Noting the differences

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

queensIt's an endless - and often pretty boring - debate: are men better in chess than women? But recently, there was an interesting blog discussion about the All Girls US Chess School in which some points where raised that are not usually heard in this debate. Its conclusion can be especially useful to chess teachers.

It all started with an article by Steve Goldberg (who was known to me mostly for his ChessCafe reviews) in the Chess Examiner about the All Girls US Chess Schools event in which he wrote that one of the girls' brothers, Jonathan Chiang, may have been 'the most intriguing participant' of the event. Goldberg describes how nine year old Chiang quickly found the solution to an excercise presented by the teacher:

At one point, IM Greg Shahade presented a "White to move and win" problem to Jonathan. After about thirty seconds thought, he looked up at Greg and said, "It's pretty easy," as he found the initial move to the problem. Greg responded, "No it's not!" as he watched Jonathan contend with various stalemating options that Black had available. In short order, though, Jonathan indeed found the correct path to seal the victory.

Goldberg's story was picked up and criticized by Elizabeth Vicary on her USCL News and Gossip blog. Vicary critized Goldberg for focussing yet another story on a boy instead of girls. She explains why she has problems with Goldberg's interpretation as follows:

One of the big reasons to have a girls-only class is that typically boys treat questions in the classroom like a competitive game, trying to be the first to answer, rather than to really think about the question and try to get the answer right. This has the effect of silencing the "slower" (in fact, just more thoughtful) girls, and of creating the (totally false) impression that the boys are smarter. Jonathan was almost always the first to think he had the answer but was usually wrong, to the extent that Kaidanov and Greg would both good naturedly tease him when he raised his hand. He's even impatient and wrong in the example Steve gives. Singling this behavior out for praise seems misguided and unhelpful to everyone involved.

The next day, Goldberg posted a comment on Vicary's blog (he wasn't the only one) and wrote a more elaborate response in the Chess Examiner in which he explains his point of view and concedes a number of points to Vicary, nipping any further debate in the bud. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, for there are some very interesting assumptions and theories behind the arguments in this discussion.

Apart from giving an interesting perspective into this kind of events (about which we don't hear very much in Europe), I found Vicary's argument about psychological - rather than merely physical - differences in behaviour in class between boys and girls, and its consequences, particularly interesting. It does seems clear to me that Goldberg noticed Jonathan Chiang primarily because Chiang let himself be noticed - by quickly raising his voice in the first place. It's also likely, as Vicary states, that boys and girls have different ways of behaving in groups (such as classrooms) and employ different tactics of being competitive.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt should be noted, though, that there seems to be no quantitative difference in competitiveness between boys and girls: in a recent study which appeared in Animal Behaviour, June 2008, Joyce Benenson and others suggest that girls are no less competitive than boys, but have different strategies to accomplish this:
Conclusions that human males behave more competitively than females have been tempered by recent findings that the two sexes use differing competitive strategies. Theoretically, mammalian males generally gain more than females from using riskier strategies, whereas females have more to lose. Females therefore should compete using less risky strategies.

Benenson's research focuses on the type of strategy girls typically use: alliance and coalition formation. She tested this by giving groups of three toddlers either one, two or three expensive toys. With just three or two toys to divide, there appeared no differences between boys and girls, but with one toy (a puppet) to divide between the three of them, the girls chose different strategies to get the puppet than the boys did: the boys were much more direct and agressive to get the puppet, while the girls adopted more long-term strategies such as social exclusion.

Well, in my opinion Jonathan Chiang acted very 'manlike' here: he blurted out his answer as quick as he could - you can say his competitiveness-strategy was extremely short-termed. After all, as Vicary points out, Chiang may have been wrong - in fact he was wrong. His strategy was highly risky - which happens to be another prediction from Benenson's research.

Somehow I can't help feeling that Chiang's direct answer impressed Goldberg, who is male, and annoyed Vicary, who is female - hence her reaction and her - rightly posed - rhetoric questions:

Why not write about Abby Marshall, the first female to ever win the Denker? Isn't that more impressive than getting an answer wrong in 30 seconds?? Or write about Rochelle and Darrian, who gave an incredible number of correct, thoughtful, imaginative answers?

Why not indeed - isn't it a powerful argument in favour of the girls-only classes Vicary speaks of? But wait a minute! Is that really so? Suddenly, I am remembered of my own classroom experiences: since I was usually rather shy as a boy, I didn't raise my hand too quickly to call for the answer to the teacher's questions. But I was a boy nevertheless! By Vicary's rationale, shoudln't we also have shy-people-only classes? And what about cultural differences? In a recent book I read, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett suggests (and he backs it up with powerful evidence) that Eastern and Western people tend to respond very differently in similar situations such as the one described by Goldberg. Should we have Eastern and Western classes too? Nisbett doesn't say this, but he does plead for more understanding and recognition of these differences, just as Vicary does in her own way.

In my opinion, discussions about the psychological equality of boys and girls (or the superiority of one over the other) can be very confusing because no practical consequences are drawn from them. For instance, it's easy to note that competitiveness - and a pretty agressive form of it, too - is simply a part of the game of chess (and in fact of any game), and therefore can never be eliminated the way we might wish it would - but does that point of view also help childeren who want to learn chess? This is a question that's not addressed seriously enough if you ask me. As to whether being ignored in class leads to inconfidence, and whether this is necerssarily a bad thing (GM Jonathan Rowson is one of the people who have noted that strong chess players likely benefit to some extend from not being too confident, as it clouds their objectivity in evaluation positions), it is very interesting to think about in theory, but what can be done about it in practice?

As some readers may know, I am no fan of separate tournaments for boys and girls at all, but what I find extremely refreshing is the idea to adapt chess education (rather than chess practice) based on some of the known differences between boys and girls. These known differences are still too often regarded as a taboo, or as non-existent. But as the psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in The New Republic a few years back:

Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong. (...) Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as "not getting it" when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

In this light, 'suggestions' such as the ones made by WGM Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov in a recent article on, seem rather shallow and close-minded:

Finally, the girls themselves should know that they are equal to men in terms of chess talents, play in men’s tournaments, study hard and believe in their powers. If most women start acting that way, then one day quantity will lead to quality, and the world chess elite will be enjoying more female players.

Noting the psychological differences between boys and girls and arranging classrooms upon these differences isn't always a sign of prejudice or discrimination, but of wisdom. And this may lead to good things, such as different methods of motivating children, or having another kind of excercises. I imagine these would be ones that are not asked publicly in class at all - that way, teachers won't be offended and casual observers won't get any wrong impressions. --- Joyce F. Benenson, Timothy J. Antonellis, Benjamin J. Cotton, Kathleen E. Noddin, & Kristin A. Campbell (2008). Sex differences in children’s formation of exclusionary alliances under scarce resource conditions The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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