Precision vs pedantry

Over the last few years, making all these demo films, I’ve found myself thrust back into the world of school education. It’s a bit of a shock. I’m young enough to have taken GCSEs myself, but old enough to have been in the first year to sit them. Much has changed.

One thing I find slightly baffling is the obsession with extremely precise terminology. There’s a natural inclination to precision in the sciences, but some of what I’ve seen veers towards the obsessive. It’s not precise, it’s pedantic. And it’s nerve-wracking. I can’t write a sentence of script without the fear of somehow mis-stepping, of treading on some unseen toes and bringing down some unrelenting diatribe about how you can’t use that specific word there, only this one.

Now, I’m old enough and weary enough to battle through such pressures. There are also times when I can dimly recall enough of the physics I once did to be reasonably certain that not all of the advice I receive is… umm… correct.

But if I find myself staring at an explanation with that stomach-knotting dread of you’re doing it wrong, how is a twelve year-old supposed to cope? Respect due, we’re raising them tough these days.

My assumption is that pedantry has crept in because it’s quicker and easier to assess whether the student can recite rote-learned material accurately than it is to judge their understanding against the examiner’s (also-flawed/incomplete?) knowledge.

But that really is an assumption. So, some questions:

  1. Am I right that school science is increasingly pedantic?
  2. Does being able to parrot a very particular definition demonstrate understanding?
  3. …or am I falling into the category of “people who don’t know much about education, but inexplicably think their opinion has some value anyway”?

4 thoughts on “Precision vs pedantry”

  1. I think there is a nugget of truth in your comment. My son is taking GCSE exams and they seem to have become exercises in accurately reproducing “what you are supposed to know” while not mentioning things you actually know.

    My son is taking GCSEs this year and he has to ‘learn’ that the properties of glass arise from its ‘regular crystalline structure’. When he asks me about this I say no, glass does not have a regular crystalline structure. So he has to learn how to lie on his exam paper in order to do well .

    Another example is the word molecule, which I learned as being the smallest unit of chemical combination. So a molecule of argon is a single argon atom. I am told repeatedly that a molecule must have two or more atoms to be a molecule. So that argon has no molecules?

    While I am a fan of precision in language, I hate pedantry, and a kind of pedantry is in place in exams because the basic science in gcse sciences is trivially simple, this obsession is the only way to stop people getting high marks.

    At least that’s what I think I think.

    1. I often find myself biting my tongue when I want to be right and also want to refrain from being pedantic.

      There are moments where precision matters and professionals have to reject ‘common usage’ in favor of a controlled vocabulary especially in engineering and science, where the common usage could introduce error or danger.

      With respect to molecules and atoms, I think Argon is a poor example because it’s a noble gas. These atoms, save some recent astronomical observations, don’t form bonds with other compounds on Earth and therefore don’t fit the definition.

      Oxygen however is an atom that can and does form bonds with itself.
      The atom (O).
      The molecules of O2 (What we breate) and O3 (OZone).
      Single atoms of (O) are atoms, not molecules at the same time.
      Confusing these in a chemical formula would result in significantly different results.

  2. Where was he told “the properties of glass arise from its ‘regular crystalline structure’.” was this by a teacher, in a textbook or sylabus?

    That is appauling, as it is not only wrong but unintuitive – why should a regular pattern of atoms, have any major physical differences to a random collection – except possibly in the subtleties of how they melt and isotropy.

    Breaking good intuition is almost as bad as reinforcing intuition when it is wrong – I have a copy of a GCSE text book at home which both says and has a diagram showing that electrons are attracted to the north pole of a magnet.

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