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Angels on a Pin By Alexander Calandra

Alexander Calandra, born 1911, is professor emeritus of physical sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. In "Angels on a Pin," Calandra uses a dialogue between a student and teacher--over an exam question--to illustrate the constraints of traditional thinking. Summary A colleague of Calandra asked the barometer question to a student, expecting the correct answer: "the height of the building can be estimated in proportion to the difference between the barometer readings at the bottom and at the top of the building". The student provided a different, and also correct answer: "Take the barometer to the top of the building. Attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building." The examinator and Calandra, who was called to advise on the case, faced a moral dilemma. According to the format of the exam, a correct answer deserved a full credit. But issuing a full credit would have violated academic standards by rewarding a student who had not demonstrated competence in the academic field that had been tested (physics). None of two available options (pass or fail) was morally acceptable. Calandra asked the student the same question, and received a wealth of different answers including dropping the barometer fro m the top of the building, timing its fall with a stopwatch, trading the barometer to the building's superintendent in return for the information wanted, creating two small pendulums and measure the variation of g from the ground to the top of the building, creating a pendulum as high as the building and measuring its period, comparing the building's and the barometer's shadows. The student ultimately admitted that he knew the expected "correct" answer but was fed up with the professors "teaching him how to think ... rather than teaching him the structure of the subject".

The barometer question is an example of an incorrectly designed examination question that caused a moral dilemma for the examinator. The examinator was confident that there was one, and only one, correct answer. Contrary to the examinator's expectations, the student responded with a series of completely different answers. These answers were also correct, yet none of them proved the student's competence in the specific academic field being tested. Tests in school and college are usually designed so that each question has only one correct answer, especially in disciplines such as the natural sciences. Yet many important discoveries have been made by individuals who have reached beyond the obvious and "known" answer - take Galileo, Columbus, and Einstein, for example. The expression What is the author's point, one wonders? Is it an argument against a particular kind of pedantry in teaching? Is it a demonstration that exam questions can be subject to multiple interpretations? Is it an example of how a clever student can find ingenious ways to answer a question? Just what is the difference between exploring `the deep inner logic of the subject' and teaching `the structure of the subject'. Callandra doesn't make that difference clear, yet his student seems not to like the first, but would rather have the second. The title serves as a clue. Medieval scholastics were fond of debating such meaningless questions as "How many angels can dance on the point of a pin. It can be said a few different ways, like, Angels on pinheads, angels sitting on the head of a pin, a ngels on the point of the needle etc. In the book "Angels" by Billy Graham, American evangelist, says that, "Speculation about the nature of angels has been around since long before Queen Victoria's time, and it continues down to the present time." In his book he makes reference to "the old debate about how many angels can dance on the head of pin" but doesn't explain its origin. This question is associated with medieval theology of the Scholastic school, the best-known representative being Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century. Nowadays the question often appears when someone is ridiculing theologians, but I believe the drift of the original discussion about angels and pinheads concerned infinity and different kinds of being. Something like this: Angels aren't spatial and real, and so an infinite number of them could occupy a point, or t aking another example in parallel, how many peoples thoughts can be on that pin?

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To my mind the essay illustrates that there are a lot of different answers to the same question. The authors also wanted us to show that it happens that people decide to go against the system, that someone tries to change the rules established long time ago. The examination question was suppossed to test students knowledge of physics, like for example formulas and logical thinking. Probably there is teachers fault that the student gave a planty of answers and not the expected one, cause when referee asked him to think again he reconstructed the question adding that it must show some knowledge of physics. As for me, I agree with both of these people. I think that the teacher is right, that the teacher knows more than the student does. That he actually couldnt give him full credit for such an answer, but zero it is too low for a correct answer. Speaking about the student, I totally sympathyze with him. I know what is like when your opinion differs from the opinion of the teacher and you cannot say it because you will be imidiatelly critisized. It happens that teachers want us to learn exactly what they are teaching us, sometimes even making us learn the way they talk and use the words they are using. In the end I wanted to say that the purpose of all examinations is to check ones knowledge in a specific domain, field. There are bad and good examinations, good once are those that contain easy, middle and hard questions to answers in such a way giving the student the opportunity to achieve some of these three levels. Bad examinations are those that are composed by bad teachers, with lots of hard and intricate questions, and when all these is done with a purpose to fail the poor student.

The list of unknown words: Referee , Submit Impartial arbiter . Attach Certify , , Dash off , , Barometer Concede [ ] , String Pendulum Superintendent The deep inner logic Pedantic way Revive , ( ) Scholasticism . ( , - - ) Academic lark- \ Sputnik-panicked classroom Columbus Einstein Pedantry of teaching , Ridiculing theologians ; The drift if the original discussion