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Chess, Teaching, and "Going Out Of Book"

Every chess game begins the same, and every chess game--at a certain point--reaches a formulaic ending.  But what makes the game interesting is the cloudy, unpredictable space in between.

The Predictability of Chess

Study the opening moves played by chess masters over the past 100 years, and you will find that certain moves are made more often than others.  These are the ones that lead to better outcomes or set up certain conditions later in the game. Record these moves, and you could create a catalog--a book--of the most well-known opening sequences of chess games.

In fact, this is what the chess community has done, and what separates the truly great chess players from the merely talented ones is that the great chess players have studied the book; they have a memory bank of openings that establish certain conditions in a game.  

At a certain point in a game, though, players deviate from the book; they arrive at scenarios that have not been recorded before or that they have not committed to memory.  Writer Brian Christian calls this the point when players “go out of book,” and it is at this point that players begin to test their mettle and establish their own style of play.  

When players go out of book, they enter territory where they must think on their own and respond to and engage their opponents independently, strategically, intuitively, decisively.  They no longer simply algorithmically follow what has been done before.  They have to create and improvise, and this is what makes chess such a gripping human enterprise.
Endings of chess games work the same way--except that while the game begins with precisely one arrangement, the game ends with predictable combinations of pieces making predictable sequences of movement.  If left with a bishop and a king against just a king, players can take formulaic steps to force checkmate.  The same way we know how to finish off a game of tic-tac-toe when our opponent makes certain moves, great chess players know the sequences of steps to finish off an opponent given certain remaining pieces on the board.

This automatic ending, too, is a part of the “book” of chess, part of the predictable and formulaic elements of the game.  And so, what makes chess interesting, what makes it more than a game of memorization, is when the players are out of book, when they are puzzling through the complex arrangement of pieces on the board.

Like talking about the Weather

The predictability, the automaticity of the openings and closings of chess games resembles the predictability and automaticity of casual conversation.  How many times have we said something like this:  

                “Hey, how are you?”  
        “Good.  You?”  
                “Good, thanks.  It’s hot out, eh?”  
        “Sure is.  At least it’s a dry heat.”  
                “Right.  Hot and humid is the worst.”  

So far the conversation has been entirely in book; each question and response is completely formulaic.  And conversations often end in book, too:  

        “All right, good to see you.”  
                “You, too.  Say hi to the family for me.”  
        “Will do.”  
                “Thanks, bye!”  

These conversations are pleasant and polite, but if they never depart from the formula--if they never go out of book--then they include zero examination of what is meaningfully going on in either person’s life, and in these conversations, we may as well be robots, expressing an appropriate, familiar sentiment at an appropriate, familiar time.  These conversations may be cordial and well meaning, but they are not personal. 

Natural analogies spin out from here into what we do at work, how we spend our free time, what we purchase, and how we live our lives more broadly.  To live richly, newly, we must strive to go out of book, to do or say or think something that is different, new, or unpredictable.

Teaching is Different 

In chess and conversation, formulaic openings and closings are ok, they naturally (hopefully!) lead to more interesting middle ground.  In teaching, however, the conditions are quite different.

In every chess game, players begin with the same chess board.  At the beginning of every class, however, student chemistry is entirely different than the day before.  Student have come from different lessons and have had different experiences each day in other classes.  They’re reeling from breakups or immersed in crushes.  They’re anticipating an athletic practice or dinner with their families.  They’re hungry or full, depending on the hour.  

And so instead of choosing how to engage an orderly and predictable chess board, teachers begin classes by facing an entirely new and unpredictable classroom each day.  Teachers' first challenge every day is to bring the students together to a shared emotional and intellectual starting point, to braid the various strands of thought and feeling from their students' many varied lives into a common, or at least proximate, experience.  Then, the learning can begin.
Still, no class is totally predictable and linear.  Or at least, no class should be.  Students respond differently to questions, information, and prompts.  They raise their own questions.  They digress, inquire, hesitate, seek clarification--and the teacher responds in kind.  If a teacher works through a class plan without so much as a deviation, then something is wrong.  If a teacher never goes out of book, then he or she might as well be a robot, and the student might as well skip class and learn online.  

Interactions during class are what makes the classroom great, what distinguishes the truly great teachers from the merely talented teachers.  Just as chess players define themselves by engaging the chess board out of book, by studying and responding to unfamiliar arrangements of pieces, so teachers define themselves by their interactions in an unpredictable classroom.  This is what makes teaching such a gripping human enterprise.

And yet, while student activity is not predictable, and while teachers ought to respond to student inquiry, a class should have a broad foreseeable shape most of the time.  A class most often has a specific, anticipated outcome as its goal, a goal that students reach most often by means of predictable, planned classroom experiences.  Room for questions and give and take most often ought to fit in that shape. 
And so a teacher’s challenge is: to gather a class to a common starting point so all students are moving in a similar direction; to follow their varied questions and meanderings, allowing them to stretch and explore but guiding them in a common direction; and then to gather them back together to a common, or at least proximate, conclusion.  

And then the students depart for another class, where the entire process begins again.

Great teachers are never fully in book.  And great classes are a dance between what the teacher has planned and how the students respond.  It's a nugget of shared learning experience, where the collective socialization is as much a part of the lesson as the discovery or engagement of content.  We pull students into an orbit for 45 minutes or an hour--and then release them back the their disparate lives.
In an increasingly digital environment, this ability to move on the fly, to improvise, to engage and respond while continuing on a path towards an outcome--this will be what distinguishes good teachers.  As more learning moves online, the learning that happens in the classroom will increasingly incorporate that flexing, the stretching of the plan around a common goal, the understanding that the tautness of any lesson will--and ought to--slacken as it encounters the vagaries of social education.


Coda: A Nod to Atul Gawande

In his book Better, Atul Gawande explores what it is that improves performance in our work, and he wraps up his book with a terrific epilogue that identifies five practices that help anyone.  This first of them is “ask an unscripted question.”  Or, in other words: get out of book.  Little helps bring out more of the people around you than pulling them out of their rote, routine practices.  Hear, hear!

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