A few months ago, I learned about Laszlo Polgar, the man who trained all three of his daughters to be chess grandmasters. He claimed he could make any child a genius just by teaching them using his special methods. I was pretty upset because, although he had a book called Raise A Genius, it was hard to find and only available in Hungarian and Esperanto.
Many SSC readers contributed money to get the book translated, and Esperanto translator Gordon Tishler stepped up to do the job. Thanks to everyone involved. You can find his full translation here: Raise A Genius!
I was hoping that this book would explain Lazslo Polgar’s secrets for raising gifted children. It does so only in very broad strokes. Nor does he seem to be holding much back. But it looks more like he doesn’t really have secrets, per se. The main things he does differently from everyone else are the things he’s talked about in every interview and documentary: he starts young (around the time the child is three), focuses near-obsessively on a single subject, and never stops. Polgar:
The first characteristic of genius education – I could say the most important novelty distinguishing it from contemporary instruction – and its necessary precondition, is early specialization directed at one concrete field. It is indeed true what Homer said, “A person cannot be experienced or first in everything.” Because of this parents should choose a specific field at their discretion. It is only important that by the age of 3-4 some physical or mental field should be chosen, and the child can set out on their voyage.
He has a couple more things to say, but they’re more like vague principles than like specific details. The rest of the book is his opinions on the meaning of genius, his gripes about the Hungarian government, the ways public schooling destroys children’s natural creativity, and various related subjects.
And maybe this stuff deserves some attention. He spends a long time responding to people who say it’s inhumane or immoral to educate children the way he does it, and certainly those claims need a response. A lot of his pedagogical philosophy and personal philosophy of life come out in the way he answers these questions, and given how few specifics he gives, maybe understanding his broader worldview is the way to go. And although a lot of people talk about how public school destroys children’s minds, it’s always good to hear it from the mouth of somebody who’s put his money where his mouth is and done a better job.
But what can we glean from this book in terms of how one can educate a child in the Polgar method?
The closest Raise A Genius comes to anything like a specific prescription is Polgar’s description of what a day might be like in some kind of imaginary Polgar genius school:
In genius education it is necessary that the pedagogue (whether the parents or professional teachers or tutors) stay in direct, constant and intensive contact with the child. Because of this we imagine groups of only 10-15 members. In practice an intensive collaborative contact between the child and an adult must be formed, in which the child does not feel “subordinate.” Think how advantageous it would be if the child already understands at the age of 10 that they know a great deal, that they are a person of the same value as an adult, and that in their life there is at least one field they master as well or better than adults.
As for the curriculum, it would be:
– 4 hours of specialist study (for us, chess)
– 1 hour of a foreign language. Esperanto in the first year, English in the second, and another chosen at will in the third. At the stage of beginning, that is, intensive language instruction, it is necessary to increase the study hours to 3 – in place of the specialist study – for 3 months. In summer, study trips to other countries.
– 1 hour of general study (native language, natural science and social studies)
– 1 hour of computing
– 1 hour of moral, psychological, and pedagogical studies (humor lessons as well, with 20 minutes every hour for joke telling)
– 1 hour of gymnastics, freely chosen, which can be accomplished individually outside school. The division of study hours can of course be treated elastically.
All of this cries out for more explanation (in particular, the humor lessons sound fascinating), but the only part he really explains is the foreign language. He quotes Frantishek Marek: “Learning foreign languages in early childhood is very important, because without that a person cannot later express themself spontaneously, rapidly, and appropriately”, and I think suggests (though I might be misunderstanding) that languages are one of the easiest things to teach young children, and so a good way to get them into the spirit of learning things. He also thinks languages are nice because they have a defined end-goal (speaking fluently) and obvious progress along the way, so children feel good about learning them. He argues Esperanto is perfect for this: as a logical constructed language, it’s very easy to learn, and it convinces children that learning is fast and easy. Then with their Esperanto knowledge they’ll be much better able to pick up other languages later on. I’m not really sure what to think of this – language learning might be more important if you grow up speaking Hungarian rather than English, and Polgar seems so enthusiastic an Esperantist that it’s hard to picture him recommending it for purely rational reasons – but he’s quite insistent on it.
