Self-Directed Life Newsletter: Chauffeur knowledge
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

Have you heard of chauffeur knowledge?

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.

Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge:

One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude.

Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression.

But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge. — Charlie Munger

If you have an area of expertise, I’m sure this concept brings to mind someone you’ve known who knows how to “prattle the talk” but not much else.
The above quote is from a post on Farnam Street where Shane goes on to say:

[W]e have the people who don’t do the work — they pretend. While they’ve learned to put on a good show, they lack understanding. They can’t answer questions that don’t rely on memorization. They can’t explain things without using jargon or vague terms. They have no idea how things interact. They can’t predict consequences. — The two types of knowledge

When I read this, I think of bloggers who jump on the Reggio or project-based learning bandwagon and produce posts sprinkled with jargon that rephrase what others have said but add nothing new and reveal (unfortunately only to the truly knowledgeable) a weak or nonexistent grasp of what they’re writing about.

They declare themselves experts but they can’t answer meaty questions because they have no actual experience to draw on.

As they say in Texas, they’re all hat, no cattle.

Worse, they *think* they understand so they loudly broadcast completely wrong information. The real deal slowly sinks into a sea of incompetent blather.

These bloggers, loaded with chauffeur knowledge, miseducate their readers and followers. They use the right words but attach them to wrong examples. Both Reggio and PBL at this point have been so diluted and rebranded that 95% of what you read online is simply old methods repackaged in new jargon.

How do they get away with this?

Well, think about it: School rewards chauffeur knowledge.

We don’t give kids A’s for deep knowledge and real understanding; we give them A’s for parroting back information.

Read that quote again — isn’t it a depressingly accurate description of students? They learn to put on a good show with exams and papers but how often do they acquire actual understanding of a topic and the ability to use it independently and transfer it to new areas?

I’m reminded of Howard Gardner and his straight-A physics students who actually learned nothing about physics:

Most students in the United States and, so far as we can tell, in other industrialized countries do not understand the materials they have been presented in school.

That is, when confronted with an unfamiliar situation, they are generally unable to mobilize the appropriate concepts from school, even if they have been good students.

The “smoking gun” is particularly visible in physics: Students who received high grades in physics at redoubtable institutions like MIT and Johns Hopkins frequently are unable to apply their classroom knowledge to games or demonstrations encountered outside of school.

(In fact, they often answer physics-related questions in the same way as do…five-year-olds.) — Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons

What is “education” if it doesn’t include understanding?

[T]his problem is by no means restricted to the hard sciences. Indeed, whether one looks at student learning in statistics, mathematics, psychology, literature, history, or the arts, one encounters essentially the same situation.

In class, students often appear as if they understand — they are able to give their instructors the factual and rule-governed information they have committed to memory.

But once they are expected to figure out on their own *which* of the school-learned concepts, facts, or skills are applicable to a new situation, they show themselves incapable of understanding — again mired at the level of the proverbial five-year-old. — Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons

While our better schools certainly succeed in teaching students the basics of reading, writing, and reckoning, they fail a more stringent and perhaps more fundamental test.

Even our better students, by and large, can be said not to understand the world of the sciences, mathematics, humanities, and arts.

It is perhaps not too much to say that ten or even twenty years of education fail to achieve the goal that is most reasonable to expect of “the system.” — Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons

Our schools aren’t organized to promote or enable real understanding or deep knowledge.

That’s not something you can easily test for — and we test what we can measure … and we teach what we test. These days, if you can’t measure it, you don’t teach it.

We don’t expect anything other than chauffeur knowledge from students. There’s no time to develop deep knowledge; deep knowledge would, by necessity, take the place of broad coverage in the curriculum. You can’t learn a lot about one thing if you have to learn a little bit about a lot of things.

[C]overage is very comforting. One of the reasons why E.D. Hirsch is so popular is that you can say your students knew 300 things last year, and now they know 600. Now they know 300 things more. … Jeopardy and The $64,000 Question form the American consciousness about what it is to know things. … The kids in East Asia and Western Europe who do better in science and math are the ones who attend schools where they actually do more “uncovering” and less covering. They go more deeply into topics and they build up more habits of thinking; they don’t worry about spending ten seconds on many different things. — Howard Gardner, Teaching for Intelligence

The evidence that students do not even understand what we’re teaching them is legion now. It’s malpractice to expose kids to things for a week or two and go on to something else. We know that doesn’t work. — Howard Gardner, Teaching for Intelligence

When my older son was about 12, one of his friends asked me what grades he was receiving as a homeschooler. I said, “He gets all A’s, because he sticks with things until he understands them.” His friend: “UNFAIR!!!”

