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Are self-control and executive control similar?

Executive control is an umbrella term which includes our ability to reason, plan ahead, multi-task or switch between tasks, sustain attention, delay gratification, and make complex decisions. So, depending on how broadly you are using the term ‘self-control,’ you could say that it is an aspect of executive control.

What do you hope to find about connections between chess, executive control, and academic achievement? What implications will this research have for chess in schools?

Those of us who work in the field have no doubts that broad-based implementation of chess programs across the country would have a dramatic impact on academic achievement. Schools, however, are inundated with such claims, and are looking for evidence before they invest ever-decreasing funds into a program or curriculum. There is a lot of anecdotal and correlational research that supports the benefits of chess as a way of boosting success; however, correlational research can only tell us whether changes in one variable (in this case, chess) are associated with changes in another variable (academic performance). So, in our case, we cannot know with certainty whether other factors cause the relationship we see. Perhaps, for example, the relationship between the coach and the students, rather than playing chess, causes students to study harder. We are interested in whether chess might have its impact by improving executive functions. If that is the case, it would help explain why playing chess seems to impact performance in so many areas. If we can begin to narrow down the mechanisms of change involved, the case for chess in schools is that much stronger.

Tell me about how the grant came about, since one of the collaborators is from the University of Cambridge in England. My training is in clinical psychology, so when I became interested in the potential of chess to enhance academic success, I naturally started combing journals to learn more. I found numerous studies from all over the world that reported correlations between playing chess and improvements in academics and behavior. I was intrigued that playing chess seemed to impact subjects not obviously related to chess. Intuitively, we assume that playing chess enhances skills such as planning ahead and focusing which likely

leads to improvements in achievement. However, I did not find a single study that directly examined this relationship. Since executive functions is not my area of expertise, a colleague of mine recommended that I talk to Dr. Ellefson, who was, at the time, a faculty member at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. She specializes in executive functions and curriculum development, so she was the perfect person for me to consult. After several conversations, we began to concoct a plan to conduct this research ourselves. As our study started to take shape, we realized we needed additional expertise, so we reached out to Dr. Serpell at Virginia State University. Dr. Serpell also has expertise in the area of executive functions, but has additional expertise and experience in conducting school-based research in urban settings. Our next goal was to find a school system interested in partnering with us.

Fortunately, we found a large urban school system in the mid-Atlantic region willing to work with us. They already had chess programs in some of their schools and a strong commitment to chess, so they were a natural fit. The next step was to find a funding agency. The Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences was another good fit. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to provide “rigorous and relevant evidence on which to ground education practice and policy.” We applied to their program on cognition and student learning which focuses on research designed to improve educational practices through the use of advances in cognitive science which matched well with the focus of our study on executive functions.

What chess curriculum (software, teacher instruction) will be used with the subjects? We are working with graduate students from Virginia State University and Morgan State University to run the program. They will be using a curriculum designed by GM Ashley and me. The curriculum is based on methods GM Ashley has used for over twenty years. A key component of his approach is the disaggregated teaching method in which complex subjects are broken down into their constituent parts and studied in depth before being taught as a whole. So, for example, participants will work on gaining fluency with each piece before playing a full game. We also include opportu- nities for students to explore connections between chess and other

Dr. Teresa Parr Dr. Teresa L. S. Parr has a doctor-

ate degree in clinical psychology. She has spent years working with families and children of all ages in a variety of therapeutic, educational, medical, and research settings. Dr. Parr’s undergraduate and graduate work was completed at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her clin- ical internship was completed at the University of North Carolina Medical School at Chapel Hill. Her scholarly writing has been published in book chapters and research articles in the field of psychology. Dr. Parr lives outside of Richmond, Virginia with her husband and three children.

subjects, as well as activities that might appeal to students with different interests and learning styles. It is important that we provide a uniform experience to all of the students involved in the project, so we have to use a very detailed curriculum and provide rigorous training and oversight. Most chess coaches have other responsibilities which would prohibit their involvement in such a comprehensive project.

What roles do you [Teresa] and GM Ashley have in the research? Drs. Serpell and Ellefson and I worked together to write the proposal, and, now, to run the research project. GM Ashley’s primary responsibilities are curriculum design and training.

The initial U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences grant is listed at grantsearch/details.asp?ID=1202. Where will Chess Life readers be able to learn more about this research as it progresses? Chess Life readers can follow our progress

via our blog at www.mauriceashleycham-

. 1The program is funded by the Institute of

Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305A1 10932 to the University of Cambridge for an internationally collaborative project between the University of Cambridge, Virginia State University and Ashley-Parr, LLC. The opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education, University of Cambridge or Virginia State University.

Chess Life — February 2012 45

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