Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.
Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
That pretty much sounds like coaching to me. Good, intense coaching, but yes coaching. It is hardly an unknown quantity in American education, although less so in schools that don't have the resources to, say, hire coaches, buy specialized equipment and send teams traveling to competition.
Perhaps someone could introduce Paul Tough to high school football.
Like students at KIPP, IS 318 students were being challenged to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently. And whether you call that approach cognitive therapy or just plain good teaching, it seemed remarkably effective in producing change in middle-school students.
This technique, though, is actually quite rare in contemporary American schools. If you believe that your school’s mission or your job as a teacher is simply to convey information, then it probably doesn’t seem necessary to subject your students to that kind of rigorous self-analysis. But if you’re trying to help them change their character, then conveying information isn’t enough. And while Spiegel didn’t use the word character to describe what she was teaching, there was a remarkable amount of overlap between the strengths emphasized by David Levin and Dominic Randolph and the skills that Spiegel tried to inculcate in her students. Every day, in the classroom and at tournaments, I saw Spiegel trying to teach her students grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism.
Who brought us to the point of thinking that a school's mission is to convey information? Hopefully the good people at KIPP and their friends in the reform movement can save us from them!