Uniformity of practice seldom continues long without good reason.
So opined the estimable Dr Johnson in 1775. In other words, if a thing is done in a certain way, and continues to be done in that same way for a number of years by many different people, then it is a pretty safe bet that there is a good reason for doing the thing that way. And this is true even when that reason is not immediately apparent.
For the choice of this situation there must have been some general reason, which the change of manners has left in obscurity.
— Samuel Johnson, A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland (1775).
Consider the following examples of “uniformity of practice”:
They are fairly bog-standard GCSE examination questions from the last two years from three different exam boards. But compare and contrast with an O-level Physics paper from 1966:
The “uniformity of practice” that leaps out at me is that the more modern papers, as a rule, have many more illustrations than the older paper. Partly, of course, this is to do with technology. It would have been (presumably) vastly more expensive to include illustrations in the 1966 paper.
Even if we assume that the difficulty level of the questions in the modern and older papers are equivalent (and therein lies a really complex argument which I’m not going to get into), there is a vast difference in the norms of presentation. For example, the modern papers seems to eschew large blocks of dense, descriptive text; this extends to presenting the contextual information in the ultrasound question as a labelled diagram.
Now I’m not saying that this is automatically a good or a bad thing, but there does seem to be a notable “uniformity of practice” in the modern papers.
Now what could the “general reason” for this choice?
Rather than leave the “change of manners” responsible for the choice “in obscurity”, I will hazard a guess: the examiners know or suspect that many of their candidates will struggle with reading technical prose at GCSE level, and wish to provide visual cues in order for students to play “guess the context” games.
Now I’m not assigning blame or opprobrium on to the examiners here. If I was asked to design an exam paper for a wide range of abilities I might very well come up with a similar format myself.
But does it matter? Are we testing Physics or reading comprehension here?
My point would be that there can be an elegance and beauty in even the most arid scientific prose. At its best, scientific prose communicates complex ideas simply, accurately and concisely. It may seem sparse and dry at first glance, but that is only because it is designed to be efficient — irrelevancies have been ruthlessly excised. Specialised technical terms are used liberally, of course, but this is only because they serve to simplify rather than complicate the means of expression.
Sometimes, “everyday language” serves to make communication less direct by reason of vagueness, ambivalence or circumlocution. You might care to read (say) one of Ernest Rutherford’s papers to see what I mean by good scientific prose.
The O-level paper provides, I think, a “beginner’s guide” to the world of scientific, technical prose. Whereas a modern question on falling objects might tack on the sentence “You may ignore the effects of air resistance” as an afterthought or caveat, the O-level paper uses the more concise phrase “a body falling freely” which includes that very concept.
To sum up, my concern is that in seeking to make things easier, we have actually ended up making things harder, and robbing students of an opportunity to experience clear, concise scientific communication.