Teaching The new "R" of Reasoning
Using The 4000 Year Old
Strategic Board Game of Go
© 2009 Milton N. Bradley
From the furthest reaches of pre-history millions of years ago, when our earliest ancestors were little more intelligent than apes, thru the thousands of years of modern humanity's recorded history, making even the most egregious of errors might cause the demise of an indivdual, a group, or possibly even an entire nation. But it's only since the last century that it has become possible for one or more very bad decisions to not only wipe out the entire human race, but quite possibly all life on this planet as well. So it's only now, for the very first time, that the stakes are so high and the allowable tolerance for error so low! Although on some level cognizance of this overwhelmingly crucial problem would seem unavoidable, even the most casual look at the current state of world affairs provides conclusive evidence that most of our leaders continue to behave as improvidently as their predecessors could safely afford to do, but we manifestly no longer can!
Everywhere we look we find the world in chaos, with a myriad of seemingly intractable problems which resist solution:
- In the geopolitical realm, we find nations ruled by rigidly ideological religious cadres and/or oppressive dictatorships, “emerging“ nations incompetently led, long established nations riven with internal strife or unable to coexist in peace with their neighbors, great powers still “throwing their weight around” by trying to impose their ideas upon other countries and cultures, and, worst of all, the very real prospect that either a rogue nation or terrorist group will acquire and then use weapons of mass destruction.
- In the geophysical realm we find burgeoning disasters like the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest because of unnecessary “slash and burn” farming practices and excessive logging, overfishing of what once appeared to be limitless seas, rape of the environment resulting from improvident drilling, mining and logging practices, and excessive air pollution coupled with global warming, primarily resulting from failure to implement timely controls on auto and smokestack emissions.
- In the economic realm, we find a global crisis primarily brought about by lack of appropriate controls on investment, lending, credit, and banking in general, as well as the monumental collapse of the American auto industry resulting from a long term failure of its high paid “leadership” to correctly evaluate consumer needs, all exacerbated by the inevitable impact of oil supply problems and their accompanying price rises.
- On the personal level, the most visible problem is the housing and consumer mortgage crisis, brought about by a massive failure to behave in a fiscally prudent manner coupled with deceptive credit practices, and all of the other individually destructive consequences of the effects of obesity, illegal drug addiction, smoking, and bad personal choices in education, occupation, political affiliation, and selection of mate/partner.
Given the monumentally deleterious and ever growing negative impact of these overwhelmingly serious problems, it seems clear that the very survival of the human race on this planet is dependent on our ability to expeditiously find, if not the actual solutions themselves (really too much to ask!), then at least a possible path to their solution upon which we can build. In our attempt to do this, the first question that naturally comes to mind is whether it might be possible to reduce the overwhelming complexity of the situation by identifying any common thread(s) in this bewildering multiplicity of seemingly disparate issues. If that should prove possible, then at least we will have in hand a reasonable perspective from which to begin our search for solutions that offers some reasonable prospect of success. But is the existence of such a unifying theme even possible? And if so, can we find it?
The premise of this essay is that the answers to both of these central questions is “yes”, and that the common thread underlying all of the important societal problems cited above is bad decision making - not resulting from simple ignorance, which can at least in theory be readily rectified by better education in the traditional content areas, but more intrinsically flowing from an inherent inability by our leaders to adequately think through the problems and all of their complex implications! The validity of this key premise is open to reasonable question when we consider such problems as the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest cited above, which has resulted primarily from highly inefficient "slash and burn" agricultural practices by poor, uneducated peasants. The counter argument to the premise that merely educating those poor peasants would cause them to end those practices is provided by the many examples of analogous problems (e.g. Poaching of African Elephants for their Ivory tusks), where the destructive practices have continued essentially unabated despite both education and massive government action to suppress them! And if that's true, it becomes painfully clear that the required problem solutions can only be achieved through implementation of an entirely new paradigm. In the rather extensive discussion that follows I first provide the background of the issue, propose that the new solution paradigm is the teaching of Reasoning skills to every child, and then discuss how that solution can/should be implemented.
In concluding this summary I note with more than a little pride that at the time this essay was first written in 2005 it appeared that mine was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness in support of the premise of the importance of teaching every child Reasoning skills, with no positive reinforcement anywhere in sight within the educational establishment. But in June 2009 that all changed for the better, although for the moment at least almost exclusively in England, and then really only to the limited degree of mandating the teaching of that key portion of the Reasoning paradigm known as “Critical Thinking”, as described in the body of the essay below. (The slightly rearranged but otherwise unchanged announcement of this British initiative is presented at the end of the essay, just as it was originally posted on the internet on June 8, 2009.) I also note with considerable interest a news report on NY Public Television (Ch 13) on June 22, 2009 that in a recent public speech former US President Bill Clinton also made a call for the teaching of Critical Thinking! So with that long seemingly insurmountable first problem recognition hurdle apparently successfully surmounted at last, it appeaars that there should logically be at least some reasonable prospect that my vision will someday become a reality, and the teaching of Reasoning skills will become a significant aspect of the education of every child, not only in America, but worldwide! But is that hope realistic? Regrettably, the answer, at least for the foreseeable future, must continue to be no!
The primary current difficulty is the deep ongoing worldwide and national recession, which is causing school districts everywhere to make deep and painful cuts in already inadequate funding, causing teacher and supporting staff layoffs with accompanying academic program and service cuts, and that combination makes even achieving existing (and widely acknowledged to be inadequate) student performance standards difficult if not impossible to maintain. And that necessarily makes even the idea of introducing a new initiative like the teaching of Reasoning skills into the already loaded curriculum more of a "pipe dream" than a realistic expectation. But won't the prospects for change be measurably improved when the current monumentally deleterious situation is finally resolved with an improvement in the overall economic climate (as it inevitably must)? Would that it were so. The reality is that even achieving acceptance of the premise that making this curriculum change is essential will be difficult! Given the well known resistance to change of both the political and educational establishments, it's highly unlikely that the needed curriculum change can be achieved on anything approaching a universal scale for decades, if not far longer. Why? Because even reorienting the thinking of the politico-educational establishment’s leaders is almost certain to take decades, and probably even far more. And as if that weren't enough of an impediment, there is also the at least equally difficult intrinsic problem of achieving broad based and successful real world implementation of those Reasoning skills, beyond their "theoretical" application within the narrow bounds of the curriculum. So even after the educational establishment has accepted that the teaching of Reasoning skills is an essential step in the education of every child and has actually integrated it into the curriculum, the grim reality is that's only a preliminary step, which by itself can't provide any substantive progress toward the actual solution of the many serious societal problems we face. After that essential first step is surmounted, decades more must necessarily pass before the young generations actually trained under the new Reasoning paradigm mature and then take over the world business/political leadership roles that will actually enable their improved thinking/decision making skills to make the needed positive changes in the country’s and the world’s course. So it's far from certain that, even in the unlikely event that we're smart enough to move expeditiously in the right direction, we’ll be lucky enough to avoid even any of the above cited looming disaster(s) in the interim. But however unpleasant that prospect may be, I’m even more certain that if we don’t begin implementing this new Reasoning paradigm ASAP, there’s little hope at all for our society's long term survival.
End Of Executive Summary
The American Educational Establishment
Finally awakening from decades of complacency to a serious long standing problem, the American educational establishment is currently in a state of ferment over raising educational standards.
Traditional American education emphasized the core skills of communication and calculation, exemplified as "The Three R's", and this was adequate for most of society in the primarily agrarian environment of 18th century America. But as technology advanced at an ever increasing pace and society became primarily urban, it became necessary to augment these basic skills with a vast panoply of practical subjects like geography, civics, science, history, etc., plus such perspective expanding ideas as literature and the thoughts of the world's great philosophers.
The result of exposure to this augmented curriculum was intended to produce citizens capable of understanding and effectively coping with the almost unbelievably complex and technologically advanced real world of the 21st century. But in all of the attendant rhetoric and turmoil sight has been lost of the fact that even if all of the proposed initiatives for eliminating social promotion, requiring more Regents credits, raising test scores, etc., etc. are fully realized the result will only reach the level of "necessary, but not sufficient".
Successful functioning, whether of the individual, groups and organizations, nations, and even the world as a whole is almost entirely dependent upon a single central meta-skill that I call Reasoning. This is the ability to correctly appraise the problems confronted, assemble the facts necessary, comprehend their interrelationships and implications, and then devise and implement appropriate solutions.