This idea that children should learn things they find exciting and enjoyable – and where they keep making measurable progress – recurs throughout the book. Often it’s in the context of a kind of counterintuitive point, where someone asks him “Won’t kids hate having to learn so much?” and Polgar answers that kids may hate public school, where they sit around a lot and never feel like they’re really mastering anything, but won’t hate intensive genius education, where they actually feel like people are trying to make them good at things:
In conditions of intensive instruction a child will soon feel knowledgeable, perceive independence, achieve success, and shortly become capable of independently applying their knowledge. Let us take an example from language learning. Let us suppose that someone visits a class for interpreters at a school for geniuses, where they are occupied for 5-6 hours with a first foreign language, Esperanto if possible. (Why precisely with this language I will clarify below.) After some months they are already corresponding with children in other countries, they participate in meetings in and outside of their country – and longer-lasting – where they experience serious successes, and they converse fluently in the language they have learned by then. Is this a nice feeling for a child? Yes, it is nice. Is it useful for the child? Yes, it is useful. Is it useful for society? It is useful. In the following year one can do the same with another foreign language – let us say English – and in the year after that another.
The same is valid for any field of life. In this way a child really enjoys what they are doing, and they see that it makes sense. In contemporary schools students do not understand why they are learning. But in genius-education schools the children know that after a few months they will speak Esperanto, in the following year English, in the following year German, etc. Or in the field of chess; in the first year they play at level 3, after the third year at level 1, after five years as a master candidate, after 6-7 years as a master, after 8-10 years as an international master, and after the 15th year as a grandmaster. So the child sees the goal and meaning of their work.
One thing is certain: one can never achieve serious pedagogical results, especially at a high level, through coercion. One can teach chess only by means of love and the love of the game. If I may advise: one should make sure that before everything the father or mother should not diminish the child’s habit of chess playing by too much severity. We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel that they also are capable of thinking. In this way we should bring them to a feeling of success.
So how does one go about ensuring that a child loves education?
At the start it is most important to awake interest. We should make the child aware that who learns this knows this. And chess is learnable. If we educate the child such that they can be a partner, can accept, create, and initiate, then we can always entrust them with more independent tasks. We should get the child to love what they do – to such a degree that they do it almost obsessively. The Hungarian psychologist Tamas Vekerdy warns of the same thing, that infants more easily master things that awake and draw their interest, their attention. And even at the beginning, the child should feel joy. We should not be angry, if they jump around here and there during a chess game; indeed, it is a known fact in psychology that even though a child might frolic aimlessly because of their age-appropriate character, their thoughts can still stay on the task. We should not tell them everything; we should try to get the child themself to say something! We should not ourselves make all the moves; we should try to get the child themself to make the moves! This is the so-called Socratic method, and the essence of instruction in problem-solving – projected onto chess.
Of course great success is not achievable without motivation. At the age of 5-6, if the activity is sufficiently interesting, success can also function as a strong incentive. Stimulation, encouragement, and instilling passion and trust are very important. If the parents and tutors tell the child that they are foolish and bad, the child will probably truly believe this. But the opposite also applies: if we say that they are clever and skillful, they will believe that as well. They often truly believe that, and try harder to actually become so. I consider it a basic principle that success is extraordinarily important. When I began the experiment, I thought that although I would not let my daughters avoid failure, they would nevertheless need to grow up accompanied by success. The proportion of failure to success should be 1 to 10.
The experience of success or failure, as Adler demonstrates, greatly influences the self-confidence – or uncertainty – of the child. According to P. Michel as well, the experience of success, the admiration of others, and the recognition of teachers, significantly stimulates further action, increases the trust of the child in their knowledge and ability to a high degree.
According to Frank, failure, suffering, and fearfulness decrease achievement. Following a number of successive failures, even a damaging inhibitory complex can be created. With an increase in stress, action becomes more superficial and behavior less calm. Similarly, in the opinion of M. Juck, success experienced in one area increases (and failure decreases) the level of aspiration in other areas. Helm’s experiments prove that experience of success decreases the time necessary for solving later tasks, and increases the elasticity and ideational richness of the mind, while following failure there can be hindrances, rigidity, and relative ideational poverty in thinking, and problem-solving time increases.
One should have great patience. We should let the child arrive at a sense of success, but we should not handicap ourselves (we should not give up major pieces or an advantage in pawns), because in that case the structure of the game changes. Preferably the parents or teachers should provide a temporal handicap, or weave intentional mistakes into the game, so that the child can use them for themself. During the game the tutor should organize their position on the board intentionally as is appropriate for the student and the development of the child at their age.
