Every school-aged child in Armenia will be required to play chess as part of the school day.

The country has instituted mandatory chess classes with the hope of fostering  independent strategic thinking.  According to this Radio Free Europe news report the plan took effect beginning with the current academic year. More than 40,000 children in about 1,500 Armenian schools already have received chess textbooks and chess pieces. They are now receiving formal lessons twice a week from 1,200 specially trained and selected teachers.

This raises some interesting questions about the role of games in learning. Some of the supporters of this initiative specifically contrasted the learning gained via chess to experiences gained through video games.

Psychologist Ruzanna Gharibian is a supporter. She says playing chess helps the children not only to improve intellectual abilities, but also to develop essential personality characteristics that high-tech computer games are unable to provide.

“You know it is much better to create an atmosphere of real moral victory [for a child] by giving them these chessmen rather than giving them a computer and letting them experience victory through different aggressive [computer] games,” Gharibian says.
“You make a move and you bear a certain responsibility for the move you made,” Gharibian says. “While playing computer games, children do not feel responsibility for their actions.”

That’s a provocative statement, especially in the context of what we are learning in this class.  Based on what we’ve read in Paul Gee’s book so far, there is an internalized sense of responsibility in choices made while gaming, as well.

I tend to agree with the studies cited in this report that suggest learning chess at an early age improves the reading performance of children, strengthens their problem solving skills, and has a positive effect on concentration, memory and calculation. But, I do wonder about the impact of the competitive nature of the game, in which there is a clear winner and loser, on very young children.  Will there be children who will lose the vast majority of their matches the entire school year simply because some will be better players than others? In a video game, a child can compete against himself, and there seem to be multiple ways to measure success.

Would it be demoralizing for a six-year-old to consistently lose in chess matches in a mandatory school subject? Would this impact how he or she creates their own identity as a learner?

Do you think this is a wise move for Armenia? Would a similar program work in America?

I can only imagine the backlash if a video game version of chess, say the iPad one, was made a mandatory school subject.