As noted above,Reasoning is not now explicitly taught, and is at best only peripherally addressed in very limited contexts in some science, mathematics and graduate business school courses. To make matters worse, even those few peripheral stabs at teaching this vital meta-skill occur very late in the student's academic career, long after many bad thinking habits have long been established. The result is that the desperately needed problem solving ability can only be acquired by first breaking those long established defective thinking habits - a process that's notoriously difficult for most and virtually impossible for all too many!
In the essay that follows I begin by discussing this problem, some of the partial solutions now being implemented (primarily the teaching of Critical Thinking), and their limitations. I next present a two step proposal for solution, and the role that the ancient strategic board game of Go can play in it:
A significant caveat must be noted here. In almost any other discipline, whether in the sciences, mathematics, or in any of the arts or social sciences, a trained cadre of practitioners and teachers already exists from whose ranks competent teachers of those disciplines can be readily recruited. But if the underlying premise of this essay is correct, no such adequate supply of those trained and competent in Reasoning exists! And that means that, somehow, it will be necessary to essentially start from near zero, and then"bootstrap" our way to create the needed supply of competent teachers with which to inculcate the population at large.
Finally, also addressed herein are some of the key impediments to juvenile learning, and how they affect the educational process, as well as a brief discussion of certain caveats required to respond to critiques of earlier versions of this essay.
In order to identify and correct the major problems afflicting education it will be helpful to reiterate its objectives, because it is clear from what's occurring that these have either not been understood or have been lost sight of.
The three major objectives of education, in ascending order of importance, are for the students to learn:
3. How to Analyze and Reason (i.e. how to think coherently and rationally).
Regrettably, the existing educational establishment is deficient in realizing all three of these objectives, but especially receives failing grades in the supremely vital Reasoning area.
The Ongoing "Content Based" vs. "Reasoning Based" Curriculum Controversy
In its featured article in the "Arts & Ideas" section on Saturday Sept 11,1999 The New York Times outlined the currently raging controversy in this area succinctly under the heading "Opposing Approaches So Johnny Can Read", as follows:
"Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor and author of the new book 'The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand' argues that critical thinking and analytical skills in various disciplines should be the backbone of any educational approach, and that these do not depend on studying any particular subject matter or using a core curriculum."
The article then contrasted that with:
"E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of 'Cultural Literacy', is a professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Mr. Hirsch .... argues that to function well, people need a vocabulary of common information, of facts, stories and skills that make up a shared literacy. His approach is being used in some of New York City's newest charter schools. He argues that the progressive tradition in education, which Mr. Gardner represents, has miserably failed students, particularly disadvantaged ones, and that a school combining drills and practice where needed with a demanding core curriculum will continue to produce the most successes."
Resolving This Controversy
Well!! The battle has certainly been joined, but the terms under which it is being fought are seriously defective! The problem is that both of these seemingly opposing viewpoints are insufficient unto themselves, and that, rather than being mutually exclusive as their proponents seem to believe, they are in fact complementary!!
Having "a vocabulary of common information" is clearly useful in achieving societal coherence, and learning facts is necessary to simple every day functioning because they describe the world we live in. And finding our way around in that world and recognizing the relationships that exist between its almost infinite variety of components is an essential prerequisite to accomplishing anything useful. Many of these things are learned informally outside the school environment, but most are acquired in the formal process of education. But wherever and however these things are learned, THEY ALONE ARE USELESS! What is needed to utilize them in any productive fashion are some form of logical structure to provide an appropriate context in which they make sense and can be applied, plus some techniques for their application.
Techniques are essential to the conduct of all aspects of our daily lives and are so intimately intertwined with it that we rarely consider them explicitly. Many, like how to walk, talk, dress, brush our teeth, etc. are learned informally in childhood long before exposure to the school environment. Another important set, like how to drive a car, fix a broken toilet or sink, read a map, etc. are learned later in life but still usually informally. But an entire complex of techniques vital to the performance of the higher cognitive functions and tasks are only available in more or less formal educational settings. Prominent among these are the techniques of Mathematics, the Sciences, Language, and Logic.
TECHNIQUE AND FACTS TOGETHER ENABLE THE PERFORMANCE OF USEFUL WORK, BUT THEY ALONE ARE INSUFFICIENT BECAUSE THEY LACK THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS OF UNDERSTANDING, MOTIVATION, AND DIRECTION THAT CAN ONLY BE SUPPLIED BY ANALYSIS AND REASONING.
The best technique inappropriately applied will almost necessarily produce only failure, and even hosts of facts are useless without some organizing hypothesis with which to make sense of them and indicate where and how they might logically and productively be applied.
The Rationale For Teaching Reasoning Skills
The article "Tune-ups for the Young Brain", The New York Times, Feb 11, 1999, Section G, page 11, said:
" ...educators have been discovering, .. that thinking can be taught, and indeed, must be taught." (Emphasis mine.) "Thinking is a kind of overlord of academia" said Dr. Arthur Pober, an educational psychologist who conducts workshops nationally on thinking skills. "What many grownups don't understand is that learning math and reading, social studies and science, music, woodworking, block building or art doesn't teach youngsters to think. Just the reverse."
Learning to think "should be a distinct component of the school curriculum and a distinct activity at home" Dr. Pober said. He added, "Children can then use those skills to better understand other subjects."
The article further states that "Educators essentially agree that thinking comprises a cluster of elements: memory, cognition, or learning, decision making, and problem solving,"
Dr. Pober uses the term "thinking" in place of what I call "Reasoning" in this paper.)
There are two serious omissions in Dr. Pober's synthesis:
- the key element of perception, which necessarily precedes all of those listed and without which none of the other elements even come into play!
- The fact that improving the student's ability to Reason will also favorably change his/her attitude toward learning.
This problem is further amplified and delineated by the conclusion reached in a feature article in the National section of The New York Times of Sunday May 4, 1997 by Peter Applebome, headlined "U.S. Pupils Score High On Science Facts but Falter on Reasoning". It is manifest that this critical deficit will almost certainly have a strong negative impact on America's ability to maintain its current position of leadership in science, technology and business in the next century unless immediate action is undertaken by the educational establishment to remedy this condition and ameliorate its deleterious effects.
It is well known that the essential first step in obtaining a solution to any problem is the development of an accurate and reasonably complete problem statement, but it is far less well understood that identifying the problem's underlying causal mechanism(s) is also equally necessary. Lacking this identification of causation a "cure" may sometimes gratuitously result anyway, but this favorable outcome cannot be guaranteed and in the absence of established causation the best that can reasonably be expected in most cases is merely an amelioration of symptoms. Pragmatically this may sometimes be adequate, but not in most cases. Of relevance in the current context, whether or not causality can be established in the crucial educational problem under discussion herein is far from clear.
The Significance Of This Problem
The premise underlying the remainder of this paper is that lack of student Reasoning Skills is, if not the most important, at least one of the more important problems in American education. Accordingly, the discussion which follows identifies and analyzes this syndrome's key symptoms as the necessary precursor to determining its underlying causal mechanisms and then devising and implementing a solution. I'm reasonably confident that this emphasis is justified, but in the unlikely event that it should later develop that this premise is in error then of necessity solving this problem will have little substantive value.
It shouldn't be necessary to point out that there are a host of far better known problems which also unfavorably impact American education, so that solving this one alone will by no means produce nirvana. But it is my firm belief that its solution will provide the "biggest bang per buck", and is therefore well worth pursuing aggressively.
The Standard School Curriculum, And Its Evolution
From its inception in colonial days, the dual purpose of the American educational system has been to adequately prepare our youth for the challenges they will later face in adult life, and to produce a sufficiently competent workforce.
In the primarily rural/agrarian society that existed before the mid 1800's, a curriculum that didn't go far beyond the traditional "3 R's" was more than adequate to meet these needs for all except a select few. But with the advent of the new societal paradigm initiated by the twin developments of the communications revolution (which began with the telegraph and telephone) and the industrial revolution, there was initiated an ever more rapid and pervasive transformation of America from an agrarian society into a largely urban one. Then, with manufacturing and technology rather than agriculture and the traditional trades providing an ever increasing proportion of the available jobs, it accordingly became necessary to augment the school curriculum's basic 3 R's with Science and more advanced Mathematics.
