In Praise of Precision

Cambridge seminars expect rigour and logic from their speakers: a braced subtlety of exposition and explanation, tested proofs of cause and consequence. But water doesn’t do rigour in that sense, and neither did Roger, though his writing was often magnificently precise in its poetry (precision being, to my mind, preferable to rigour – the former being exhilaratingly exact and the latter grimly exacting).

Robert Macfarlane – Landmarks


There is challenge in knowing something exactly. Approximations in our understanding are easy. We can become acquainted with an idea, develop a cursory familiarity, with little effort. We hear of something and quickly get the gist of it, taking it for granted almost immediately, the novelty of its newness fading as soon as it is lodged in our mind. But to know something with precision, intimately, profoundly, takes tremendous toil. To do so we must spend time in one place in our learning, exploring the knowledge in this vicinity. We have to work out what is here and, more importantly, what isn’t. We dig through the soil, sometimes getting down on our knees to examine the detail and then stepping back to see how this fits in to the big picture. The more we know something with precision, the more accurately it can be placed in to our wider comprehension of the world. We sew the strands around the edge of the concept to the tendrils reaching out from our existing web of knowledge. Connections are secured and what we have learnt becomes an integral part of everything we have learnt.

And yet, we have for too long equated challenge in learning with moving on. We use the language of ‘extension work’ and encourage students who have finished to ‘move on to the next task’. But the next task often takes the student on to the next topic rather than encouraging them to deepen what they know about the current focal point.

Among the teacher-qualities we value are ‘pace’, ‘curriculum coverage’ and ‘stretch’. We rarely, if ever, talk of slowing learning down, digging deeper, dissecting, testing the boundaries, exploring a concept, pausing, redefining, refocusing. This is the language of precision in learning; aspiring to know the curriculum exactly, not superficially.

There is challenge in learning lots but the challenge of knowing something precisely can be exhilarating.


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