To awaken the child’s interest. The child should like what they are occupied with, that is, be interested in it. One must little by little accustom them to the work and create in them the unification of work and play. It is important as well that the child become accustomed to learning and working. Particular training is necessary for the workload. I call well-organized and age-appropriate work active rest. A child’s workload should be such that they experience it as active rest. Students, for example, who must attend lectures which they then enjoy, feel more rested afterwards than before. And if the speaker lectures inexpertly, they almost fall asleep from boredom and fatigue after half an hour.
There’s a lot of this, always exhorting people to make sure children enjoy being intensively educated, but always giving only vague gestures on how to do it. I suspect Polgar was a naturally gifted teacher, and his daughters naturally curious students, and that he never really encountered problems in this regard and doesn’t expect other people to either. Some of this seems apparent in his section on play:
I think of play as a very important phenomenon, perhaps more important than do many of those psychologists who put it on a pedestal.
But play is not the opposite of work. Play is very important for a child, but in play there is an element of work. One should not separate these two factors in a child’s value system; if for example a child hears at an impressionable age, “Play, son, don’t work!” this can later result in him feeling that work is alien. On the contrary, it is my opinion that a child does not like only play: for them it is also enjoyable to acquire information and solve problems. A child’s work can also be enjoyable; so can learning, if it is sufficiently motivating, and if it means a constant supply of problems to solve that are appropriate for the level of the child’s needs.
A child does not need play separate from work, but meaningful action. Children already enjoy doing meaningful things in infancy. They like solving problems during play, even pleasurable play. The more meaningful and information-rich the problems they solve during their activities, the greater is their enjoyment and sense of success. In the end it is most important at this age to awaken enjoyment and good feelings in them.
Regarding my daughters, it is my experience that learning presents them with more enjoyment than a sterile game. I have the feeling that play deprived of information often plays only a surrogate role, of surrogate action, of surrogate satisfaction.
This is proven also by the fact that when we examine the biographies of exceptionally capable children, we find that they played much less than their peers. The profound and lengthy research of L. M. Turman in California in 1920 uncovered many differences between the play of unusually capable children and their peers. As expected, play that demanded mental action was much more interesting to the talented children. They played alone somewhat more often, compared to the control group. Susanna Millar writes in her book Psychology of Play that sometimes unusually capable children who lack peers at the same intellectual level can have difficulties in play with others. Thus I generally do not rigidly separate learning from play, or work from hobbies at an adult level.
From my point of view, workloads could be measurably increased by appropriate methods. I agree with the pedagogical tendency to ask for intensive instruction. The essence of intensive instruction lies really in using goal-directed workloads, age-appropriateness, the holding of
interest, and the lived experience of achievement and success. The American G Doman thinks the same. In his analogy: as the different muscles of the body can be developed and strengthened only by regular training, so also the capabilities of the brain can only grow by means of daily training. The lack of structured logical thought and learning causes a decrease in intelligence, just as un-exercised body parts atrophy. Doman knows, on the basis of three decades of practical experience, that the brain grows most rapidly between the ages of 1 and 6, and it almost “effortlessly” assimilates knowledge. The ability to learn by play decreases after 6 years of age, when assimilation of information becomes more difficult mental work.
More on peers:
The contemporary psychological and pedagogical literature emphasizes in one sense the importance of the peer group. But in my pedagogical concept it receives a slightly different emphasis. According to me, it is not primarily important for a child to have suitable companions of the same age, but preferably to have spiritually (mentally) appropriate partners, friends worthy of the level of their intellectual capabilities. If the social relationships of a child are exclusively or for the most part limited to groups of the same age, this will slow the progress of an exceptionally capable child.
[Some say that children should not spend too long with adults, but this] is disadvantageous only if the intellectual level is too different, and if the relationship between child and adult is not suitable, for example, if the adult imposes everything on the child so they take away their independence and initiative. But if they try to correctly develop these traits in the child, it is not damaging, but on the contrary is useful. About this I do not want to say that a child should always be in the company of adults. One must find the right proportion of being with adults and peers. I believe that passing their time in the company of those who have a similar level of intellect and similar interests and sense this well in these interactions is decisive.