Toward the end of the 19th century, a second and even more powerful technological upheaval began with the advent of automobiles and airplanes, accompanied by a rapid expansion of the earlier communications revolution. In the 20th century, communications further progressed inexorably into radio, radar, television and finally computers, and this once again markedly changed "the rules of the game" by speeding up and effectively shrinking the world. This in turn raised the value of the ability to communicate in one's own native language as well as in foreign tongues, and forced an additional reassessment and revision of the school curriculum.
Until recently, each of these new challenges was eventually met more or less successfully by the educational establishment via incorporation of the appropriate subjects into the core curriculum, which was then further augmented by the addition of culturally desirable subjects like literature, civics, athletics, music, theater, dance, etc., to arrive at the currently accepted configuration.
An Earlier Attempt At Curriculum Reform, And Why It Is Inadequate
But even this augmented curriculum this has not proved fully satisfactory to all, with the result that most recently a new effort at further curriculum revision/enhancement was initiated by Thomas Lickona, Professor of Education at the NY State University at Cortland, who proposed adding to the traditional three "R's" a fourth and fifth "R", called Respect and Responsibility.
The implied presumption inherent in Lickona's proposal is that the addition of these 2 new "R's" to the traditional 3 would result in a curriculum which adequately prepares our youth for the highly technological and unforgiving adult world they will face in the 21st century. But can it actually succeed in this task? Regrettably, I believe it self evident that the answer to this pivotal question is a resounding NO!!
Since it's so important, let's now briefly examine the components of Reasoning, beginning with its proper subset critical thinking.
What Is CRITICAL THINKING?
In standard education texts, critical thinking is defined as consisting of the following elements:
Offering Opinions With Reasons
Making Judgments With Criteria
On close examination, it is apparent that all of these 10 elements together address only the evaluation/appraisal portion of the total decision-making process. Even the last of them, although in a sense summarizing its predecessors, still falls short of making or acting on a decision which may result from such an evaluation/appraisal. For this reason, critical thinking as defined above is inadequate as a tool for effective decision-making in the real world because it addresses only the "front end" of that vital process.
Given that reality, it is only reasonable to wonder why the educational establishment has heretofore seen fit to stop at this point rather than to take the natural further step of completing the Reasoning process by including the additional steps needed for action oriented problem solving.
The answer to this conundrum is readily revealed when one recognizes the etiology of this entire effort - the search by the educational establishment for a mechanism with which to provide students with a structured, rational basis for readily distinguishing fact from mere speculation, and for deciding which of competing "explanations" for an observed situation or phenomenon is the more likely to be correct.
Since most of the student's study and research even through graduate school is focused on the investigation of sources and data followed by the drawing of inferences and conclusions therefrom, this is really all that is necessary to adequately fulfill that need. The necessity to continue on to action oriented decision making and implementation only arises in such situations as graduate business school case studies, and, of course, real life situations with which the educational establishment rarely deals explicitly.
Current Critical Thinking Teaching Programs
Before moving on to the complete Reasoning Process, the reader may wish to investigate the current state of development of teaching the Critical Thinking process, beginning with:
Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities To Determine
Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking In Instruction
Principal Researchers: Dr. Richard Paul, Dr. Linda Elder, and Dr. Ted Bartell
If this study is nearly as representative as it appears to be, even this limited area of teacher education is not only seriously neglected (as I've long contended) but is also being very imperfectly implemented in even those relatively few schools in which an attempt at teaching it is currently underway!
In attempting to find existing college/university courses in this area, the first one I've uncovered is the Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking at University of Massachusetts, Boston, described in detail at
This is referenced in the web page entitled Critical Thinking On The Web at
which contains a fairly comprehensive list of on line resources in this area.
What is REASONING?
As defined herein, Reasoning subsumes Critical Thinking by adding to it the additional elements needed to turn that primarily evaluative process into one in which a decision-making situation is correctly analyzed in the face of intelligent competitive action, and then the required corrective/ameliorative action is devised and implemented! With this important addition, the necessary but static and essentially intellectual exercise of critical thinking is transformed into a highly useful, practical decision-making process.
Elements Of the Reasoning Process:
Objectively assess the current status and its (often far from obvious) implications. (= Critical Thinking).
Recall pertinent facts which potentially impact the outcome.
Visualize feasible/appropriate alternative courses of action.
Calculate/estimate the value and risks of each.
Make and implement action decisions.
Observe the outcome.
Repeat the entire cycle, as appropriate.
From this definition, it is apparent that Reasoning is the essential meta-skill involved in correctly making the entire complex of every-day decisions which dominate all human interactions, so the ability to effectively utilize it is a primary determinant of each individual's real-world success or failure!
These decisions range from the relatively simple like choosing what to eat for dinner, to vastly more difficult ones like deciding whether to go to college or get a job after high school. They culminate in the almost infinitely complex decisions confronting an entrepreneur who must decide whether or not to launch a new product, what market to aim at, how and where to produce, price and advertise it, etc., etc.
Some Acknowledgments Of The Importance Of Reasoning Skills
The importance of acquiring these vital REASONING SKILLS by our youth has been explicitly acknowledged by the New York State Commissioner of Education, Dr. Richard P. Mills who was quoted in a New York Times profile on Apr 1, 1999 as saying "It's not fair to graduate children without the knowledge and skills to make it in the world. We are setting them up for failure." , and then went on to mandate implementation of "The new learning standards adopted by the (NY State) Board of Regents" placing "teaching students to apply higher order thinking skills in the content areas" (= beginning with fifth grade Social Studies).
This realization was further confirmed in The New York Times Metro Section article of Jan 14, 2001 entitled "What Kind Of Education Is Adequate? It Depends." in which Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College said "As information and its sources grow more complex, the ability to evaluate information becomes ever more important." The same article later quoted Dr. Gerald Graff, Professor of education at The University of Illinois at Chicago as saying "We still have a long way to go to get across to people in the schools and citizens that the kinds of testing we are doing and the standards we are applying emphasize the ability to think and argue rather than cramming minds with a lot of facts".
Deficiencies In The Existing Proposals For Acquiring These Vital Skills
From the latter it is apparent that although well intentioned and certainly a step forward from current policy, it is regrettable that Dr. Mills' initiative will necessarily prove insufficient to adequately prepare our students to cope with the ever increasing technological complexity of modern life in the coming century! Why? Because "content area" implementation is badly targeted, and begins far too late in the student's educational life to be truly effective!!
In order for the desired result to obtain, I believe it essential that the explicit teaching of REASONING SKILLS begin in pre-school, with ongoing reinforcement/enhancement of these ideas continuing throughout each student's entire school career!
As I see it, the major deficiencies in the plan adopted by the NY State Board of Regents are:
The "content area" teaching of vital REASONING SKILLS begins long after the student has already internalized his/her own (almost invariably inadequate) synthesis of how to approach and resolve the myriad of real life decisions which confront each of us every day. The result of this late start is that the student must first unlearn his/her misconceptions before it is possible to move on to the proper mental orientation. Not only a vast waste of effort, but also unnecessarily undertaking the notoriously difficult task of breaking long established habits!
Training the students "to apply higher order thinking skills in the content areas" has dual built-in deficits:
The entire subject will almost certainly be viewed by the students as "just another academic exercise", which in their minds (in common with their other school work) bears little or no relevance to their "real lives".
No explicit mechanism is provided to conquer the very important and well known difficulty of transferring these REASONING SKILLS from the intellectually antiseptic school environment and curriculum "content areas" to the students' everyday lives, where most of their true payoff lies.
How Can These Vital REASONING SKILLS Best Be Acquired?
My proposal is:
1. Begin the inculcation of vital REASONING SKILLS in pre-school (or Kindergarten at latest).
This will require a completely different approach than the rather simplistic and straightforward one which will suffice in a fifth grade "content area" classroom! In place of formal instruction, role playing games seem a far more appropriate mechanism.
For example, with the youngest children a good way to start is with a shopping game in which they have a fixed amount of money to spend and have to decide first which menu items are essential (e.g vegetables, milk, etc.) and which are not (e.g. candy, potato chips, soda, etc.), and then select their purchases accordingly.
2. Continue Throughout The Student's Entire Academic Career.
With repetition, advancing age and increasing sophistication, the nature and content of the role playing games and the decision process can gradually be expanded into more complex real life situations, and then quite naturally segued into the content areas. In this manner, both of the above noted deficits in the current Board of Regents proposal will be effortlessly overcome.
