What is thought-provoking is then not anything that we determine. According to our assertion, what of itself gives us most to think about, what is most thought-provoking is this — that we are still not thinking.    — Heidegger

Thoughtlessness is thought-provoking. It presents thought with a problem: when smart people do thoughtless things it raises eyebrows: huh? How can thinking people be thoughtless? Common sense says we are always thinking.  Yet, the word “thoughtless” seems ideal for describing certain actions or comments that seem to be a failure to engage the mind.

Arguably one of the more famous examples of student thoughtlessness in education occurred with test-taking students in response to a NAEP arithmetic question a few years back:

An army bus holds 36 soldiers. If 1128 soldiers are being bused to their training site,, how many buses are needed?

Somewhat shockingly, although 70% of 8th graders did the correct computation (i.e. dividing 1128 by 36), only 23% gave the correct answer. How could that be? Through what can only be described as a failure to think. 29% said the number of buses needed was “31 remainder 12” and the remaining 18% rounded down instead of up. Students simply failed to think about the meaning of their computed answer – a remainder 12 bus?

Ever since, NAEP and many state tests use similar items to see if students are thinking about their answers. Here from the more recent 2007 NAEP is a simpler version of the above question, for 4th graders:

Five classes are going on a bus trip and each class has 21 students. If each bus holds only 40 students, how many buses are needed for the trip?

Only 40% got the answer right.

Nor should we think the problem is only in mathematics. Here is a question from MCAS 10th grade English test from Massachusetts. Students read a 17-paragraph non-fiction article, excerpted below:

1st paragraph:

A fellow fourth grader broke the news to me after she saw my effort on a class assignment involving scissors and construction paper. “You cut out a purple bluebird,” she said. There was no reproach in her voice, just a certain puzzlement. Her observation opened my eyes— not that my eyes particularly help—to the fact that I am colorblind. In the 36 years since, I’ve been trying to understand what that means. I’m still not sure I do….

17th (and final) paragraph:

 Unlike left-handers, however, we seem disinclined to rally round our deviation from the norm. Thus there’s no ready source of information about how many presidents, or military heroes, or rock singers have been colorblind. Based on the law of averages, though, there must have been some. We are everywhere, trying to cope, trying to blend in. Usually we succeed. Until someone spots our purple bluebirds. Then the jig is up.

6 questions were asked of students. Almost all students got the first few questions – about surface details of the article – correct (so we know they read it). However, the last question related to this passage was apparently the hardest question on all subject-area tests given that year. Here is the question:

This selection is best described as -

A. a biography.

B. a scientific article.

C. an essay.

D. an investigative report.

Only 33% answered this question correctly. What gives? Fortunately, Massachusetts used to release all its tests once given, so the newspapers would routinely interview teachers and students about the hardest questions – thus, we know the answer to the puzzle. When interviewed by reporters about this question, many students said it couldn’t possibly be an essay since “an essay has 5 paragraphs.”

It is of course fashionable to bash standardized tests as the cause of such responses but methinks this is, itself, a thoughtless response. Because if we were more attentive, we would see and hear student thoughtlessness around every corner (as well as in answers to teacher-designed tests.)

Here are some examples from my own observation and from discussion with teachers on examples they have heard:

1. A 9th grader is given a performance task in a general science course to measure within a certain margin of error the size of the school’s main quadrangle, using only rulers and trigonometry. After a two-hour exercise he announces his answer: 184,000 sq. feet – the size of the entire school and all its playing fields.

2. In a discussion of the different roles of the President and the Executive branch, a middle school teacher solicits an enumeration of the “seven different hats” worn by the President in his various roles, as listed in the previous night’s reading. Amidst frantic waving of hands, the teacher calls on a girl who answers “Chief of State.” The teacher nods approval, then asks her: “What is   a ‘chief of state’?”  The girl shrugs her shoulders and says “I dunno.”

3. A 5th-grade straight-A student asks her teacher and classmates why – when she and her family flew cross-country last summer vacation – she didn’t see any lines of latitude or longitude below. Another student then wondered if there were physical borders marking the difference between the various regions of the country.

3. In a HS US History class, when a particular student answers a question, other students typically ignore him or more generally speak as if they have not heard what any previous speakers have said.

4.  In a middle school language arts class, students consistently turn in papers with syntactical, punctuation, and logical errors – yet with a high self-assessment grade by the writers. (A self-assessment is required for each paper: students must give themselves a grade and write the comment they think the teacher will write.)

5. On the soccer field, after repeated demonstrations and drills on positioning and playing for defense when outnumbered by opposing players, defenders continue to rush after the person with the ball (thus making it even easier to advance the ball to the other players on their team since the defense is so outnumbered.)

6. In a physics lab, a successful student does a velocity/time experiment, plots the points on graph paper and comes up with crooked segments instead of the straight line that the text suggests would be expected. When asked to explain the graph, the student suggests that when the “experts” do the graphing, the points “no doubt” all come out co-linear since “they have better equipment.”

7.  When the period ends (or a minute or two before it ends), students begin to gather up books, rustle papers and bolt up as soon as the bell rings – whether someone is speaking or not.

8. A math teacher, trying to further a discussion of the nature of theorems, asks students the difference between postulates and theorems. Answers include: the postulates are true, the postulates are self-evident, the theorems require proof. When one student replies that postulates need proving, no one questions this remark.

9. In a famous series of experiments done by Johns Hopkins researchers 30 years ago, graduates of college physics courses predict simple motions to a given problem that disobey the most basic laws. The college students make the same mistakes as Piaget’s child subjects. (This research was the basis for all modern tests of science misconceptions). Eric Mazur, Harvard Physics Professor, learns about the research but thinks it could not possibly apply to his bright and able students. Wrong. And thus begins his peer instruction process and the invention of the ‘clickers’ to bring such conceptions to the surface more readily.

Thoughtlessness bespeaks a larger problem than mere lack of knowledge or a simple deficit of attentiveness. Eric Mazur’s work and that of others in trying to more effectively listen and look for student thoughtlessness via formative assessment, is clearly a key way forward. I think we need to all think more deeply about thoughtlessness and its causes – especially since we may be unwittingly furthering thoughtlessness by our methods of instruction.

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