Zsuzsa is a concrete example: if at the age of 13 she had played chess only with 13-year-olds, who were weaker than her in many categories, this would have been less than useful for her. And for her opponents it would not have been nice to be “knocked out” in every match. Zsuzsa herself would not have profited, because she needed playing partners at a similar level, and those were
found only among adults.
However, this was not a cause for concern, as the age difference itself did not prevent friendly relationships with others, and having good friends and colleagues at the same time. And friendship often flowed from work relationships. Thus one’s work is at the same time a hobby.
On curriculum design:
Of course, one should make everything appropriate to the stage! With regard to the content of instructional materials and also the duration of instruction, one should start from the traits of the age of the child, and tailor the tasks for the optimum ability of the child. At first we should only play chess for half an hour; after some time a bit more. After a week we can extend the duration. At first we should solve only simple problems, and with the passing of time we should always progress to more complicated ones. One should get the child to play a great deal, but always with suitable partners, who have a generally similar playing ability. On some occasions they can be weaker, on some stronger, so that the child experiences what winning and losing are like. But one must certainly find the right proportion. In childhood they should play rapidly, so they should play many blitz matches and those with a short time limit.
In this case age-appropriateness is also very important. First one should learn the movements of the king. We practiced this for several days, and later we play “king against king.” The task is this: one king must reach the opponent’s baseline, that is, one must go to the other side of the board. Whoever does this first wins. If some king can stand next the other, then the game ends without a decision. When we had learned this well, we added the next piece, the pawn. In this game the goal was the same: to get to the other side. After several days we added the rook, then the knight.
After 3-4 weeks we arrived at the queen. Understanding the queen’s mate followed later. Possessing this knowledge, we played great pawn battles during the following weeks. That is, only the pawns and the two kings were on the board. After a pawn changed to a queen we played until mate. The children really liked this. During this we started learning the knight’s moves. This is most difficult for children, but not truly a problem, although one must carefully practice this.
Later we became acquainted with the simplest mating moves. First I collected around 1,000 one-move mate diagrams; later I found two-, three-, and four-move mate diagrams and posed them as problems. Only after this did we begin playing real chess. The time we spent getting there lasted about 3-4 months. We should not begrudge the time for this! In this way we assimilate (very deeply and solidly) not only rudimentary knowledge, but the children become accustomed to the carefully considered and foundational game, work. Possessing solid knowledge, they simply and easily learned the later tasks. The possessed resolution, and self-confidence, and arrived at success. They experienced the knowledge and enjoyment of its use.
On grades and competition:
If the instruction is good, one has no need of giving grades. In addition, this truly makes no sense in chess. I would rather arrange various in- and inter-class contests. It is worth sending children to foreign competitions only if we feel that they will do well there. Competition only makes sense when it is evident that it will develop those who are capable of it, and can inspire greater accomplishments on the basis of the results. We should never drive students to failure.
And on the end goal:
An important function of genius education is instilling the capability for self-education. It starts with establishing in the child independent interests. Little by little we can instill in them self-education, independence, and creative work. The pedagogical co-worker cannot always stay at their side. So one of the most important educational tasks is to teach self-education. The latter contributes to, among other things, the child liking what they do, and in their life work is not separate from hobbies.
And unrelated to child-rearing, but very related to a previous discussion on this blog:
The fact is that today a newborn baby, being Jewish, has a much greater chance, by the statistics of Nobel prizes, at this prize, than if they are born in a non-Jewish family. This seems to many to be genetically determined. I have a completely different opinion. I conclude that social “heredity” and the response to one’s own Jewishness causes this phenomenon. I accept – this is indeed a fact – what Endre Czeizel also mentioned on Hungarian Radio (1989-05-23), that the proportion of Jews among Nobel prize-winners is 30%…, and if one is born Jewish, they have a hundred times greater chance of a Nobel prize than an average non-Jew. And most of the Hungarian Nobel prize-winners were Jews. Among chess world champions their proportion reaches – to my knowledge – more than 50%: Lasker, Steinitz, Tal, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kasparov and Fischer are half Jewish. However, I claim that this is also socially determined.
