Sunday, June 26, 2011

The inconvenience of Cognitive dissonance

Do you remember believing that the moon only came out at night? If so, do you remember the day that you saw the moon during the day?

If you can relate to this experience, you have an understanding for what cognitive dissonance feels like. In her book Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan describes cognitive dissonance as:
The mental turmoil that is evoked when the mind tries to hold two entirely incompatible views.
Believing that the moon only comes out at night and then seeing the moon during the day are incompatible - this is cognitive dissonance - and for a species that spends so much of its time making meaning of the world we live in, cognitive dissonance is, to say the least, inconvenient.

However, rather than seeing cognitive dissonance as a crisis to be avoided, the most successful people in the world embrace cognitive dissonance as a remarkable opportunity. They see it as a fork in the road where they can choose to continue down the comfortable status quo, or they can take a turn down a new, unfamiliar road.

This is exactly how trailblazing starts. There may be no other way to engage in real improvement and authentic innovation.

For educators and parents, it is time to engage in some cognitive dissonance. Traditional education has been built on a number of assumptions that we stopped questioning a long time ago. If we are prepared to make school a better place for our kids, we need to stop and reflect on some of these assumptions which means we might have to make school look a lot less like school.

I think it's safe to say that the following list of items are mainstays for traditional schooling:
  • homework
  • praise or positive reinforcement
  • grading or marking
  • final exams or exit exams
  • punishment
What if:
  • the biggest problem with the homework that didn't get done was that it was assigned in the first place?
  • praise actually discourages children?
  • children not only learn less but they choose to learn less because of the grade assigned by the teacher?
  • exit exams have actually proven to reduce graduation rates?
  • punishment and discipline are the problem, not the solution?
If any of these What Ifs make you angry or if you have a sudden desire to kill this page and move on with your day, that's ok. You've just experienced the inconvenient feeling of cognitive dissonance.

The trick isn't to avoid the feeling. To be honest, because we are human, I don't think avoiding the feeling is within the realm of possibility. The trick is to not succumb to the feeling and remain aware that you are uncomfortable while at the same time accepting the challenge that your longtime beliefs may be wrong.

Mara Sapon-Shevin writes in her book Widening the Circle:
Courage is what it takes when we leave behind something we know well and embrace (even tentatively) something unknown or frightening. Courage is what we need when we decide to do things differently... Courage is recognizing that things familiar are not necessarily right or inevitable. We mustn't mistake what is comfortable with what is good.  
After all, can you imagine how much worse off we would all be had we all chosen to turn our backs on that moon during broad daylight?

Sure we might salvage our comfort in remaining right (at least in our own minds), but this comfort comes at an alarming cost - that is, to remain comfortable, by definition we have to remain ignorant.

And there may be only one thing worse than ignorance and that is willful ignorance.


  1. Very well said! Couldn't agree with you more.

  2. Nice. I look forward to reading more. I call it creative tension. In novels it's suspense. Curiosity is built with cognitive dissonance I think. Watching students get curious and engaged is awesome. It's one of the most challenging things for a teacher to develop. Doesn't come with a lesson plan usually and it's not on many standardized tests. Learning is one of the most pleasurable, most natural things of human experiences. Maybe the goal is to always be in a state of cognitive resonance and dissonance simultaneously- the rhythm of life.

  3. Well said! This touches every area of human life. Unless we are uncomfortable we don't move on (read: grow), and moving on is what life's all about.

  4. Great post Joe,
    Cognitive dissonance produces angst, angst stirs the heart, and the heart engages the mind.

    Most of education attempts to engage students' minds; it's the heart the engages the mind, so more focus on those activities that stir the heart's of students will prove successful, including raising their efficacy beliefs and love for learning as they discover that which truly motivates them, and their very inner souls that seed their individual callings.

    Please join our open dialogue about the major transition all students face as they move from their schools to LIFE. The NEW Tweet Chat is #schools2life (2nd & 4th Thursdays 8-9pmEDT (USA) and the LinkedIn support site for longer discussions is at Both sites open 24/7 for comments.

    Thanks for stirring us up with your excellent posts. EdC

  5. I agree. I often begin with a new group of students by telling them that the primary task of a teacher is to cause brain damage. We need to present them with the novel and sometimes uncomfortable ideas and information that will challenge and stretch them to grow and think. I believe it wasOliver Wendell Holmes who said, "Ones mind, once stretched, seldom returns to its previous dimensions."

  6. Brain damage... I like that. So true. And that is a great quote.