3. Create and implement an appropriate REASONING SKILLS curriculum.
This is the essential element in this new proposal, but something that obviously does not yet exist! And since developing and obtaining approval for such a curriculum is not likely to be quickly or easily accomplished, it is equally essential that immediate action be taken to begin this development process.
4. In the interim between the current complete lack of teaching of REASONING SKILLS and the ultimate situation in which a comprehensive, effective and smoothly functioning curriculum is fully implemented from pre-school on there is an at least partially effective action which can (and should) be taken:
The great strategic board games of Chess and/or the superior and far older oriental strategic board game of Go can be used to teach these vital Reasoning Skills informally!
As will be described shortly, Chess is already fulfilling this role with distinction at the Mott Hall School in one of New York City's poorer neighborhoods, while because Go is still largely unknown in the US it has only had the opportunity to show its even greater value in Japan (Described in the section of this web page entitled "Go In Japanese Education").
The "miracle" of both Chess and (especially) Go is that playing either well requires implementing at each move precisely the same set of logical steps as in the solution of real world problems. This confluence of thinking seems not to have been noticed by anyone other than myself and until recently was unsubstantiated, but its validity has just been demonstrated (at least to my own not easily garnered satisfaction) with my discovery of a technique now widely used in the business world called SWOT Analysis! In this technique, the decision maker evaluates the: S = Strengths, W = Weaknesses, O = Opportunities, and T = Threats inherent in the situation of interest, and then uses that analysis as the basis for his decision. And this is precisely what a competent player of either Chess or Go must do prior to each and every move!
The advantage of using these games is that the lessons they teach are informal and non-threatening, concealed in the benign guise of the world's most challenging strategic board games! So unlike formal school instruction, all that the children are aware of while playing them is having FUN, so that the profoundly useful changes that occur in their thinking processes are completely transparent and painless to them! And it is only later, when the relationship between their thinking/ decision making in the game context and in real life problem solving is explicitly developed (e.g. using the model of the SWOT technique) will they experience any of the pressure that exists in the "normal" school context.
So until the explicit REASONING SKILLS curriculum has been developed and implemented, the games of Chess and (even better) Go can function effectively to informally begin the process of teaching them. And even after the formal curriculum has been implemented Go, especially, can continue to serve as a pleasurable reinforcement which offers unlimited opportunity for the students to practice and hone these vital skills at home whenever it is convenient (thanks to the internet), at their own pace! And this combination of attributes certainly constitutes an ideal learning environment.
At present, this premise is largely supported only by anecdotal (albeit highly persuasive) evidence, so that it can't quite be considered fact. However, that evidence has been persuasive enough to convince me and I hope that it will do the same for you.
Why Go Is Superior To Chess as Paradigm For Teaching Reasoning Skills
Although this web page is devoted to Go, and my own migration from Chess to Go was based upon my regretfully arrived at deep conviction of Go's superiority in almost every respect, in the pursuit of fairness I've noted in the foregoing that Chess has been used quite successfully in a number of American (and foreign!) schools as a mechanism for improving student academic performance.. But because of its limited scope, fixed starting setup, and primarily tactical orientation Chess provides a far less than ideal vehicle for this purpose.
Go's major advantages over Chess are its immense board size, infinitely flexible starting setup, and especially the dominance of deep strategic thinking over even its dazzlingly beautiful and incisive tactics. Together these attributes make Go the ideal vehicle for painlessly teaching vital REASONING SKILLS so badly needed yet sadly missing from our children's current school curriculum. Almost equally important for their academic careers, advanced students of both Chess and Go typically develop good study habits, but this process is even more complete in Go. As if that weren't enough, its many attributes combine with the vast scale of the Go board to provide unlimited scope for even the most capable students to exercise their mental capabilities to the fullest, so that even the best and brightest never become bored. And, as already noted, it is not uncommon for "underachievers" who become captivated by Go to become transformed into superior students!
The main reason that Chess suffers from a serious limitation as paradigm for teaching REASONING SKILLS is that it is essentially analytic. In contrast, because Go players must rely almost entirely upon general strategic principles and such abilities as pattern recognition during the crucial opening phase of the game, Go produces an integration of right and left-brain function which is essential to complete mental development, and does so to a degree unmatched by any other mechanism known to medical science! (At least partial validation of this contention was provided in late 2002 by a MRI brain scan study, referenced in the earlier section of this web page entitled "Comparison Between Chess and Go".)
Despite its limitations, Chess can nevertheless be quite efficacious in improving student academic performance, as described in a featured article on the Sunday New York Times of December 15. 2002 editorial page by Brent Staples, Editorial Observer, entitled "Chess Offers Young Students Life Lessons at a City School".
Selected excerpts, with my comments, follow:
"The chess master and teacher at the Mott Hall school, Jerald Times .....radiates energy as he patrols the classroom urging fourth and fifth graders to fight through chess problems that he has given them. Mr. Times is looking for potential prodigies who could join the Mott Hall's Dark Knights, a mainly black and latino chess team from a poor community that has won six national championships over the last decade."
The article later continued:
"Chess programs are offered on a voluntary basis in many schools around the City. But a child who attends Mott Hall is REQUIRED (emphasis mine) to take at least one semester of chess"!
This is unique, and in my opinion is the major factor in the program's success (described below). But achieving it requires obtaining the backing of skeptical school administrators who typically have other priorities.
The article then continued with a description of the program's simply outstanding results:
"A substantial number of those students stick with it, taking more and more advanced classes every year.
Chess and academic excellence seem to go hand in hand. About one fifth of the students who leave this school go on to elite prep schools like Andover, Exeter and Choate. About 50 percent get into competitive public high schools like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. These would be staggering numbers in any case, but they are especially impressive given that Mott Hall serves a poor, heavily Dominican district where that kind of academic excellence is rare."
This is, of course, only "anecdotal evidence", and in accord with the old maxim "One Swallow does not a Summer make", cannot ordinarily be considered definitive. But this case is clearly different because the results obtained are so far beyond the bounds of mere random variation as to be statistically significant in and of themselves. (And I say this as one professionally trained in and who made his living practicing Mathematical Statistics and Operations Research.). In fact these results represent the Holy Grail that all educators seek, and which has proven so elusive in even the most affluent schools.
The article continued:
"Studies show that students who participate in chess programs typically experience at least modest gains in academic achievement. But the children who attend Mott Hall do not just play chess - they live it, through a creative curriculum that includes tai chi and storytelling that interests children in the classics."
And it continues with what is perhaps the key underlying concept:
"The goal of the program is to tap the skills developed in chess to achieve the greater goal of academic excellence".
This, of course, exemplifies the premise spelled out in this essay, and which is the underlying generic underpinning of all such programs. The fact that this particular Chess program, operating in what can only be characterized as a "deprived environment", has been so outstandingly successful indicates clearly what CAN be accomplished IF the right elements are included and IF the required degree of support is in place! How difficult it is to achieve the latter is the subject of the article's denouement, described next.
The article continued:
"A nationally known research group called Public/Private Ventures gave Mott Hall's chess program an outstanding rating in 2001 and described it as an excellent candidate for replication."
So from all of the foregoing you would naturally expect that school administration support and resources would at least be maintained if not greatly augmented, wouldn't you? But you'd be very wrong! The article continued:
This recognition came as the foundation that had been underwriting Mott Hall's chess program changed focus; it has set up a new group to raise money. Meanwhile the school has cut back on its chess staff and reduced enrollment in the program....The chess classes are more crowded since the budget cuts, and students get less individual help."
Can you believe this???
From the perspective of a rational, unbiased observer who has no pecuniary or psychological investment in the immense New York City system (with over 1 million students!), this behavior in failing to support Mott Hall's program seems bizarre. New York's schools are well known to be largely in disarray, with vast portions servicing poor minority neighborhoods while achieving dismal test scores and high dropout percentages as well as disturbingly high crime rates. So when a small school like Mott Hall in one of those very same typically low achieving areas suddenly produces results that exceed those of most of the system's best areas, one would rationally expect that instead of cutting their budget it would be increased! And beyond that, that it would be used as a model for all the other schools in the system to emulate.
But, strangely, the system's behavior is actually quite rational, if nevertheless execrable. At least part of the explanation is, regrettably, in perfect accord with the observation I made some time ago regarding the impenetrability of the educational establishment to new ideas, particularly those arising from outside its own ranks - the well known NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome.