I wish he was talking about the unfairness of not getting enough time to really understand things, I think it’s obvious he was actually talking about the unfairness of getting all A’s.

Kids know that’s what school is really about — not understanding what you “learn,” but playing the game well enough to win rewards.

Mostly what I see in my visits to middle and upper grades classrooms are examples of what of Michael Sedlack et al. (1986) long-ago characterized as “the bargain” — “you give me order and attendance, I’ll give you passing grades and [minimal] homework.” — What Would Happen If We Let Them Go?

It’s what I call the “correct answer compromise”: students read a text, they take a test, and everybody agrees that if they say a certain thing it’ll be counted as understanding. — On Teaching for Understanding

Students are rational beings. They know that school is about grades, not learning. … If schools were for learning rather than showing off, we would design them entirely differently. — Schools Are Good for Showing Off, Not for Learning

Just as there are no C’s or D’s in self-directed learning, there’s no chauffeur knowledge — not if you’re acquiring knowledge or skills because you really want to or because you need them to do something else. By definition, self-directed goals require Planck knowledge.

Self-chosen goals require self-motivation. No one else cares if you know everything about this thing you love or if you actually finish your robot, your podcast, your sweater, or your script. They aren’t going to motivate you, they aren’t going to remind you, and they aren’t going to reward you.

Whenever people are directing and managing their own learning, they’re striving for Planck knowledge. No one strives toward chauffeur knowledge. There’s no one to impress with it. There’s no one waiting to assign you a grade or reward you in some other way. Chauffeur knowledge simply doesn’t accomplish anything in self-directed learning.

Even if a self-directed learner was focused on acquiring chauffeur knowledge — let’s say to impress a crush with a quickly faked-up knowledge of punk music or politics — the self-directed learner would acquire deep knowledge *about* chauffeur knowledge … what works, what doesn’t, how to get it done with the least amount of effort, and so on. He would know what he was doing and why. He wouldn’t confuse it with his self-chosen meaningful work.

Does the typical school student even understand that he is acquiring chauffeur knowledge? Does he know it’s different from real, useful knowledge? If he does (and he might — one of the reasons students give for rampant cheating is that they recognize tests don’t matter), how he is going to explore deep knowledge? When does he get to compare his usual experience with true understanding and knowledge/skills that transfer?

We’d better prioritize that, because the school isn’t.

Howard Gardner pointed out that in order to actually understand what they learn, kids have to USE it:

On closer examination, it is clear that understandings can be apprehended and appreciated only if they are *performed* by a student. — Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons

What do we have to do in school to get an A?

Whatever it is, we don’t have to actually understand the material.

I got A’s in calculus and trig in high school, then a few weeks after graduation I bombed my math placement test at university. My chauffeur knowledge didn’t transfer. It expired faster than a month of free HBO.

I got A’s for being able to memorize correct answers just long enough to regurgitate them on tests; no one cared if I actually understood what I was “learning” or could actually use that “knowledge.”

Self-directed learning isn’t done to get an A. It’s done in order to accomplish a self-set goal. You’re either learning precisely in *order* to understand something, or you’re learning in order to *do* something — in which case you will immediately be putting your learning to work.

Either way, you’ve moved beyond chauffeur knowledge to real knowledge.

If we want kids to have deep knowledge — and to learn how to acquire it — we have to help them learn about something they care about in an environment where they aren’t being directed. It’s not going to happen at school, so you’d better help it happen at home.

We’ve been content to see whether kids can sit on their duffs and do what they don’t particularly want to do; that’s been the operational definition of “making it,” and that just isn’t going to be enough anymore. — Howard Gardner, Teaching for Intelligence

When I say “You’re either learning precisely in *order* to understand something, or you’re learning in order to *do* something” I’m referring to the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of self-directed learning. (Search for “tertiary” to find that section quickly.)


I had a little Halloween-candy-fueled rant about kids/teens and reading on Twitter — here’s the storified version for you if you’re interested.

In the ensuing discussion I was asked for evidence to back up my claims that everything kids love (TV shows, films, video games, comic books, what have you) can lead to reading.

I responded that no one is going to do that work for us so if we care enough to help our kids TODAY we’d better be willing to be our own data-gatherers and researchers.

