Chess, Stock Markets and Metaphors for Learning

Metaphors can be powerful vehicles for learning. They allow you to not only make connections between disciplines but allow you to think about concepts in new and innovative ways. They allow you to think about abstract concepts and visualize them so they sit in your mind’s eye and play with different ideas. However, how often do we allow students the chance to think deeply about ideas and concepts and create their own metaphors?

Metaphors allow learners to bridge their learning across concepts.

This is a blog post I have been thinking about for a long time. I find the best time for me to reflect is when I go running. It’s just me, the road and my thoughts. I find it difficult to find some quiet time to reflect at school, and as a father of 2 kids under 5, rarely do I ever have quiet reflection time at home 😉 So running is that time for me.

As I move along in my teaching career, I find myself thinking about the idea of learning in much deeper ways. I have been reading a number of books on how to make learning transformative and powerful for students. I’ve been reading some great books that challenge the idea of empowerment, innovation and questioning the frameworks we create for students to have the freedom to learn. The book coincidently titled, Freedom to Learn by Will Richardson does just that. I love the thinking by George Couros in his books The Innovator’s Mindset. Anyway, this blog post isn’t exactly on those topics but inspired by their thinking.

This post is about the metaphors of 2 unlikely areas, Chess and Stock Markets and how the slow impact of learning is very difficult to see the effects over time. This post is also on the power of allowing time for students to reflect, I mean really reflect and think about concepts over time, allowed to make connections and create their own metaphors. Please bear with me as I explain.

First off, stock markets. Specifically, compound interest. Personal finance is a bit of a hobby of mine and done a lot of reading (and practice) on the power of passively investing in index funds. Einstein has been reporting in saying “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it.” It is amazing, yet at any one given time, it is very difficult to observe, especially in the short-term. If you want to see how it works, go to Moneychimp’s compound interest calculator, put in $10,000 with an annual addition of $1000 at 7% interest over 25 years and see what your investment would be worth. I like to think about the small decisions that you make in the classroom in the same way. Something as seemingly small as offering student’s choice in what they get to learn about for a project or spending 5 minutes conferring with student’s over their writing, can have monumental impacts over the long-term. The problem is small changes are very difficult to observe in the short-term. They are much like trying to watch soil erosion or noticing how a plant tracks the movements of the sun. You just can’t see them without measurement (enter data side talk here). They may even have a negative short-term impact over a day or two convincing the teacher to abandon their initial decision. This is why a long-term strategy, just like investing, is so important. You need to stay the course. You need to trust your strategy and intuition. These small incremental impacts compound over time and can have huge effects in the long-term. The problem with being a teacher is you often do not get to see those effects until much later in life.

The 2nd metaphor I would like to explore is chess. I know, I know I can almost hear the audible groans coming out of the computer screen as I type. So I must confess that I love playing chess and recently been learning some advanced strategies. I’m amazed at the community and how even Grand Masters are continually learning. I didn’t realize how much theory was involved in such a seemingly, simple game. One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing online is that there are chess engines created where every move you play, has a positive (or negative) effect on your chances of winning. Here’s a screenshot from a game I recently played, without getting into all the chess vernacular, you can see that every move (decision), I made had an effect on how likely it was that I would win. A lot of these effects do compound over time. A higher number, meant a better decision.

I mean, how amazing would it be if there was an AI learning engine that could track every decision you make as a teacher and it’s effect on learning?? Perhaps I need to develop this app and quit my day job…

This got me thinking more about how little decisions can have a huge consequence on whether you win or lose (or draw) the game. I know, I know, teaching and learning isn’t really about winning or losing. Nor am I saying that learning should be competitive with clear winners or losers. I think looking at it from a simply, if you are winning, you are having a positive effect on learning for that student or students, and a losing would be a negative.

So finally, my last point if about reflection. For me, these metaphors were exciting and powerful to me but mainly because I created them and owned them. How often do we give students a chance to think about their learning and wrestle with concepts? I would guess not very often. I get it, time is a scarce commodity in schools and we feel the demands to get through the curriculum. However, if we really want schools to be about learning, rather than teaching or curriculum or activities, then we need to rethink our ideas about learning. Usually the reflection time is very structured and we give them a couple of guiding questions and students must instantly come up with deep reflection. What if we let students come back to ideas and concepts and think deeply about them; own them, remix those ideas and think of their own metaphors for concepts and connect learning across displines? My guess is this type of learning, just like interest and chess databases, would compound over time.