Rethinking Writing Instruction

Chess & chunking

What follows is both adapted from and quoted from The Intelligence Trap by David Robson. Pp 72-73. It’s about chess, but it relates to writing.

Adriaan de Groot (1914-2006) was a psychologist who also loved chess. At a big tournament in Buenos Aires he decided to interview other players about their strategies to find out where superior performance came from.  He showed them sample chess boards and asked them to talk through their mental strategies as they decided on the next move.

He’d thought that maybe they rapidly considered hundreds of possible moves and their consequences. But that seemed not to be the case at all. They were not thinking such thoughts as:  If I move the knight there, the opponent can respond in three ways, and if he does that my response to each of those moves would be X.

“The experts didn’t report having cycled through many positions, and they often made up their minds within a few seconds, which would not have given them enough time to consider the different strategies.”

“Follow-up experiments revealed that the players’ apparent intuition was in fact an astonishing fear of memory achieved through a process that is now known as “chunking.” The expert player stops seeing the game in terms of individual pieces and instead breaks the board into bigger units—or ‘complexes’—of pieces. In the same ways that words can be combined into larger sentences, those complexes can then form templates or psychological scripts known as “schemas,” each of which represents a different situation and strategy. The user of schemas significantly reduces the processing workload for the player’s brain; rather than computing each potential move from scratch, experts search through a vast mental library of schemas to find the move that fits the board in front of them.”

“De Groot noted that over time the schemas can become deeply ‘engrained in the player,” meaning that the right solution may come to mind automatically with just a mere glance at the board, which neatly accounts for those phenomenal flashes of brilliance that we have come to associate with expert intuition. Automatic, engrained behaviors also free up more of the brain’s working memory, which might explain how experts operate in challenging environments.”

This passage stood out to me when I read it last week because what De Groot discovered about chess playing is true about all complex skills, including writing. Expert chess players see the board more simply than the rest of us, who are dumb-founded by the infinite number of moves possible. Likewise, students who have taken a Readable Writing course see writing a lot more simply than others. They see patterns and can work with them.

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