Building a nation of thinkers

Building a nation of thinkers

Ian Wilkinson using chess to improve students' performance

BY VERNON DAVIDSON Executive editor publications

Sunday, July 01, 2012

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YOU can tell the minute you enter Ian Wilkinson's Magnificent Chess Foundation that he's passionate about the game.

Impressive portraits of world chess masters — from Wilhelm Steinitz, who held the title over the period 1886 to 1894, to Vasily Smyslov, 1957-1958 — are mounted on the wall in the foyer.

Beyond the lobby, on your way to the multimedia and seminar rooms, large photos of Bobby Fischer, Maurice Ashley and late American entertainer Ray Charles adorn the wall.

Fischer, regarded as one of the most gifted chess players of all time, won the World Chess Championship on September 1, 1972 and lost the title when he failed to defend it on April 3, 1975.

Ashley inked his name in the history books by becoming the first African-American to attain the coveted title of International Grandmaster of Chess in 1999.

Charles, the blind black American who gained stardom as a singer and piano player, was a known chess fan who, we are told, often played against his band members, friends, and a few interviewers.

But even if after seeing the drawings and photos, you're not convinced about Wilkinson's love for the game, you'll be divested of that doubt after speaking with him.

"Chess is about thinking, planning ahead, strategising, and it's exciting; so everybody should learn chess," said Wilkinson, an attorney, who is convinced that the game of skill can contribute to improving educational standards and reducing crime.

"We at the Magnificent Chess Foundation are building a nation of thinkers in Jamaica, and we'd like to extend it to the Caribbean because we realise that this is the way forward to economic development and a great way of life for the Caribbean people," Wilkinson told the Jamaica Observer.

"At the end of the day, life is about thinking, and if you can't think, you can't progress. It's as simple as that," added Wilkinson, who has dedicated an entire floor above his Swallowfield Avenue law office in Kingston to the Chess Foundation.

His belief that chess can change lives is shared by principals of some of the more than 30 schools islandwide in which he has introduced the game in the past few years, and where the Magnificent Chess Foundation runs active programmes.

In a March 2011 letter thanking Wilkinson for implementing the 'Chess in School' programme at Greenwich All-Age, Principal Bryan Guscott said he had noticed an improvement in behaviour, self-confidence, self-esteem and social skills among the 333 students exposed to the game. He also said that literacy levels had improved and the students were increasingly willing to participate in class discussions.

The testimonial from Richmond Park Preparatory Principal Helen Douglas was just as encouraging.

"It has improved the overall tone of the school by contributing to a more quiet environment; conducive to study and academic pursuits," Douglas said in a letter, also penned in March 2011.

"It has stimulated the minds of the students to concentrate and think in a logical, reasoned manner, thereby contributing to improved performance in mathematics in particular," she added.

Dunrobin Preparatory Principal Heather Lewis, in her letter to Wilkinson in March 2009, said that among the school's 21 students registered in the programme, the average grades for mathematics and reading were 85 per cent and 95 per cent respectively.

More than 50 per cent of them were on the school's honour roll, having attained overall averages of 90 per cent in all subjects.

Lewis pointed out that while some of these children were already achieving high grades, they have continued to excel since starting the programme, and others have showed improvement.

At Ewarton Primary School in St Catherine, Principal Marjorie Edwards-Bailey informed Wilkinson in January last year that she had integrated the teaching of mathematics with chess in a programme she called 'Chess-matics'. That, she said, was in response to concerns among educators across Jamaica about the low performance of students in mathematics.

Since the introduction of the programme, she said, some students have become more focused, disciplined and receptive to teaching and learning. They participate more in class and attempt to do more questions as their confidence and reasoning skills developed, and there has been improvement in students' mathematics grades.

According to Wilkinson, Edwards-Bailey admitted that the Chess in Schools programme had reduced the number of incidents and accidents at Ewarton Primary, because the children, "instead of running up and down and injuring themselves by falling", were playing chess.

"It was a revelation because it was the first I heard that coming from a principal," Wilkinson said with a grin of satisfaction. "The principal said the chess programme has given her renewed hope in the educational system."

He said that studies have shown that the average child who plays chess consistently is not a violent person, "and even if he or she were violent, it curbs that violent tendency because it provides an outlet for stress and to channel (one's) energies".

To prove his point, Wilkinson told of a 15-year-old male student at a school on Spanish Town Road, where he introduced the programme, and of whom everyone in the school was afraid.

"Even though he was reluctant at first, he started to play chess. He learnt it when he saw all his friends doing it, and it is amazing when the principal said to us, 'Mr Wilkinson, when that boy sitting at the chess board, the whole school, staff looking on, they can't believe it'," the lawyer said.

The upshot, Wilkinson continued, is that the young man's grades improved. "He's now working, is a much more pleasant person to deal with, and he's not fighting anymore."

Wilkinson, of course, could not ignore the need for the game to be introduced at his alma mater, Kingston College (KC), so he spent all of the schoolboy football season last year teaching chess to KC's Manning Cup team.

He's convinced that the ability to play the game allows sportsmen and women to better compete.

"We're trying to get the national sports federation to teach their people chess. Every game that requires any kind of thinking — all those sports should have chess as their background and their foundation," he said.

The venture, though, is draining him financially. He puts it at somewhere in the seven-figure region.

"I can't keep it up much longer out of my pocket," he admitted. "We need help, but each time I say we have to stop, we see so many great stories where the numbers at the schools have been increasing, where the demand has risen. So for instance... at Dupont Primary School in Olympic Gardens, the number has risen from 360 in 2010 to 566 in 2011, which is roughly over a third of the population. That is exciting."

He insisted that his introduction of the game into schools "was never about making money". In fact, for three-and-a-half years he offered it to the schools for free as he was hoping to have received assistance from the Ministry of Education and others. That help, he said, has not come.

"Because we are on to such a great thing, it has been hard to stop it, but my resources are now drying up and the thing has just taken off, so we're trying to encourage the private sector, but it's really the Government that should be doing this," he insisted.

But while he waits and hopes for assistance, Wilkinson said the foundation has been receiving requests from more schools across the island for the programme.

"To survive, we have decided that we're going to have to charge very little," he said. "In fact, we're offering to do the programme in schools now at even 10 per cent less than what the normal persons who teach chess professionally would charge. We're not trying to take away business from them, because if there are people teaching in a school we don't go to that school. We go to other schools that do not have chess, but we're offering it as low as $100 a week for a student and for that they would have equipment, round-the-clock teaching and access to us, and even to be able to come here to the foundation.

"If Jamaica had been doing this for the last 30 years, oh man, we would be putting Singapore to shame now in more ways than one," he said.

"I'm not going to say it's a solution to all our problems, but I think it can go a far way," Wilkinson said of the game. "I genuinely believe in it, and that is why I have committed myself. I have arranged my law practice in such a way so that I can spend a lot more time pressing chess in the schools and in Jamaica."

Asked how long he would be able to sustain the foundation if he doesn't receive funding, Wilkinson said that depended on how much he earns as a lawyer.

"I need to get help soon," he pleaded. "I am committed to seeing it through, certainly until this summer, but if we get some of the schools to pay even that $100 a week, which is like rock bottom, we can survive for a bit and even spread the programme."


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