Chess Institute Attends London Chess Conference

Michael Sutton, Director

Recently CIC board member Michael Sutton travelled to London, England to attend two conferences. He attended the MBT (My Big Theory of Everything) Consciousness Conference and the London Chess Conference. The latter he attended with the support of both Chess Institute of Canada and Annex Chess Club, with which Michael is also involved.

The focus of the London Chess Conference (LCC) was on the connections between chess and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects.

We were eager to get some of Michael’s insights into this.

Did you learn anything interesting or surprising at the conference about the connection between chess and STEM?

There was overwhelming evidence at the LCC that Chess and STEM go together. Focus, hypothesis testing, algorithms, different modes of thinking, and decision-making all were highlighted and stressed by multiple presenters in their programs.

Chess will help any student with a STEM career based on the above. 

To me the big surprise is the educators at the LCC were well aware of the socio-emotional learning (SEL) component in chess. From a consciousness perspective, younger children tend to be more intuitive. When teaching young children, you keep the games simple and interesting, and focus on social and emotional life skills, such as cooperative play, focus, and learning from loss. As we grow older, and have to deal with the day-to-day challenges of Planet Earth, we get more into our intellectual space. So the educators would focus more on STEM skills, where we teach students to evaluate choices, and make decisions under pressure.

The LCC listed STEM as the primary focus, because that is now a hot-button issue, but chess truly is a great teaching tool for both socio-emotional learning and STEM skills across the board. These educators were well aware they were teaching more than STEM in their programs.

What was stressed at both the MBT and LCC conferences was the concept of bringing joy. The LCC kicked off with eight videos of children of various ages playing mini-games all the way up to full blown chess. It’s fun. Learning through play is the best way to be educated, and it endures over your lifetime. 

It’s even the best way to train the trainers. Getting them to play, and see how their kids react with their own joy, is key. It is a great way to get the breakthrough needed on chess-based teaching.

Some people add an A to STEM to make STEAM, adding Art to the mix. The French artist Marcel Duchamp once said that not all artists are chess players, but all chess players are artists. Did the conference provide any insight about the relationship between the arts and chess?

As a consciousness theorist, I find adding Arts to STEM muddies the waters a little on what you are trying to do with educational programs. Art tends to come from the intuitive, creative space. Art, music, literature are all hugely important to humanity, the best of us all, perhaps one of the key reasons for being on Planet Earth in the first place.

But the reality is we have built this complex, technological civilization. Things have to be built, maintained, designed, crafted. Illnesses need to be addresses, conditions cured or worked on surgically. All these come from the intellectual space. We can’t get away from it if we are to sustain humanity. Parents want good paying, stable careers for their children in STEM. All of us need these mechanisms to cope with the day-to-day decisions of living on Planet Earth. Finances, planning, tapping cellphones, getting your vehicle fixed, these are all STEM-related skills.

I think the irony is my STEM skills tell me it is sadly tough to make a living at the Arts. I’ve had two very good writer friends tell me I should have been one myself, even given their own life-long struggles with it. I chose a career in computer science to put a roof over my family’s head, instead. But I do believe in the arts. I’ve been fortunate to find other outlets for my own creativity, in such things as game design, chess and teaching. The TMU Senate just passed my new Introduction to Client Communication Management course for their GCM School, as a recent example of this.

The LCC did not address the arts as much as they could have, but it was a packed three days. FIDE, the European Chess Union, and the other national federations realize the power in chess to teach across the board. Focussing on STEM was a little political in that sense. But they were 100% focused on teaching which was great; there was no “chess for chess’ sake.”

Speaking of Marcel Duchamp, it was my pleasure to help CIC participate in TMU’s replay of the Marcel Duchamp/John Cage musical Chess match. Very cool event!

How do you think CIC’s Chess to Life program can help students develop the skills and mindsets that are essential for thriving in a world where artificial intelligence is disrupting many STEM professions?

Man presenting a talk on chess in natural lightingWe had interesting conversations at the MBT conference on AI, neural networks, and the potential for conscious computers. Chess has been an incredible tool for studying AI, computer optimization, and perhaps even the evolution of consciousness itself from cellular processes. Chess is far, far more than a game.

The Chess to Life program is meant to teach students to be adaptable and flexible in their decision making in coping with a complex world. 

The correct mindset is not to see AI as a potential wave of Terminator cyborgs armed with lasers, but as an incredible tool; a tool that will allow you to extend your own creativity, and focus on what you are crafting, versus worrying about the canvas or methods.

How do you think Chess to Life differs from purely STEM-focused extracurricular programs in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, and outcomes?

Chess teaching is a spectrum. We tend to label life-skill teaching as falling under SEL or STEM. But all of these skills are needed for coping with the complexity of Planet Earth. If you look at the UNICEF Model For Better Citizenry, we hit all of it with Chess To Life.

Too much of the current chess teaching focuses on playing strength. That’s okay if you see chess as (only) a competition, or you want to get heavily into STEM-based decision making or algorithmic analysis.

India has developed an incredible chess program, with the expectation of popping out more super-Grandmasters to compete on the world stage. [Ed.: This results in part from Viswanathan Anand becoming World Champion in the early 2000s.] It was a matter of international pride and status for them. But what they found is incredible secondary benefits in increased life-skill awareness in their students. Many of the educators from multiple chess and teaching organizations reported this effect at the LCC. Two of the most powerful quotes from the LCC were: 

“What is learned in fun is never forgotten.” 

“Jamie will never grow up to be a grandmaster or mathematician. What he will grow up to be is a better human being.”

So, I think those two quotes underline what is better about CIC’s Chess To Life approach. Jamie needs to survive first, before he goes on to law school or medical school. Pass at Life before you pass the Bar. Our curriculum is more balanced towards teaching useful life-skills, versus focusing on chess strength or chess as competition. 

From what we learned at the LCC, we can improve our curriculum and pedagogy. We can add more STEM-related teaching at the higher levels, we can add more mini-games and other tools for life-skills at the lower levels, and extend our program in both breadth and depth. 

Chess works. It’s incredibly fun. Putting your child into a chess program early is going to make his or her life easier, help with their career, and help them be happier through making wiser choices for themselves and their friends and families. Teaching methods like this help to make better and happier people. The alignment between the chess conference and the consciousness conference was remarkable. 

This is not “out there” This is how to teach children.

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