To mention a few factors: The first essential point is that Jewish families – partly because of strong traditions – are relatively stable, and they are always very concerned with education. Another reason comes from the minority status of Jews and from the frequent persecutions throughout their history. How do these factors contribute to the development of the mind? From a negative side in this way, that because of the always disadvantageous situation of the Jews they always had to appear in almost everything doubly more capable than others. Because of the frequent persecution they knew that at any time they might have to leave their homes, dwellings, and even homelands, and begin lives elsewhere. So what is fixed in Jewish tradition? “Learn, my son, because (1) only thus can you succeed in life, and (2) if you must flee, no one can take knowledge away from you, so you can take it with you anywhere.” Jews could not take their houses with them, so they customarily preferred to buy no houses or unportable things, but gold
and diamonds and trinkets, so that during persecutions they could pocket them and run away. And their knowledge bore fruit everywhere.
On the other hand, Jews are always on the periphery, and this awakens stresses in them; they become “eternal adolescents.” Adolescents do not know whether they are children or adults, and their uncertainty comes from this. Similarly, Jews most often do not know to what degree they are – for example – Hungarian, or Jewish, or both. This situation is difficult to clarify to themselves. Because of it they constantly live with internal conflict. This makes them develop with open minds, a habit of problem-solving, and also develops their adaptability. (This can also cause certain negative qualities, for example over-sensitivity, loudness, aggression, extremism, being critical of oneself and others, a very strong ambition for accomplishments, over-driven activity, etc.)
I want to emphasize a second time that I’ve left out most of the book, which is Polgar’s philosophical and moral reflections on why genius is important / why it’s ethical to try to raise children to be geniuses. If you’ve got any concerns in those areas, please look a little deeper into the source text and you’ll find them answered. At length. Twenty times. Interspersed with enthusiastic infodumps about how great Esperanto is.
In contrast, I said above that there wasn’t much specific pedagogical advice. I wrote that before quote-mining it to write a review; after doing so I realize there’s more than I thought. It’s just very broad, and not too different from what you’d expect a smart and up-to-date educator to say at your local slightly-hippy-ish private school.
I think the main reason I keep feeling like Polgar’s not describing his system enough – even though he describes it at some length – is a mismatch between his astounding results, and his excellent-but-not-that-different-from-common-sense educational advice. Surely there are schools that try to make children love learning and feel a sense of accomplishment in their work (don’t be snarky here, I’m as depressed as anyone by the education system but there are so many different private schools with wacky philosophies that I’m sure at least one of them has hit the target). But none of them have all their students grow up to be world-class chess grandmasters or the interdisciplinary equivalent. Why not?
Appealing to genetics can only take us so far. Both Polgar parents are undoubtedly geniuses. But a lot of wacky private schools get a steady supply of students with really smart parents. There’s got to be something more.
My guess is that the “start really early” and “concentrate on one subject” parts do more of the heavy lifting than I’d previously thought. I also think the one-to-one instruction (well, two-to-three instruction) that the Polgar parents were able to give their kids was probably very important, based on the disproportionate number of child prodigies who were home-schooled by their parents (I don’t know if the low teacher:student ratio or the parent-child relationship itself is important). And I suspect Polgar himself was just a naturally gifted educator who was able to effortlessly instill passion for a subject. Get those four things right – early start, single-subject focus, 1:1 home schooling, and a great parent/teacher – and the rest is just common-sense advice. Common-sense advice that lots of educators fail miserably at, admittedly. But common sense advice nonetheless.
This should be encouraging for people who want to repeat the Polgars’ experiment. You probably don’t need an education degree, let alone training in some secretive arcane Polgar Education Technique, to make it happen. You just need a monomaniacal focus, a lot of free time, and hard-to-define talent.
I think I have a lead on how to get this last one. Polgar talks about how he devised his system by reading the biographies of former child geniuses like John Stuart Mill. It might be useful to repeat this project, if only to see whether someone else can absorb some of the same implicit lessons Polgar did, and gain the same breadth of knowledge he had. This would be my next step from here if I wanted to try to learn more about education.
One concluding quote from Polgar:
There is no magic even in chess instruction, so I want to “warn” those who are expecting to discover miracles. The main pedagogical method and explanations of basic psychological ideas can be found naturally in pedagogical, psychological and technical chess textbooks.
There’s a word for someone who successfully performs miracles, writes a book called Perform Miracles!, and then “warns” those who are “expecting to discover miracles”. That word is “tease”. But Polgar gives us enough of a sketch to at least start out on the road he went on, and hopefully enough further leads to go the rest of the way.