Constructivist Chess

Ideas / 1 — Chess Moves
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Over dinner tonight my friend H told me a story that’s simply too good not to share. It illustrates so clearly the rote learning problem, that I have to use it. Sorry, H.

The problem is this. As a kid, H was taught one of the key bits of chess lore — probably a queen’s mate or a scholars mate, but in essence one of

the unusual openings that almost always beats another new player. So from an early age, H was unbeatable at chess. But — and this is critical — she didn’t know how to play

This is a problem.

I learned chess a different way. I learned by playing the game. A lot. I lost five or six games for every game I won. Along the way, I acquired something that I don’t think one can learn through rote memory: pattern recognition. The ability to recognize that pieces are on the board to take advantage of certain opportunities is one thing — the ability to set up those particular patterns is another.

These patterns sometimes have names. Sometimes they don’t. But learning just one or two of these patterns by rote is not enough. They only implant themselves in your brain after having been on the business end of them five or six time. And then, maybe you recognize how to implement that pattern on someone else. Or maybe you don’t. But without the constant experience of being subjected to the rigors and rules of the game, there’s no way to know what patterns you will or won’t absorb.

In the last month or so, I’ve drawn out the geometric proof of the Pythagorean Theorem for five or six folks. This is part and parcel of the patrimony of the Western world. Yet people don’t know it; they act like they’ve never seen it. It’s a thing of beauty and wonder. So often, I’m told, their geometry classes were all measurements of angles and lengths and areas — none of the elegance of proportion, and none of the process that gets one to that elegance.

Today in my design class we watched this TED talk by Nils Diffinaent, apparently a famous designer of chairs. As TED talks go, it’s not particularly inspiring. He’s taking about chairs. But underlying that chair is a thirty-five year long apprenticeship in drawing and makery — drawings of airplanes, learning to paint (and being bad at it), managing a staff of forty, collapsing his company to one, designing a chair that just works without adjusting any levers… Twenty five years in one company, working on many problems… and then nine working on just one problem….

The man’s job was pattern recognition and pattern creation. Just as I learned chess.

Maybe I’m simplifying. Maybe I’m misunderstanding his work. Maybe I’m misrepresenting a career he himself misrepresented (People are more often their mythic selves at TED than anywhere else).

But maybe in our efforts to teach to the test, or cover all the content, or meet our curricular goals, we’re missing the real game?

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