‘Fine’ Ideas on Communication of Fundamental Concepts

Fri Feb 13 2009

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I’ve been working a lot on improving my instructional repertoire these days, brought on in no small part by the new class I’m teaching this semester. Teaching a new class is always a challenge, since it usually requires the assembly of new course notes (or at least updating them — in my case, I’ve essentially redeveloped the material from scratch though) and gearing the key themes and issues to a given audience. The particular course in question is quite challenging because the audience features a mix of very bright young people, mostly from Civil and Chemical Engineering, with very different abilities, experience, and interest in such an inherently multi-disciplinary field as Environmental Engineering.

I’ve embraced the challenge though, and in addition to the pure logistical issue of cranking out 2 seminars a week, I continue to strive to find ways of engaging members of the class in different ways. Related to this has been an ongoing search for opportunities to improve communication and particularly placing suitable emphasis on fundamental concepts. It struck me the other day that a text I use frequently excels at this very task, so much so that, though it was first written in 1943, it remains a standard reference today that is widely held to be authoritative by most practitioners.

The introduction to the third edition (1989) gives a clue as to why this is so:

In every field the man who can merely do things without knowing why is at a disadvantage to the one who can not only build but also tell you just why he is building in that way. This is especially noticeable when the prescribed cycle does not obey the laws it is supposed to: then the labourer must sit by with folded hands while the mechanic or engineer comes in and adjusts the delicate mechanisms.

So true. By the way, the field in question that the author, one Reuben Fine, explores is The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings:. The title itself is another clue, and not just because now you know I’m talking about a chess book. Fine is not seeking to teach openings so much as the ideas behind them. In chess, as in the application of science, too often do people mistake the ‘moves’ as the lesson.

It’s no surprise, by the way, to find such nuggets on the theory of education (and not just the education of theory!) in the chess universe, as most committed chess players are highly experienced not only as educators and mentors, but as students themselves.

I said earlier that the book is held as authoritative. And indeed it is — not because the moves it lists are perfect, but rather because of the analytical skills it emphasizes and conveys. Indeed, Fine continues:

This emphatically does not mean that the book is infallible. Quite the contrary. Chess is. fortunately, not a finished science, but a steadily growing organism. Many corrections and improvements have been found and will continue to be found. Still, all this does not do away with the fact that a person who deliberately deviates from “book” lines should have some food reason for doing so. Uncritical rejection of all theory because it is incomplete and wrong on occasion is foolish and harmful; intelligent criticism of standard material, no matter how long it has been accepted is sensible and wholesome.

Ironically, by predicting and indeed announcing its own inevitable obsolescence as an authoritative reference in every respect, the text consolidates its position as perpetually valid in so many.

The book is a must-own one for chess fans, and a should-read one for educators of all stripes. Even without a chessboard, the text lays out a iterative educational scheme that starts from the very basics and progresses all the way to quite modern concepts. An extensive discussion of the techniques Fine use to convey knowledge would be prohibitively long, but perhaps a brief analysis of his introduction to the classic e-pawn opening (1. e4 e5) will suffice.

Both White’s and Black’s initial moves here are perfectly natural and normal: both assist development and affect vital central squares.

As long as Black can retain symmetry, White can lay no claim to an advantage. Consequently the task is to compel the defender to give up his strong centre positions, in other words to abandon his pawn at e5.

White can achieve this aim only by playing d4. If Black then replies with … exd4 he will be left with a pawn at d6 (eventually) vs. his opponent’s at e4 and our general theory of the games teaches us that such a pawn structure is favourable for White.

I’ve added emphasis to the language elements and conceptual progression I feel define Fine’s approach. In this respect a careful reading of the excerpted passage not only conveys some theory on chess (which may or may not interest you ) but also conveys knowledge on the conveying of knowledge itself.

I find some of this text particularly relevant to applied sciences since it blends reasoning based not only on pure theory (as in the control of the center) but also on established best practices (pawn structure).

See if you can try and incorporate some elements of Fine’s approach the next time you’re putting together a lecture, paper, assignment or tutorial. I know I will.

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