But beyond that I believe the deep seated rationale is power and control! Almost universally, neither the top school administration, the local Principals nor the many teachers even know how to play chess, and certainly don't understand its tactics and strategy. And this means that they can have no understanding of how the program will function, or why and how it will accomplish its goals. So implementing (or supporting) it means willingly abandoning their control - a prospect so frightening to them that it produces the incredible result that they reduce support for the only program that has shown itself to be capable of producing the superior academic performance that has historically eluded their best efforts!
NY Times Article author Brent Staples was as amazed and appalled as I when he concluded:
"Mott Hall will almost certainly attract the private financing it needs to bring its chess curriculum back to full strength. What is disheartening is a public education financing mechanism that rewards mediocrity everywhere you look and then forces innovation to stand on the street, rattling the tin cup."
From the Mott Hall experience I believe it manifest that the payoff from a properly implemented Reasoning program can be immense, and that bringing it to fruition ASAP on the widest possible scale is the only rational course of action to pursue if American education is ever to reach the high quality that life in the 21st century will require.
Redressing The Deficits In The Mott Hall Program
The key unanswered question is whether the spectacular results obtained in the Mott Hall School can be widely replicated. I believe that answer is in the affirmative because their program, excellent as it is, omits the following important elements the inclusion of which can only improve the probability of good results:
1. The Mott Hall program does not teach Reasoning Skills explicitly, only implicitly using the Chess paradigm..
2. Their Chess instruction is separate from the regular curriculum, rather than being integrated into it as it would be if the same teachers taught both (at least at the elementary level - beyond that, of course, a specialist like Mr. Time would have to take over).
3. Their program also requires the students to "find their own way" in transferring the thinking processes employed in Chess to their academic studies.
4. Perhaps most important, there is NO transfer either explicit or implicit into the problem solving thinking processes which govern success in the real adult world beyond the academic experience, and which are so essential to the proper functioning of our democratic society.
5. The age at which the children are introduced to the Mott Hall program, although quite young, is still almost certainly far older than optimal.
6. Although all the Mott Hall children are required to take Chess for one year, beyond that it's voluntary. Continuation for all children throughout their entire school careers must almost necessarily improve overall results.
7. Finally, the Mott Hall program uses the game of Chess as paradigm rather than Go. Although the resulting difference in academic performance between these is probably negligible (and this may be sufficient to satisfy school administrators who almost necessarily have parochial interests involved), when transferred to the real life decision making that will determine the viability of our society the vastly broader (and more realistic) scope of Go thinking is clearly superior.
An Important Caveat!
To achieve the desired transformation of the student's reasoning processes from their initial primitive state to the goal of fully mature competence, it is necessary that he/she advance to the higher levels of Chess or Go proficiency. Merely playing either game on a primitive level, even consistently over a lengthy period, produces no discernable benefit.
It is also essential to realize that learning to reason in the abstract game context may prove helpful in doing the same in real-life situations, but it is by no means either necessary or sufficient for that purpose! So for most students explicit attention to transferring these skills will be required. (Here again, use of the SWOT model is ideal.)
Since achieving an advanced level of competence is an essential precondition for the student's perfecting his/her reasoning skills in the game environment, a key question to be answered concerns whether this level of competence is exceptionally difficult achieve or feasible for most.
For Go, the answer to this crucial question may best be found in Japan, China and Korea, where it is not uncommon for exceptionally gifted children as young as 5 or 6 to already be at least moderately competent players, ranked at about the 3-5 Kyu (= Brown Belt) level on the American Go Association (AGA) scale. For the most promising and talented of these youngsters who aspire to become Go professionals, the usual entry age into the apprenticeship program is 10-14, at which age the prime admission criterion is that the candidate must already have achieved at least an amateur 4-5 Dan (= Black Belt) ranking!
But even among the "average" less talented students who neither aspire to nor qualify for professional Go training, reaching the 3-5 Kyu plateau of skill by the end of their school career should be possible for most, and this is sufficient for the majority of Go's mind-altering benefits and improved reasoning skills to be realized. The major caution to be observed here is that, in common with every other human activity, achieving competence in Go (or Chess) is easier for a fortunate few than for most others, but almost all normal individuals can reach the desired skill level if only they are willing to invest the requisite time and effort!
On the other hand it has been found that, in contrast to the rapidity with which many children in the Orient progress in Go, American children typically advance far more slowly! The key question this disturbing fact raises is whether or not this marked difference in rate of progress results from superior innate intelligence or some other genetic attribute of the Orientals and is therefore beyond our control, or whether it is merely a consequence of our societal environment which we can address and change.
Based upon my own experience and research, I believe that whatever inherent intellectual advantage Orientals may or may not possess is essentially irrelevant in this context. Instead, I consider it almost certain that most if not all of the vast observed difference in performance between Oriental and Western children in learning Go is due to the fact that Go is an integral part of their culture and an omnipresent and well respected activity, whereas in America it is pejoratively perceived as a "nerdy" outsider's activity!
For example, consider the case of Korea's former top Go professional, Cho Hun-Hyun. His first exposure to Go was at age 2 (!), when he would sit in the warmth and caring of his father's lap while his dad played Go, absorbing the game's strategy and tactics "by osmosis", in the same optimal and effortless way that all young children learn language. By age 3, young Cho was already a competent player, and by 5 he was the best player in his village. (This fairly closely parallels the experience of former World Chess Champion Jose Capablanca, and shows the close resemblance of the learning processes involved.) At around age 10 he was proficient enough to be accepted as an apprentice professional, and the rest (as they say) is history. In sharp contrast, Go and its attributes are even today almost completely unknown to the vast majority of children, parents, and educators in the USA. Consequently, even in the few venues in which it has been introduced Go necessarily ranks very low in the fierce competition for the scarce but essential resource of the children's time, and, absent special programs like that at Mott Hall, Chess usually fares little better.
The importance of this cultural imperative was clearly demonstrated recently by a Korean-American of my acquaintance. In common with fully 20% of all Korean men in his native country, my friend is a strong, dedicated Go player. But, although they have been taught by their father, neither of his two teen age American-born and thoroughly culturally integrated sons either plays or has any interest Go!
The following was added on February 27, 2003, and updated on October 4, 2004
As with other of my insights that some in the Go community have challenged as unsupported, I'm extremely gratified to have had my contention in the foregoing validated by a feature article by Natalie Angier entitled "Not Just Genes: Moving Beyond Nature vs. Nurture" in the Science Times, page F1, of The New York Times, Tuesday February 25, 2003. The relevant portion of this article is as follows:
"Dr. Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, has found that Asians and Westerners think differently from each other in significant and measurable ways, as he describes in his new book 'The Geography of Thought'. "Westerners focus on some kind of central object" he said in an interview. "They attend to its attributes and try to find out what rules apply to its behavior, with the goal of categorizing it".
By contrast, he said, Asians tend to see an object in a much broader field. "They're not as interested in categorizing objects", Dr. Nisbett said, "and they don't have as many linear deterministic rules of behavior". These differences are revealed even in tests of perceptual and visual skills: Westerners score higher on the ability to remember the absolute size of an object; Easterners do better with recalling its dimensions relative to something else.
(All of this is entirely consistent with my speculation that Orientals have some kind of "built in" advantage in learning Go - as it turns out, not an inherent genetic advantage, but a cultural one! And this, too, is consistent with my observations of the Oriental children in my classes and the sons of my Korean friend. To more or less definitively confirm this last contention, the Science Times article concluded with these words:)
"Significantly, the cognitive styles are not fixed, but shift after a person has spent only a few months living on the other side of the globe. (My comment: Or in a cultural environment displaced from there, as with many of today's Japanese youth immersed in American culture?) Whether it must tilt holistic or dualistic, defend nature, nurture or neither, the human brain will find a way to fit in with the crowd".
There is also another factor that may be at work here, built-in to the structure of our respective written languages! Western written languages are based upon alphabets, in which words are constructed phonetically and which therefore involve primarily analytic brain function to decipher, while the major oriental languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) use pictographs which require pattern recognition for interpretation. And because playing Go is intensely dependent upon pattern recognition, it would seem almost tautological that those trained in that art from earliest childhood would have a major advantage in learning Go.
