Go for it

14th October 2005 at 01:00
An ancient Chinese board game is proving a winner with primary pupils, reports Carolyn O'Grady

For teacher William Farr it started in Japan. It was there that he developed an interest in Go, a board game where black and white stones are placed on a flat wooden grid in a way which, to a casual observer, looks completely random. Sometimes called "the extreme mind sport", it was devised in China at least 2,500 years ago and is now the second most played game in the world after chess.

William pursued his interest when he returned to the UK and recently brought the game to his school, London Meed County Primary in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.

"I felt that my Year 6 class needed a little help with concentration, extrapolation and deduction. It was another way of teaching them these skills without doing maths," he says.

For help he called on Peter Wendes, education officer of the British Go Association and director of Zen Machine, which runs Go workshops. Recently, at one of a series of workshops organised at the school, Peter began by teaching children some basic moves. He also introduced them to Go etiquette which suggests, for example, that before each game, opponents bow their heads to each other and say "o negai shimasu", meaning "Please have a good game". Being a gracious winner and graceful loser are an important part of Go.

A hush descends on the two linked classrooms. About 50 children are engrossed. Headteacher Tony Brown says he's never seen children so focused.

"You need to think incredibly deeply if you are going to play well," says William. "Players have to know when to adopt another strategy, when to say: 'Let's try something else'."

It promotes cultural awareness because it is so different. Many find it aesthetically pleasing as well. "I like the way you make shapes," says pupil Abigail Baines.

William has now introduced Go as part of sports, PSHE and maths and the school has an over-subscribed lunchtime Go club in which Year 6 pupils act as mentors to Years 4 and 5.

London Meed became the primary champion at the UK Junior National Go Challenge for schools, a competition which is steadily growing - this year more than 500 children entered from 18 schools, twice as many as last year.

William is not the only person to find that Go appears to reach realms of thinking often left unexplored in the curriculum. Debbie Dart, co-ordinator for extended learning for Four S, Surrey (the county's LEA), has introduced the game to Surrey schools, initially as an out-of-school activity for gifted and talented children, then to mainstream groups and children with special needs - three children with Down's Syndrome, for example, grasped it extremely well, she says.

"We have found that Go develops higher-level thinking skills. It encourages children to think strategically and to ask what might happen, and is extremely good for developing social skills. Children can learn the game in five minutes, but spend a lifetime getting good."

France Ellul has been teaching Go at the Wycombe Grange Pupil Referral Unit in High Wycombe, where he is head of English, and also at Covingham Park Junior School in Swindon. Last year he wrote his best practice research based on his observations at the two schools.

"In Go there is much metacognition, ie thinking about thinking. This is to do with the interaction of both hemispheres of the brain: the greater the interaction, the better the thinking skills, which are inextricably linked with social skills. The more you understand how you operate inside your own head, the more you can imagine how others operate inside theirs and the easier it will be to interact with them," he wrote.

Many social skills are encapsulated in Go proverbs. For example "abandon a stone in second line atari" means "cut your losses" or "don't throw good money after bad".

lBritish Go Association: www.britgo.org For information on the UK Go Challenge: www.ukgochallenge.com

Zen Machine: www.zenmachine.co.uk

The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth: www.nagty.ac.uk

France Ellul's best practice research results: www.standards.dfes.gov.ukstudysupportcasestudiestypelist This includes three articles on Go (4th, 5th and 6th in the list).


Go is a territorial game. The board is marked with a grid of 19 by 19 lines, although beginners play on boards with fewer. Each player has black or white stones. Players take turns, placing one stone at each turn on the intersections of the lines. Once played, stones are not moved. Stones may be surrounded and captured, in which case they are removed from the board.

At the end of the game, the players count one point for each vacant intersection inside their own territory, and one point for every stone they have captured. The winner is the one with the most points.

A handicapping system can be introduced whereby weaker players start with a number of stones on the board, the number being decided by the player's level of expertise.

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