Teacher’s Mind, Beginners Mind

Welcome new readers! One of the themes of this blog is how I apply my perspective as a college professor or a cognitive psychologist to a variety of different circumstances, like kindergarten, or feminism, or googling, or school reform.  This post is in that spirit, about my experience as a summer camp chess coach.

One of the biggest challenges I find in being a college teacher is approaching my material from a student’s perspective. I think I am simplifying my knowledge of the structure of the eye by telling students “there are five layers of neurons in the human retina. Your brain begins in the back of your eye!” But I forget that they may not be as quick as I am to understand what a neuron is, what the retina is, and even what it means to say that the brain “begins” somewhere. The best teachers, from my perspective, are not just those who are experts in the concepts they are trying to convey, but also sophisticated about the development of those concepts from the ground up. These are different things.

For this reason, I often find it useful to take opportunities to remind myself of what it is like to be a total beginner, to try to really inhabit the eyes (my metaphors always seem to find vision) of someone just beginning to learn something. This is the second summer in a row that I have been an instructor in Maurice Ashley Trains Champions (MATCH) Chess Camp. For one week, 9am to 1pm, I teach five-, six- and seven-year-olds how to play chess. Yes we have lunch and recess, but other than that, it is chess chess chess.

Chess is not college teaching, but it is a topic on which I am quite experienced and I am teaching total beginners. When I was in middle school and high school, I played thousands of games of chess. I went with my middle school team to the National Chess Championships. I was a decent player, never approaching today’s high school phenoms. Ok, here’s the biggest brag I’ve got: me and my childhood friends, playing for Wilson High School in the DC Public Schools, were good enough to beat Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (yes that one) when we were in tenth grade. For us, it was like beating the Texas state champs in football. I wasn’t gong to play D-1 ball anywhere, but that was still pretty glorious.

Ok, back to my chess camp kids. Some of them have never played chess before. Some have a year or two under their belt.  Where do we begin? How do we tell whether the kids really know how the pieces move? Are they confident enough in their knowledge to play a whole game? As many who know kids this age can relate, the answer to the question of “Are they confident enough in their knowledge to … ” is always a resounding YES. But what do they actually know?

So we begin with going over the names of the pieces and how they move. Bishops move diagonally, like this. Seems straightforward, and my students nod their heads (and look bored, and roll their eyes, and say “We KNOW this!”). chess-bishop-1 But then later in the day, while playing, they ask, “Can bushups move backwards diagonally?” And I say yes. And I see them concentrating, but missing the pieces they can capture that are farther away, like this rook. chess-bishop-5 There is no logical reason that a piece that is farther away should be harder to capture. The concept is the same: the bishop moves diagonally, as many spaces as it wants to. But somehow human eyes do not move as many spaces as they want to. As my students’ minds begin to map the chess board, they do so not purely by the concepts of how the pieces move, but by zones of proximity. For the expert mind, the bishop jets effortlessly across the board, but for the beginner, it is more like a car on poorly lit backroad, carefully squinting through the fog, occasionally veering and swerving.

It is impossible for beginners to take in the entire board at a time. It is mentally more difficult for them to imagine a bishop moving across the board (because they have to carefully imagine each diagonal step) than it is to move one or two spaces. What seems to be a very simple logical operation, a very simple rule of chess (“A bishop can move diagonally in any direction, it always stays on its color”) turns out to be complicated for beginners.

I find this example useful, because it illustrates how different a beginner’s mind can be from an expert’s mind, even on something apparently so basic as the rules of the game. For me, the knowledge of how a bishop moves is bound up in everything else I know about bishops. I think of the Sicilian defense (my friend’s favorite) or the fried liver attack (a simple attack still two levels above my current students). I think of tactics around bishops, such as developing them early in the game, or that fianchetto can be a good idea, but requires patience for the center to open up. I think of these as “knowledge” about the bishop, whereas how it moves doesn’t really count as knowledge; that is second nature. But this second nature has to be learned sometime, and like most learning, it requires dedicated effort.

I try to remind myself of this as I approach teaching my college students, that basic words in my field, like psychology, cognition and perception all call up a rich web of meaning for me, a vast network of knowledge, but for many of them these words call up limited, fuzzy, and sometimes entirely different connotations.  This is not an insult; it is the same way that “hydrogen” calls up a vague association with water (H2O, right?) or a hydrogen bomb for me, but very little chemical knowledge. Building up a network of meaning takes patience and careful thought, not just about what I know, but about what should come next for them.

One last thought on this. Sometimes you just have to let them play. They don’t really know how: they take kings, they move illegally, they look away and skip turns, they knock over their pieces and put them back in the wrong spots. But as a coach, you have to take a step back and cultivate their enjoyment of the game. As a science teacher, I think of this as I remind myself that letting students do science is critical.  Even if they don’t really know enough, even if they design experiments that are doomed from the start, even if they don’t know enough statistics to analyze their data. Giving students a chance to actually apply their knowledge, however limited, is a great way to gently remind them of boundaries of knowledge they didn’t realize were there and the benefits of learning more. “Wait, can bishops move backwards AND all the way across the board?!?!?”

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, psychology, teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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