The Moves That Matter Part 4: Chess and Education

“A chess position can be thought of as a system, and probably should be to fully appreciate the game’s educational value. Systems thinking is a form of perception above all, imbued with understanding that wholes have properties that do not exist in the sum of their parts, and that everything is connected to a greater or lesser extent. Defining ‘system’ too tightly risks reifying it into one thing of many, which obscures the premise of systems thinking namely that the fundamental features of life are not things at all, but more like relational processes.”

“In chess the system is deceptively simple and the key question is where its boundaries lie.”

“Perhaps the challenge of thinking systemically explains why chess is so difficult. Indeed, the comedian Stephen Fry

aptly described chess as ‘ludicrously difficult’. If a person doesn’t like things that are difficult, they won’t like chess, which is fundamentally about loving the struggle of reaching beyond our grasp.”

“Since ludicrous difficulty and inevitable mistakes are two of chess’s main assets, it is no wonder that chess is a stiff marketing challenge. In effect, the unvarnished selling pitch would be something like: ‘Play chess! It is extremely difficult and absolutely maddening. You will definitely screw up and possibly feel like an idiot, but you will love it. Hurry while stocks last. Two players for the price of one!’ Of course, in reality, chess promoters sell the sizzle and not the sausage, by foregrounding themes of depth, strategy, play and intelligence. I wonder, however, if something might be gained by making more of the game’s role in helping us experience difficulty and mistakes, which is the character-forming terrain where educational value is deepest.”

The Need For Evidence

“On a frosty day in February 2013 I was one of nine people gently checking each other out across a round table in a high-rise office building on the south side of the River Thames. The meeting was full of words like ‘power’, ‘confidence’ and ‘fidelity’. I felt like I had skin in the game because there was a lot of money at stake; but this was not a legal office and these were not divorce proceedings. The agenda was how to devise and complete a rigorous quantitative study of chess in education. ‘Power’ is a statistical term conveying the likelihood that the study would detect an effect of chess on education if there was an effect there to be found. ‘Confidence’ was about the robustness of any such a finding, and ‘fidelity’ was about the process of the chess intervention being consistent and true to its purpose in each place it was tested.”

“The four academics from the Institute of Education at the University of London knew they would potentially be doing the research, and they seemed dispassionate, as if the meeting was an extension of their day jobs. Two senior staff from the Educational Endowment Foundation looked under thirty, but they would be the ones to establish whether the project was viable and fundable. They seemed excited, as if they had already been given a green light from elsewhere and knew the right answer was yes, but they had to be seen to be doing their due diligence. And then there was a friend of mine, the director of the chess and education charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), Malcholm Pein,

who had developed a comprehensive chess teaching programme over several years and had access to the schools where the research would happen. The potential prize was evidence not only that chess in schools made sense, but that it might make particularly good sense for the poorest children; a dream result for those like Malcolm who love chess as much as they dislike inequality of opportunity. And then there were Malcolm’s wingmen conferring moral and intellectual support: Sandy Ruxton, an experienced policy researcher and chess aficionado, and me, deeply grateful to have grown up playing chess in a regular state school, and hoping others would have similar opportunities.”

“The conversation did not go quite as I hoped it might. Often despite their better judgment, educational professionals are institutionally bound to care more about test results than the social and emotional contexts and thinking dispositions that arguably give rise to them. A policymaker spending public money is acutely aware of being accountable to the taxpayer, so they need to know that educational gains are caused by the active ingredients in chess as such, and not by the mere fact that pupils are, for instance, sitting down and taking a breather from normal lessons, or because the time allocated to chess reduces or eliminates something else that is having a negative impact.”

“The agenda of the meeting is therefore best understood in juxtaposition with suggestions about all the things that should be taught in schools. Those who have sound reasons for suggesting the inclusion of one thing rarely have good reasons for justifying the exclusion of another.”

“Prior to any formal research, few would doubt that chess might make a valuable contribution to educational outcomes. On the face of it, the game should teach us how to think under pressure, to plan, to concentrate, to improve out reasoning by considering competing ideas, and so forth; the fact the game has wide cultural and historical resonance and is so cheap and inclusive adds to its viability. However, at the time of the meeting, and without broader cultural support for the game that reduces the need for validation research, there was little compelling evidence that chess in particular should be part of a national curriculum or a major feature of school life.”

“In one sense the meeting went extremely well and the research proceeded as planned, but I remember feeling quiet desperation at the time, as if what the room seemed to be agreeing to do risked missing the point entirely, The three chess players in the room knew that chess informed education in a profound way and we were eager to share stories that might begin to explain why. However, there was nothing about the discussion or the proposed research process that made our experience seem relevant. We were welcome to be there, and we chipped in now and again, but in terms of what the funders were hunting for, and the tools their academic hunters were planning to use, we were bystanders with no relevant insight or formal standing to influence events.”

“The money eventually rewarded for the project was £689,150, which is significantly better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, and gives some idea of the ambitious scale of the research. The aim was to measure the effectiveness of CSC’s thirty-week programme on 4,009 Year 5 (age nine to ten) pupils across one hundred schools with varying socio-economic intakes in terms of their standard attainment test (SAT’s) results in mathematics at the end of that Year 5, compared to control groups, with some secondary outcomes relating to English and science also considered. The evaluation of this landmark study into chess and education was published towards the end of 2016. The conclusion was effectively as follows; no evidence of effect.”

(John Jerrim, Lindsey Macmillan, John Micklewright, Mary Sawtell and Meg Wiggins (independent evaluators), Chess in Schools evaluation report and executive summary, Education Endowment Foundation, July 2016. Available at

Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2
Pink Floyd
Produced by Roger Waters, James Guthrie, David Gilmour & 1 more
Album The Wall

[Verse 1: Roger Waters & David Gilmour]
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

[Chorus: Roger Waters & David Gilmour]
All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

[Verse 2: Islington Green School Students]
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!

[Chorus: Islington Green School Students]
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall
All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall

[Guitar Solo]

[Outro: Roger Waters]
Wrong, do it again! *Children playing*
Wrong, do it again!
If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
(Wrong, do it again!)
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
(Wrong, do it again!)
You! Yes! You behind the bike sheds! Stand still, laddie!
(If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!
How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?)
(You! Yes! You behind the bike sheds! Stand still, laddie!)
*Children playing*
*Phone beeping sound*