Firstly, a quick correction from last time. The study I referred to last week was actually commissioned by the EEF, who paid CSC to conduct it.
Most English chess players will be aware that, before doing anything of any importance in chess you should consult an organiser from Twickenham of below average height. So if CSC wanted to consult me, here’s what I’d tell them. (To be fair, they consulted me several years ago at the start of the project, but more recently I’ve only been speaking informally to some of my friends who work for CSC over a pint or a curry.)
Regular readers will know that I’ve always been sceptical about the research concerning chess making kids smarter. Apart from whether or not ‘making kids smarter’, whatever that means, is as desirable an aim as it sounds (I think it’s not) I have two problems.
1. Can we be sure that the improvement in kids’ maths or problem-solving skills is long-term rather than short-term? One possible interpretation of the failure of the EEF/CSC project to achieve positive results might be that the effect is indeed only short-term. It’s possible that if they’d tested the kids immediately after completing the chess course they might have produced different results.
2. Can we be sure that, if chess does actually improve kids’ performance at maths or problem solving, that the same, or even better, results, could not have been achieved using other games, perhaps simpler games which wouldn’t need investment in chess sets and the involvement of professional chess tutors? While I’m sure most kids will benefit, socially as well as academically, from playing a wide range of games, perhaps some kids will find chess too hard and would gain more benefit from simpler games.
There are, I think, several reasons (apart from making kids smarter) why you might wish to promote chess for kids. I’ve got a little list.
1. You might want to teach lots of kids how the pieces move.
2. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing low level competitive chess.
3. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing adult standard competitive chess.
4. You might want to produce champions and future IMs or GMs.
At the moment there are various projects designed for 1, 2 and 4, but little or nothing designed for 3. It’s not just because I’m an adult competitive player who has never had any ambition to become an IM or GM, that I consider number 3 to be the most important. But before you start any project you have to decide what your aims are and how you’re going to get there.
There also several methods you could use when promoting chess for kids. I’ve got another little list.
1. You can put chess in the classroom specifically as a non-competitive learning tool. Children will be playing simple games and solving puzzles using subsets of chess, not playing actual games of ‘big chess’. Many of the projects that have reported positive results have used this method. This will certainly achieve point 1 above. Whether or not it will achieve the other aims will depend on the local and national chess infrastructure into which kids who want to take things further can move. However, it will only work in schools that are fully committed to the project.
2. You can put chess in the classroom as a low-level semi-competitive activity, teaching kids the moves quickly and then encouraging them to play complete games of chess. This is the model that has been encouraged by CSC, although it’s possible some tutors and schools will have taken a slower, less competitive approach. They run inter-schools competitions, some schools take part in international competitions via the Internet, and kids are invited to visit the London Chess Classic, where they can get some instruction and watch the likes of Magnus and Vishy in action. This way, you’ll be achieving both the first and second aims, possibly at the expense of ‘making kids smarter’.
3. You could promote chess in secondary schools through a network of inter-school and inter-area competitions. If you’re linking up with adult chess clubs and competitions this will achieve our third aim above, but at the expense of the first two, and possibly also the fourth. At the moment, though, because of the nature of ‘adult’ chess clubs and competitions, as you’ll have seen if you’ve read my two recent articles about the Thames Valley League, are not really suitable for kids of secondary school age.
4. You could follow my suggestion. What I’d do is identify the areas I wish to work in, which, for several reasons, would be more deprived areas of the country, and this is what CSC are doing at present. I would establish a professionally staffed Junior Chess Club within the Borough which would meet at weekends and possibly also some evenings. This club would run courses for both beginners and intermediate level players as well as providing competitive chess, possibly including competitions for all ages as well as just for kids. This club would also provide outreach for schools within the Borough who wanted to run chess within their school. This could be non-competitive chess on the curriculum as a learning tool using mini-games, a quicker course on the curriculum (as CSC are doing at the moment), or a chess club which might be before school, at lunchtime or after school. Of course it doesn’t have to be just a junior chess club. There could be a section for adults, classes for adult beginners, for parents who want to help their kids, clubs in libraries, clubs for seniors and retirees, clubs for immigrants, using chess to help them integrate into their new community and much else.
To be fair to CSC, I’d add two points. Firstly, I understand that something like my proposal above is already happening in the London Borough of Newham: what’s happening there sounds great to me. Secondly, CSC has already had some success in producing young players through its schools who are excelling in both national and international competitions. This is great news which should be celebrated.
So my advice to CSC in the wake of the negative result of their study would be this. Concentrate on providing opportunities for competitive chess and move away from the idea of chess making kids smarter. Concentrate more on chess in the community than chess in schools. And bear in mind, most of all, that ‘big chess’ is just too hard for most kids of primary school age. They’ll learn the moves, sure, but will find it very hard to get much further. I’ll consider this in more detail next time.