This new piece from Eric about Alison Gopnik’s new parenting book The Gardener and the Carpenter addresses this “show me the studies” problem:

“[E]leven-month-old babies, like scientists, pay special attention when their predictions are violated, learn especially well as a result, and even do experiments to figure out just what happened.” — The Gardener and the Carpenter

You, on the other hand, are probably a bad scientist. We adults are far more likely to engage in ‘confirmation bias’ — looking for things that support our beliefs, as opposed to ideas that challenge them. And that’s one of the reasons why kids learn so much faster than we do.”Eric

Imagine if we reacted to the dismal kid/teen reading situation by acting as interested researchers — paying attention, doing experiments, doubling down on what works and eliminating what doesn’t. Learning! And then applying that learning and benefiting from it!

We did just that at my tiny independent school and we saw swift improvement. We didn’t wait for someone to tell us what to do and how to do it. We took responsibility.

What happens when parents feel they have to wait for someone to produce a study with evidence proving something works before they’ll invest the effort? Kids grow up too fast; nobody has time for that.

The one thing we know is that what we’re doing now is failing a lot of kids. If your kid is one of them, why wait?

Related: A whole other rant about wishing someone else would do that work for you — No one’s going to DIY that for you, sweetheart.

Also related: Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about “some people’s strange need to have SCIENCE! back up everything they do”:

“Wisdom results from a mixture of common sense, experience, and research. Nobody lives their lives solely in accordance with the findings of science. Nor should they.”

I mean, I hate to beat a dead horse, but this newsletter is about self-directed learning. If we aren’t willing to act as our own researchers, scientists, and family-based anthropologists, what’s the point?

ALSO related (sorry): I’m reminded of Shawn Achor writing in his book The Happiness Advantage about how they didn’t throw out the outliers like most studies do — instead, they *focused* on them.

They weren’t interested in investing in average; they wanted to move beyond that to the exceptional.

Is the average child described in studies YOUR kid? Maybe your kid is an exceptional outlier. Whether he’s an outlier in the positive OR negative direction, do studies tell you what he needs to thrive?

If your kid is doing fine in an area, you have no reason to invest time in become a scientist and a researcher; if your kid is NOT doing well, you have no excuse not to. And if you aren’t sure, then it might be worth a little investigation.

You are the only one who’s interested enough in your specific child (and, for that matter, in YOU and in your specific goals) to launch a study to get the data and recommendations you really need. So do it! That’s what self-directed learning is all about — not treating your child and yourself as generic “one-size-fits-all” learners but exploring your individuality and what YOU need to live and learn and work well.

Watch Shawn’s very fun TED talk here.


Think about this when you’re planning how often to meet with your child to talk about their work (and, hopefully, your own):

“If you only offer feedback and criticism sparsely, then it can feel like a big, undesired event.” — Stop serving the compliment sandwich


Susan O’Hanion:

“If children are deprived of significant choice in their daily activities in school, if all their choices are made for them, then the most important thing that education is concerned with is simply being bypassed."

“[David] Hawkins rightly insisted that there’s an essential lack of predictability about what’s going to happen in a good classroom, not because there is no control but precisely because there is control of the right kind. In a good classroom the teacher bases her decisions on what she sees children doing. She pays close attention to the accidental things that happen along the way, the things nobody can anticipate.”

“In Hawkins’ words, ‘Everybody knows that the best times in teaching have always been the consequences of some little accident that happened to direct attention in some new way, to revitalize an old interest which has died out or to create a brand new interest that you hadn’t had any notion about how to introduce. Suddenly, there it is. The bird flies in the window and that’s the miracle you needed. Somebody once said about great discoveries in science, “Accidents happen to those that deserve them.”’ 

Read that paragraph again and weep: Weep for pedagogy, for teachers, and for children. Today, the predictability of classrooms is devised by publishing/testing conglomerate committees and shipped out across the country. Today, Arne Duncan wants national standards so that all classroom will be alike, and there will be no ‘accidents.’”The Gorilla in the Room

And we’re back to being our own researchers.

Are we paying attention to what we actually see our children doing? Do we trust our own eyes and ears? Do we value our own opinion? Can we base our decisions on what we actually experience, or are we still looking for someone to produce a study with evidence showing it’s true of all children?

“To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves … and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” — John Holt, How Children Learn

If all you strive for is diminishing the bad, you’ll only attain the average and you’ll miss out entirely on the opportunity to exceed the average. — Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

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