The "other side of this coin" of the cultural imperative has just been splendidly illustrated by Eric Lui of Baltimore, who a couple of years ago at age 9 become the youngest person ever to attain the AGA rank of 3-Dan! As Eric's father I-han was quoted in the Spring 1998 edition of The American Go Journal, "Eric started very early. He didn't have regular lessons. At three (!), he came to the Go class I taught at Chinese school. I wasn't really sure if he understood the lessons. When he was almost five, I found out that he really does understand - about life-and-death, things like that. He started to play with the computer, using the Many Faces of Go program, and that helped to speed him up. We didn't have formal lessons. I just pointed out where he made mistakes when we played. (Eric's dad is a 6-Dan player!) He picked up the game quickly." I-han further said that he has never had another student as good as Eric.
The comparison between the contrasting outcomes of these youngsters I believe underscores the importance of starting early and the influence of the dominant cultural medium in which the student lives.
Significant as it clearly is, even the great cultural difference between the Orient and America is insufficient to completely explain the learning deficits that I have observed during my own 8 years of experience teaching Go to over 700 children (primarily in the third thru fifth grades) in the South Huntington School District's after-school Go program, and their consequent difficulty in acquiring Go skill at what I had heretofore considered to be a minimally desirable rate. (Of particular interest here is the fact that among my students were a number of children of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants, and this appears to lay to rest any serious contention that any intrinsic superior capacity for Go exists in orientals.)
However, recent feedback from other children's Go teachers resulting from the posting of an earlier version of this essay on the web has indicated that my expectations may have been unrealistically high considering the minimal hour-and-a-quarter per week exposure to Go of my students. So even though their learning rate is apparently much more reasonable under my program's operating constraints than I had previously thought it to be, I nevertheless continue to believe that it can and should be feasible to greatly improve it!
In an attempt to discover what was impeding the students' learning I began my own modest research project, leading to the identification of the significant inhibiting factors discussed in the addendum presented below.
Within 2 weeks of writing the original version of the foregoing in 2000, I also made the identical proposal on teaching REASONING SKILLS and the use of Go as an adjunct thereto to then Presidential candidates Texas Governor George W. Bush and New York Governor George Pataki, NY State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills, Microsoft Corp's Bill Gates, and then sitting President William Jefferson Clinton, in addition to others less prominently on record as being interested in education. The predictable responses were all polite "cockroach letters" (if you know that story), but at least the idea was planted (assuming that the intended recipients ever actually saw my proposal).
In May 2001 my wife Sonya was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Five Towns College, and at that time I suggested to the college's Vice President that they include a Reasoning Skills course in their Early Childhood Teaching curriculum, and after reading an earlier version of this essay he evinced interest in doing so. As a result, I developed the course curriculum along the lines proposed here, and presented it for the college's review.
As of July 2003 this course was accepted by the college and added to their graduate offerings for the then upcoming Fall 2003-2004 semester in the Elementary Education Department, as ELE 553 in their catalog. Unfortunately, logistical and other administrative problems prevented it from being given, but at least the first positive step has been taken! So perhaps a miracle will occur and this idea actually will flower in my lifetime! But whether or not it does I will not be deterred from trying, consistent with my motto:
"BETTER TO LIGHT ONE SMALL CANDLE THAN TO CURSE THE DARKNESS."
This concludes the main body of this essay. In the addenda that follow are explanatory materials which address some significant issues that arose in conducting my research and presenting its results. Although not strictly essential to either understanding or validating my argument, they may help answer some questions which otherwise might disturb the astute reader.
A Puzzling Behavioral Anomaly
The foregoing exposition of the benefits that can accrue to the student's Reasoning processes as a result of training in Chess and/or Go seems quite neat and tidy until one addresses the well known and extremely puzzling anomaly of the excellent Go or Chess player who is socially inept. How to reconcile this kind of individual with the premise that learning these strategic board games can make one a competent thinker?? This is the anomaly that baffled me for many years and which for a long time deprived me of compelling ammunition with which to silence critics of what I have always "known" (in the deep "gut" sense) about what learning REASONING SKILLS via Go (even more than Chess) can both explicitly and implicitly contribute to making a successful, mature individual.
At least that was true until Apr 6, 1999! Because in that day's New York Times, "Science Times", Section F, page 1, one of the feature articles "A Syndrome With a Mix of Skills and Deficits" by John O'Neil, seems to have finally revealed the long sought answer!
Described therein is "Asperger's Syndrome", "generally considered a form of autism", which "under some definitions as many as 1 in 500 people have the condition", and is "largely a condition affecting males". The article further states "All of the autistic-like conditions that have come under an umbrella term of 'empathetic disorders' - to emphasize the stunted social skills that undermine the learning process - appear to be caused by lesions in a part of the brain that processes sensory input." It goes on " In Asperger's the deficits are largely in non-verbal skills , connected to the right hemisphere". It further says "The most striking characteristic of the syndrome is consuming interest in arcane subjects." And in conclusion "The key point in the diagnosis is that their obsessive behavior significantly impairs their social functioning."
So if - and this is a major point - if some competent and even ultra-competent Go players are otherwise social misfits they may in fact be victims of this until now largely unrecognized condition (affecting 1 in 500 people = almost 1 in 250 males)! And if this is true then the premise that "normal" individuals (and especially children) can be trained to transfer their Go thinking skills to improve their ability to solve their real world problems becomes truly viable! What's more, there are remedial mechanisms even for those unfortunates afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome but they are only effective if begun early - a perfect dovetailing with my "early start" REASONING SKILLS teaching proposal.
Factors Inhibiting Children's Learning
While teaching my after school Go program in the South Huntington School District, in addition to conducting my own research into the published findings on this subject, I attempted to validate what I had observed concerning the children's learning problems by discussing my findings with the district's teaching staff. As a result of those discussions, I became convinced that these same inhibiting factors are not unique to the Go program but are also common in the normal classroom, so it is extremely likely that they represent an endemic problem which affects all school children as well as the entire educational process!
These key inhibiting factors are:
DIFFICULTY IN REMEMBERING/LEARNING
This deficit clearly has transcendent importance, yet it is presently not known what proportion of it results from the presentation, the children's deliberate or involuntary inattention, their intrinsic inability to remember, or some combination thereof.
To place this factor in proper context it is necessary to recognize that in many school subjects (e.g. history, language, mathematics, biology, etc.) rote memory is actually a primary determinant of success, despite the fact that it is well known that this ability alone is of little value outside the academic setting. It is also well established that massive, continued rote repetition (= drill) has been found to be almost the only way to embed the desired memory in the minds of the majority of children.
A significant reason that the game of Go functions so well as the paradigm for teaching Reasoning skills is that in it rote memory has even limited utility only in certain sharply restricted (primarily tactical) contexts. Especially in the important macro game, even the best rote recall is of little ultimate value (and may even be counterproductive) unless it is properly integrated into and supported by accurate and detailed analysis of the current global board position, and then coupled with excellent overall strategic judgment.
Despite this caveat and in apparent contradiction to it, there are a number of simple general Go principles whose memorization can prove extremely useful because they are correct most (if not quite all) of the time, so they can therefore act as reasonably reliable guides to the player's search for the best move. And it is in the children's attempt to learn these simple precepts that this key aspect of their learning difficulties has been revealed.
Contrasting the learning experience of my beginning adult Go students at the Long Island Go Club with that of my after-school-program children, the more important of these elementary maxims were explained and illustrated in identical fashion to both. The profound difference is that the adults typically "learn" these ideas in a single session or two, while in order for even rote recall to occur with the children this process of statement and illustration must be repeated in at least in each of the first 8 to 10 sessions, and then yet again from time to time thereafter as the teacher's observations of the children's responses and game play indicate are necessary. (Of necessity for even the adults, full understanding of the actually quite sophisticated implications of these simple principles of play almost invariably takes at least several months.)
In each session after its initial presentation, the procedure was to attempt by question and answer to ascertain how many of the children have "learned" each principle, before again repeating its statement and illustration as further reinforcement.
Despite all of this repetition, I discovered to my surprise that a majority of the children still could not even "parrot back" these few simple postulates by rote (i.e. without understanding), and for some this situation remained unchanged even at the end of their second full school year in the Go program!
Although the description of this problem makes it sound much as if the children exhibiting this difficulty were suffering from some form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or were otherwise dysfunctional, "slow", or unusually unresponsive, this is distinctly not true! This was demonstrated by the fact that many of them were actually among the highest academic achievers, and that this syndrome was repeated in each school and with each new group entering the program in each succeeding year!
