Precise vs Imprecise – Why study this in school?

Precise vs Imprecise. I was privileged recently to be invited to deliver some tutorials in Secondary School Physics.

Bracing for the inevitable statement of “I’ll never use this in real life.” I wanted to have something prepared.

In this article, I try to explain to my teenage self why I would study precise and imprecise subjects.


Some people really hate math. I personally really like math and the idea that there is a precise answer.

Consequently I wanted to describe why precise and imprecise are important and if there is a way to “bridge the divide” and contextualise the reason for studying both.

Why should my teenage self study imprecise subjects especially when they frustrated me so much.

I wanted for myself to describe where this might come from and see if there was a way to “bridge the divide” as both precise and imprecise are equally required in life.


Below are the broad generalisations I prepared for the imaginary conversation with myself.

Also I really wish I’d had this conversation with me BEFORE I started secondary school. I might have understood some of the general WHY I was going to school.

I don’t proffer these as absolutes for anyone but myself.  They are explanations that I believe my teenage self could have gotten my head around.


“Jack of all Trades and Master of None”

Why do we watch movies? We watch them to hear a story for entertainment.

Over time we develop preferred movie genres. A romance vs. a horror.

As we grow up our tastes will and do change.  We even sometimes watch the same movies over and over because we like the way they make us feel or bring back memories of how we used to feel.


The same applies to food. We try everything but will often end up with our favourites which we will go back to over and over again.

The challenge is what if you have a bad first experience?
People often don’t enjoy coffee on first taste. Yet repeat the experience a few times and suddenly, what is life without good coffee?

So it is possible to start by hating something and evolving to love it.
The challenge is breaching that hate barrier usually born of frustration, lack of reward and lack of understanding.


In a data set, you have all the answers.  Absolutely precise. However if you analyse that data, nothing new will appear, nothing potentially better.

You must introduce new data for comparison, even if the only outcome of that inclusion is for it to be excluded in future.


So is there a benefit to mastering anything?

Going down the rabbit hole

“Going down a rabbit hole” is an idiom.

  • To enter into a situation or begin a process or journey that is particularly strange, problematic, difficult, complex, or chaotic,
  • especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds.
  • (An allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.)”

So when you find something you really enjoy the desire to immerse yourself in that subject can become all encompassing.

Often to the occlusion of almost everything else. This specialisation affords you the in-depth experience which can be trans-formative.

  • Sports fans
  • Computer game fans
  • Wine connoisseur
  • Baker and baking fan
  • Nerd / science fiction fan
  • Cosplay
  • Concert pianist


Saxe’s Elephant

The challenge with becoming so very focused with one subject or aspect of a topic is metaphorical myopia, of becoming too precise.

Nearsightedness (myopia) is a common vision condition in which you can see objects near to you clearly, but objects farther away are blurry.

That is well explained by the the story of Saxe’s Elephant.

  • It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
  • Who went to see the Elephant, though all of them were blind,
  • That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

  • And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long,
  • Each in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
  • Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

  • So, oft in theologic wars the disputants, I ween,
  • Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
  • And prate about an Elephant, not one of them has seen!

To become a Master of a subject requires the investment of time, study and building experience.
Becoming a master in one subject is amazing to experience and a wonder for others to behold.

Furthermore there is “another level” again when you can combine skills from seemingly unrelated disciplines.  When you step back and start to see the whole elephant.


What have Science and Art got in common?

Solving the big picture
Image from CBS article

Every person in modern society speaks two languages and it is impossible to exist without doing so.

As a generalisation. Science is the precise. Art is the imprecise.

  • I want money…
    • but without the precise you can’t describe how much you want.
  • I want to invent something…
    • but without artistry, imagination, feelings and motivation and the resulting artistic enjoyment you wouldn’t do anything.

So if you treat the two as languages, they help you communicate different topics.

  • I’m hungry… imprecise
  • There are 2 apples in the bowl… precise
  • I love eating… imprecise
  • There is 80 grams of caster suger in those muffins… precise
  • This music is amazing… imprecise
  • I want to hang a shelf here… precise

We seamlessly swap between the language of the precise (science) and the language of the imprecise (art) all day every day in everything we do.
Taking account or noticing that we do, is not something most people take time to notice.

Gastronomy is an example of art and science in one subject.
“Gastronomy is one of those terms often tossed around in the culinary field, used to define everything from fine dining experiences to specific studies of the chemical manipulation of food. While popular use puts the word almost always in the hands of chefs and cooks, gastronomy actually goes beyond cooking to define the food world as a whole. From the science of human digestion to the study of cultures and the way they interact with food, gastronomy is all about the relationship between humans, food, and the world we live in.”

