then began to effusively pay me the finest compliment I've ever received, saying that I "had changed her daughter's life". And then she related that some 8 or 9 years earlier her daughter Tia had been in my after school Go program and that I "had inspired her to study Math and Science, instead of (paraphraisng slightly because I don't recall her exact words) the softer disciplines like Social Studies that most girls take". And then she went on to relate that Tia had been admitted to Harvard, played the violin, spoke 4 languages (English, Spanish, her parents' native Farsi, and Japanese, which she had then been studying for 3 years.) And the coup de grace was that Tia intended to become an M.D.! And then Tia herself appeared, all grown up, of course, and was equally effusive! Well! To say that I was both astonished and overjoyed would be a masterpiece of understatement! Although I love Go and am fully convinced of the value of learning it on its own considerable merits, my intent and hope in conducting my afterschool program had been to achieve precisely the result that Tia had obtained - to inspire the kids to value the power of reasoning, and to have that in turn transform their lives for the better. But until this point I had believed that, at least for the most part, I had failed. But now, I know at last that I had in fact atleast modestly succeeded, and that was vastly gratifying. To be sure, I had evidence demonstrating that I had achieved the desired result in only the few cases I've described here, but considering that mine was a voluntary after school program that met for only 1 1/2 hours/week, I believe that even that modest success is remarkable. So maybe, just maybe, I'm really the competent, inspirational teacher that I've always believed myself to be.
The foregoing is, of course, only anecdotal "evidence" and therefore not definitive, but since it is in complete accord with everything that I believe and strove to achieve, I contend that I may be justified in feeling both elated and vindicated thereby.
Milton N. Bradley 12/08/05, updated 12/02/09
Continue Click Here To Return To Milt's Go Page
Click Here To Return To Milt's Go Page