A possible explanation for this frustrating phenomenon may be found in Piaget's profound observation that (as paraphrased) "children understand only what they discover for themselves". Although I believe that this conclusion was derived by Piaget from observation of children somewhat younger than those in my after school Go program, it is not inconceivable that it still remains valid to a significant degree at their age of 8-10. If so, this would offer a logical explanation of why the children found it so difficult to follow what were clearly very simple guidelines laid out for them by the instructor.
INABILITY TO TRANSLATE WHAT'S BEEN "LEARNED" INTO PRACTICE.
Eventually, practically all of the children who remained in the Go program were able to correctly regurgitate these key maxims by rote, but even when they could finally do this successfully most still had not established any apparent connection between the memorized aphorisms and their application to the actual play of the game.
The following illustrates this problem perfectly.
One readily apparent and presumably easily learned implication of the simple principles of play which the children were taught is that in the early moves of the game, with a few notable exceptions, moves on either the first or second board lines are counterproductive and should be avoided.
Yet despite repeated reminders of this, until at least 10 sessions had been completed and often far more, almost without exception most of the children began the game with some moves on the first and/or second lines!
When asked by the instructor what their move on the first line is worth, after some hesitation in which their rote memory store was obviously being searched, the child's invariable response was a plaintive "Nothing?". To the instructor's logical followup question of "Then why did you play there?", the equally invariable answer was an even more plaintive "I don't know!". What this clearly means is that when prompted the child is able to recall the instructor's admonition, but has made no connection between the abstract idea and the logical decisions they make in the actual play of the game!
Immediately after such an exchange had taken place a change in that child's stone placement would frequently be evident for several moves and sometimes even until the next game, but then the child would almost invariably revert to his/her former inappropriate and completely unsophisticated pattern of behavior! The twin obvious questions of interest raised by this persistent syndrome are "Why?", and "What can be done to counter this problem?".
It seems likely that at least a portion of this persistent phenomenon must be due to the children's reluctance to accept instruction - which again translates into Piaget's observation regarding their built-in determination to devise their own methods. It also seems likely that a significant portion of this problem must almost certainly result from a true inability on the children's part to relate the prescription provided by the instructional maxim to the real-world action (play of the game) that it describes!
But there is another possible explanation for this phenomenon:
"things of use in everyday living"
If this hypothesis proves correct, it constitutes about as serious an indictment of the current curriculum/educational process as can be imagined!
LIMITED CONCENTRATION/ATTENTION SPAN
At the beginning of each school year, it was apparent that the brains of most of the after-school Go program's new participants would "go into neutral" after periods typically ranging from as little as 15 minutes to a maximum of about 45 minutes for the best of them. And it was only after most of the full school year that a majority of those who remained in the program were able to maintain concentration for the full hour and a quarter that our sessions lasted. As an ameliorating factor, it should be noted that this problem was unquestionably exacerbated by the fact that our sessions took place at the conclusion of an already full school day.
Since this syndrome is one of the very things that the Go program was designed to alleviate, it is heartening to note that the fact that the new third and fourth grade students who remained with the Go program were able to maintain attention as well as both the new fifth graders and the carry-over students from the prior year! This strongly demonstrated that this improvement in ability to maintain concentration was a result of the Go program, and not just a consequence of the fact that the children were 9 months older!
MINIMAL REASONING SKILLS
It was fully expected that the children entering the Go program would be uniformly incapable of demonstrating any discernable Reasoning skills. Truly surprising was that almost without exception they played the game as though no opponent existed! (i.e. no apparent thought was given to the possible implications of the opponent's last move before deciding upon their own response.) In addition, in all too many cases the speed with which the children made their moves far exceeded that which anyone less than a master strength player could maintain and still play reasonably well, with the invariable result of largely incoherent and often inappropriate play.
The only conclusion that could reasonably be reached from these facts is that no real thought or analysis was taking place, and this was the very syndrome that the Go program was intended to correct.
It was only after almost a full year for the most apt children and the second and even the third year for others, and after much instruction and many repeated admonitions, that the beginnings of the necessary process of appraisal of the opponent's last move and the current board position before deciding upon an appropriate response typically became apparent.
Of course, all of this was no surprise to me and was essentially in accord with my initial premise regarding the children's thinking processes - that they came into the after-school Go program with little experience in situational appraisal and decision making, and even fewer skills to apply to that essential real-life task.
What was most painful to this perhaps excessively demanding teacher is that the change from the student's expected initial state of primitive thinking to a more sophisticated approach was certainly apparent but to far less than the degree desired, even for the brightest and most capable performers.
From this, I infer that our constraint of a single hour-and-a-quarter after-school session per week was insufficient for the necessary Reasoning skills to be adequately learned and internalized, although some have suggested that this problem may instead at least in part represent an instructional failure! Since there is no good way to distinguish the proportion of the observed phenomenon caused by each of these factors without running a large carefully constructed and controlled study, I must depend on my own best judgment that the time constraint was the dominant factor.
If this is true, the only feasible solution to this problem seems to be to add independent home study by program participants, but this conflicts strongly with the problem discussed next.
The children who continued with the Go program obviously enjoyed it! Competition with their peers clearly stimulated them, and they strove so mightily to improve their position on the rating ladder that wins and losses were met with overt expressions of triumph or dismay such as are common on the athletic field.
Despite this, only a relatively small proportion of the children ever obtained their own Go sets to enable play at home, and fewer still gave indication that they invested even a minimum of time and effort to review and study any of the many Go tutorial materials that were distributed to them. Instead, they almost all seemed content to merely appear once per week at our sessions, listen to and participate in any brief interactive instruction, and then just enjoy playing Go against their peers. A select few occasionally expressed the desire for individual instruction, but even these children rarely sought it regularly.
As noted earlier, a large part of this apparent lack of motivation almost certainly results from the fact that Go is not an "in" activity in an American society well known to have a prevalent anti-intellectual bias, especially among school children. In their milieu, sports and other entertainment stars are the subject of mass adulation, while scholastic achievers and intellectuals are denigrated as "nerds", "dweebs" and other like pejoratives. In such a climate it is not surprising that a profoundly intellectual activity like Go has at least some difficulty in motivating youngsters to devote much time and effort to home study.
On the other hand, my discussions with the children's parents indicated that most of this lack of home study and Go play was not due to lack of interest, but rather to conflict with heavy demands of school homework and competition with other, better established and socially more acceptable interests like sports, music, etc.
Fortunately, the advent of Go on the internet offers real prospect of breaking through this inhibiting syndrome by giving the kids the opportunity to conveniently participate in Go without the need for leaving the comfort of home. The number of children involved in internet Go was still small but appeared to be growing fairly rapidly at the time that I was forced to end the program, especially as the prices of high powered PCs continued to drop precipitously.
Perhaps my greatest disappointment was in working with the school district's Asst. Supt. For Administration in an attempt to make the district's computer lab available one night per week for Go program participants to play on the internet Go servers. Although we talked about this on several occasions, a firm commitment was never obtained even though copies of WinIGC and WinMGT were downloaded, and were only waiting for the go-ahead to be installed. The final decision was a firm "no" on making Go available on the school district's computers! Whether or not this represented a personal failure of persuasion on my part or just an intractable educational establishment I probably will never know for certain, although it should be obvious that I believe that it was the latter. In any event, it certainly was discouraging!
THE PROBLEM OF DISTINGUISHING THE TRIVIAL FROM THE ESSENTIAL
One of the important hidden assets of Go is that "instant, effortless success" is impossible for even the very brightest.
Although the game's basic rules are simple enough to be grasped even by very young children, its strategy is so profound and its tactics so incisive and intricate that even geniuses require years of intensive study and high level competition to fully master them. This puts a heavy premium on staying power, and means that the clever but lazy dilettante may achieve easy early success but will inevitably fall behind even a far less talented student who is willing to work persistently.
One of the glories of Go is its exquisite subtlety. This means that each player's major objectives must almost always be realized indirectly, and that no simplistic approach to the game can possibly succeed against competent opposition.
A major difficulty that all American and other western world Go novices experience arises because they come to Go bearing the intellectual baggage they have acquired from the much simpler games of Checkers, Chess, etc., in which capturing opposing forces is not only highly desirable but is in many cases (e.g. Checkers) actually the objective of the game. In contrast, in well played Go games it is not only possibble (if unusual) to win without capturing any opposing stones, and it's more usual than not that very few stones are captured, while emphasis on direct capture actually constitutes a counterproductive strategy.
Because of this unfortunate carry-over, in their primitive early stages of Go development the capture of opposing stones in American beginner's games is almost invariably the dominant (albeit incorrect) theme which determines victory or defeat. And it is only with increased understanding of the game's subtle strategy that this simplistic approach is slowly but inexorably supplanted.
