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Geoff Johnson: Story of Queen's Gambit raises questions for educators

The Queen’s Gambit, showing on Netflix, is a fictional story that follows the life of an orphaned child who is a chess prodigy, and who, with the guidance of an unlikely mentor, eventually becomes an international chess champion.
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in The Queen’s Gambit as an orphaned chess prodigy. NETFLIX

The Queen’s Gambit, showing on Netflix, is a fictional story that follows the life of an orphaned child who is a chess prodigy, and who, with the guidance of an unlikely mentor, eventually becomes an international chess champion.

It is a story of interest to chess ­enthusiasts, but possibly of greater interest to educators everywhere.

The plight of the central character, based vaguely on the beleaguered life of ­American chess champion Bobby Fischer, raises a variety of issues: What constitutes chess intelligence, and what kinds of intelligence does standardized testing miss out on when it comes to assessing what psychologists call non-cognitive skills?

Psychologists who have studied the skills and abilities of high-level chess competitors have found, for example, that chess skill correlates positively with fluid or ­flexible reasoning, short-term memory and ­processing speed.

These are characteristics which, while they are strong predictors of both academic and life success, are not captured by the most commonly used achievement tests.

In the same way, cognitive achievement tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, attentiveness or resilience to adversity, all valid indicators of potential academic and non-academic success in life.

Tests like B.C’s Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA), administered annually to grades 4 and 7, or even the Program for International Assessment (PISA), which measures reading, writing and science knowledge in 15-year-olds, fail to measure other non-cognitive ­intelligences such as empathy, humility, tolerance of diverse opinions and the ability to engage productively in society — all ­abilities that are valued in the labour market, in school and in society at large as predictors of positive life outcomes.

A growing body of empirical research shows that these non-cognitive skills rival IQ in predicting educational attainment, career success and mental and physical health.

This realization has led top PISA ­nation-states such as Singapore to re-examine their singular focus on test scores and how that narrow view of child growth and development has influenced their understanding of the nature of education.

Singapore, notably successful in PISA results, has not rested on its laurels, and recently introduced a more comprehensively designed model of education — schools that are looking beyond cognitive skills testing and are incorporating the development of non-cognitive aspects of a child’s growth and development, such as character and citizenship education, with a focus on children’s well-being and development of the whole person, none of which are measured by IQ or achievement tests.

The Queen’s Gambit story also delves into the kind of emotional intensity that goes hand in hand with what we call “giftedness” in exceptionally intelligent children.

The central character struggles to deal with life outside the 64 squares of a chessboard, the only place where her cognitive and non-cognitive skills and abilities find emotionally safe common ground.

Psychologists specializing in personality disorders tell us that intellectual complexity and emotional complexity can go hand in hand.

Genuinely “gifted” children, maybe as many as four per cent of the general ­population, apparently experience the world in a more vivid, absorbing, penetrating, all-encompassingly complex way.

Specifically, many researchers believe that gifted individuals have a higher risk of emotional and social problems, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood.

Numerous studies have arrived at the same conclusion: gifted individuals are more sensitive to interpersonal conflicts and ­subject to higher stress levels than their peers due to their cognitive abilities, and consequently feel more depressed, anxious and suffer from low self-esteem.

All of which leads us back to the ­ongoing debate about whether public education should move on from the egalitarianism guiding public policy about schools toward the inclusion of what are known as “selective” secondary schools.

“Selective” schools would be designed (and staffed) to provide an alternative for identified “gifted” children, taking into account their abilities and psycho-social ­idiosyncrasies. The objection here and in other countries to “selective” schools has been mainly based on the notion that ­public education should provide equality of ­opportunity for all — as if all kids are equal.

Here in B.C., the majority of schools providing specific programs for “gifted” children are independent schools.

Public schools tend to rely on what they describe as differentiated classrooms, where students who are considered to be gifted are provided with a variety of additional ­learning opportunities, which are the responsibility of the classroom teacher with some support from an itinerant “specialist.”

But as Deborah Ruf, author of Losing Our Minds, Gifted Children Left Behind, puts it, “grouping kids by age for instruction makes about as much pedagogical sense as ­grouping them by height.”

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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