Music is another example. Music is written in “scores” which is precise and scientific but the interpretation of the musician can completely change the experience.


So why subjects in school

Speaking again in generalities, subjects are designed to give you a vocabulary and understanding around a particular topic.

Having a vocabulary in a particular area, allows you to experience the subject at a different level.  There are overlaps in subects as many subjects depend on the ideas from other disciplines.

Yes every subject has a different level. Like anything in life it takes, time, practice and effort to achieve understanding of these different levels.

Math and English, for a native English speaker in school are there to help you to develop the vocabulary of basic science (the precise) and the vocabulary of emotions (the imprecise).

English is not there to teach you the “language” of English if you are an English speaker but to explore the vocabulary of the imprecise.

Subjects then benefit from the knowledge of subjects before them.
This building block approach can show how mastery of a core / preceding subject can vastly help subsequent studies.

That said, in History it is possible to learn about the French Revolution of 1789 at any time.  However with some math and some geography it adds another level to it.

In the above diagram, the top subjects above the blue line all benefit from the core basis of math.  At the bottom below the red line the subjects all benefit from the core basis of English.  The subjects between the red and blue lines use equal measure math and English.


Where are all the foreign languages?

When you learn any language, human or computer, there are two parts the lexicon and the grammar.
The lexicon are the words and the grammar is how they are put together.

However both of these depend on you understanding what love and and counting to ten mean. Not the words but what they mean.
So you can learn all of the above subjects in different languages.
Hebrew Studies, Ancient Greek and non Curricular Languages, Irish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Latin, Japanese, Arabic

Study of these languages often involves some understanding of the culture from where these languages originated.

Cultures, customs and societies can often develop their own idioms and unique expressions that only have meaning for that culture.
“Camping” in first person shooter computer games is VERY different to putting up a tent in a field.


Be precise, what exactly am I going to learn in these subjects?

Every subject has vocabulary. A Syllabus is a document that maps out this vocabulary.
The syllabus says… “at the end of studying this subject you should be able to talk about X, Y and Z in greater detail.”

This X, Y and Z are individually called Learning Objectives. A sentence that describes an area of learning within a subject.

Naturally for science subjects, it is far easier to be precise.

However for imprecise / art based subjects it is far more difficult. How could someone learn love or hate from reading a book?


Experiential learning, is learning by reflection on doing.

  • Firstly “the fire is hot” means nothing to someone who’s never experienced heat before.
  • Subsequently learning that something is “hot”, means having to experience heat.
  • Consequently limiting the amount of damage whilst learning the meaning of “burn” is where teachers come in, in school and at home.

The pain of a breakup is very hard to understand if you’ve never gone through it.
However hearing a story, acting a story and trying to develop empathy is all part of the imprecise learning experience.


Why bother with school?

It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a very wide variety of experiences that are not available day to day to most people.

You have the time, space, safety and support to explore a subject that is difficult to achieve outside school.

After school, money, life, pressures, demands, all take over. School is an opportunity to experience what life has to offer in a variety of ways that might not be available to you later in life.


Frustration and examinations are part of the learning experience and definitely exist after school.
These situations take away from the fun experience of school but are useful for the rest of your life.

Starting something completely new where you’re going to make mistakes and not know what you’re doing is often a negative experience.
The fear of shame often results in us as adults not even trying something new for fear of feeling “stupid” or “silly”.
Both words are not your feelings you feel about yourself but what others make you feel.

Whilst not the most fun experiences school help us experience in a safe way things that are representative of what happens in life after school.


I’ll never use this in real life.

How do you know what you like / don’t like, until you’ve tried everything and are able to compare your experiences.

  • To create something unique, you must use artistic approaches.
  • To provide consistency, you must adopt scientific method.

So no matter your personal leaning, mastery requires input and benefits from the precise and the imprecise.

No, you may never use this in life again. Then again you may find your passion in it.

School is the only place where you’re afforded the opportunity to try. As after school life’s demands take over.

As Thomas Eddison said, “I didn’t fail 1000 times, the light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.” On step 950 I wonder how he felt?


Precise vs Imprecise for myself

I didn’t understand any of this in school, only as an adult student and simultaneously an educator do I realise the context of it.

No one did explain it in the terms above that would have made sense to me.

Unfortunately I won’t get the opportunity to experience school again “for a first time” but maybe I can help others to understand as they experience if for the first time.

Furthermore I hope I can inspire in these tutorial sessions and provide context as to why the subject is helpful, useful and worth exploring.


If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about or help me with you can contact me here or on social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.