This process was perfectly illustrated by two fourth graders who began the after-school Go program at the Birchwood Intermediate School in 1995. One little girl picked up the rudiments quickly and almost immediately rose to the top of the rating ladder, entirely based upon her superior innate ability to better fathom the many gratuitous fights that occurred and to then capture significant numbers of opposing stones. At one point she was actually capable of playing and defeating several opponents simultaneously!
The other little girl floundered badly, and for the longest while seemed to have no concept at all of what was going on. (Most of the children who experience similar difficulties quickly drop out in frustration, and this is perhaps the major problem resulting from the Go program's voluntary/after-school format.) But, despite her difficulties, this particular girl doggedly persisted, quite possibly because she was the child of immigrant Japanese parents.
Of course, at this time neither of these children had as yet any real concept of how to play the game, despite much individual coaching and oft repeated group instruction.
The difference between them was that the girl who was initially the most successful absolutely refused to listen to my repeated admonitions that her capture-oriented approach was incorrect, while the girl who was the tail-ender, despite her difficulties assiduously tried to understand and follow my advice.
The result? Several months later the former tail-ender resoundingly defeated the #1 player, who then left the class in tears and never returned! And then that slow but persistent learner began a relentless advance which culminated when she became the clear #1 herself! (Reads like a movie script updating the parable of the tortoise and the hare, doesn't it? But it's all true!)
THE GO PROGRAM'S PARTICIPANTS OBVIOUSLY LOVED WHAT THEY WERE DOING! They came to each weekly session gladly and were highly motivated by the rating ladder competition, anxiously scanning the latest standings at the start of each session to check their relative advance or decline against that of their peers. Word-of-mouth publicity resulted in growth of the program each succeeding year, and in a number of cases 2 and even 3 children in the same family joined the program on their promotion to the third grade. SO FROM THE STANDPOINT OF PROVIDING A PLEASURABLE LEISURE TIME ACTIVITY, THE GO PROGRAM WAS AN OUTSTANDING SUCCESS!
Despite their obvious intelligence and generally superior academic performance, not a single one of the South Huntington after-school Go program's participants ever even remotely approached this desired level. This writer believes that this was an inevitable consequence of the voluntary, after-school format under which the program was constrained to operate, but others have suggested that it might also in part or in whole be a consequence of the teacher's attitude and/or methods. Which of these causalities (or some combination thereof) was in fact dominant is unknown, but the presumption made herein is that most of the problem was a consequence of the limitations of the format and not of the instruction. Whether or not this judgment is correct, the reader will have to decide for him/her self.
A FINAL NOTE
The following was originally reluctantly written to respond to the criticisms of this essay’s original version by some readers, in which the description of my after school Go program and the conclusions drawn from it regarding the children’s learning deficits that I noted above were presented as though made by an external, dispassionate and unbiased observer. A number of those readers objected to this on the ground that the writer was also the program's instructor, and therefore could really be neither entirely objective nor unbiased in either his observations or conclusions. Given the apparent reasonableness of that position, the bulk of this addition very briefly presents the instructor's background, personal/intellectual characteristics, and educational philosophy so that the reader can have some rational basis for judging my degree of objectivity or lack thereof for him/herself. Unfortunately, even the selection and presentation of this material is itself necessarily subjective and can therefore never definitively resolve this issue, leaving the critics ample opportunity to continue their criticism undeterred should they so desire. The concluding portion of this note addresses a new criticism by an education professional.
My formal education consists of a BME, BIE, MIE and almost (but not quite) a Ph.D. in Operations Research, all from New York University, and for most of my career in high-tech manufacturing industry I used my technical skills and analytic abilities to function as a problem solver/trouble shooter/manager. This means that I made my living for those many years by applying my abilities in situational appraisal/analysis to the solution of significant problems - precisely the same process that I engaged in while making the appraisals in dispute here.
Most of what I know about Go has been acquired through independent study, because for most of my life until my retirement (now, in June 2009, some 23+ years ago) I had very little time available for over-the-board play, which at the time required in person contact with the opponent, usually at a Go club.
I've recently celebrated my 62nd wedding anniversary, and my wife can testify that as a private individual I'm tender, caring, compassionate and thoughtful. A believer in "a sound mind in a sound body", I've consistently worked out with the weights for the last 66 years and still maintain almost the exact physique and bodyweight (although not the strength, I'm sad to relate) that I first achieved as a youth of 16. I have very high moral and intellectual standards both for myself and my students, and this can sometimes make me seem demanding, impatient and difficult.
On the other hand, about 14 years ago a parent who witnessed me teach a class of over 50 kids (including her own) in the Go program, literally almost running from one game to the next to answer the children's questions as they arose, remarked to me afterwards in genuine awe (and I quote exactly because I remember it so well) "You have the patience of a saint!"
In another incident which occurred almost 15 years ago, I was "conned" into making an Introduction To Go presentation in a nearby school district to what I wasn't aware was a special class of Junior High School misfits, who had been segregated from the general school population because of their uncontrollable disruptive behavior. As I learned only after the session was over, this group typically could sit still for no more than 15 minutes before all hell would break loose. At the conclusion of my hour and a quarter session in which I kept the entire group attentive, involved and responsive, their teacher drew me aside and said in wonder (and I remember his exact words too) "You're a miracle worker!"
So just perhaps I do have some skill as a teacher.
In the discussion of the children's learning deficits presented earlier, it is therefore important for the reader to understand that I loved the children in my after-school Go program and considered the opportunity to teach them to be a rare privilege which greatly enhanced my life. As a group, they were everything a parent or teacher could hope for: intelligent, witty, charming, clever, and effusive. But despite this I tried mightily not to allow this affection to cloud my objectivity in identifying and trying to ameliorate the defects that I perceived in their learning/reasoning processes. It is those defects that formed the major focus of that portion of this essay, and are the source of my critics dissatisfaction.
In the case of each of the deficits cited earlier, an alternative explanation to that proposed by me was put forth by critics who have read an earlier version of this essay to the effect that the observed phenomenon really represents a communication failure by me, the teacher! As noted elsewhere herein, if they are correct then the proper solution was for me to find an alternative way to spend my retirement! Unfortunately (or was it fortunately?) I never had to confront that decision because a medical problem arose with the circulation in my legs which precluded my standing for long periods, and that forced a precipitous end to both my after school Go program and teaching career!
So the validity of the criticisms leveled at me were never either definitively demonstrated or contravened, and given that unreconcilable ambiguity I believe I have every right to continue to contend that my premises outlined above are correct.
The latest and most severe criticism of this essay came from a recent addition to the Long Island Go Club - a retired professor of Education from a leading local university - who took extreme umbrage with my premise that there is some degree of special talent required to play competent Go, and that certain groups (for whatever reasons, whether intrinsic and/or cultural) possess more of that talent than others. With great heat he, in no uncertain terms, told me that I was not only mistaken but was also unquestionably incompetent as a teacher because he “knew” that with proper materials and competent instruction it was possible to teach anyone anything! Well! To say that I was both astonished and displeased by this characterization would be a monumental understatement. My response was to invoke the well known rhetorical device of reductio ad absurdum as follows: I enquired if, by his reasoning, it was possible to teach music to a profoundly deaf person, or art to one who was blind. And when he rejected those examples as too extreme, I tried again with the question of how to teach a retarded person to understand Shakespeare. His flabbergasting response was that you could teach him to follow the plot. If I was astonished before, that was as nothing compared to this! The plots of Shakespeare’s works indeed! If plot was even the slightest measure of why Shakespeare is considered the greatest English language author (and possibly the greatest in any language) of all time, then the name of Shakespeare would have been long forgotten! And in any event, contending that following the plots is in even the most superficial way equivalent to understanding Shakespeare’s works is very much analogous to saying that understanding that 1+1=2 is equivalent to understanding Differential and Integral Calculus. The former is a necessary precondition to be sure, but is in no realistic sense equivalent! And that someone who had spent his entire working life as a high ranked professional educator could even contemplate accepting those two quite different conditions as equivalent is an astonishing and deeply disturbing commentary on that profession. So the bottom line is that I reaffirm my belief that what I’ve set forth herein is an accurate description of reality which not only correctly characterizes the situation but also provides the appropriate guidelines for its improvement.
Last updated on July 1, 2009
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