Why are cognitive dissonances useful for teaching?

Psychologists define cognitive dissonance as the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. It has been found that an individual who experiences a cognitive dissonance tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this inconsistency [Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press].

That is why psychologists have incorporated cognitive dissonance into models of basic processes of learning, notably constructivist models [Ausubel, David P.,Novak, J.D.,Hanesian, H. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2ª ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.] [Ausubel, David.P. (2000). The Acquisition and Retention of Knowledge. Dortrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.].

In these models teachers gather information about students’ existing ideas and use this information to design activities that foster dissonances in their minds by increasing their awareness of conflicts between students’ prior beliefs and new information (e.g., by requiring students to defend prior beliefs and confronting them with unexpected experimental results or different ideas). Then, teacher guides students to find by themselves correct explanations that resolve the conflict.

Notice that with this methodology no external reward is needed. Cognitive dissonances are enough to increase students' enthusiasm for educational activities. Some researchers have concluded that students who are forced to attribute their work to this intrinsic motivation came to find the task genuinely enjoyable [Aronson, E. (1995). The Social Animal. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.].

Once students have found by themselves the correct explanation that resolve the cognitive dissonance, a conceptual change has happened. Now, students do not see the world with the same eyes as before, and this change will remain forever, so they keep easily what they have learned even several years before. In fact, it has been shown that teaching methodologies based on cognitive dissonances significantly increase learning in science and reading [Guzzetti, B.J.; Snyder, T.E.; Glass, G.V.; Gamas, W.S. (1993). "Promoting conceptual change in science: A comparative meta-analysis of instructional interventions from reading education and science education". Reading Research Quarterly 28: 116–159.].

Therefore, we can say that we have found a magic wand that will make the students learn science! Nevertheless, things are not so easy. The really difficult part of this process is to find the suitable cognitive dissonances that make the students learn every specific chunk of scientific knowledge. And this is a too technical task to be left to psychologists! Scientists should do it. That is why I have created this web site, to make a database of questions/interventions that could help teachers to foster dissonances in student minds. Of course, since we are looking for cognitive conflicts with students beliefs, the way we can foster these conflicts depends strongly on the students. So,
  • If you are a teacher, you have to select the most suitable question/intervention in each case. You can also collaborate with this project by sharing the questions/interventions that you use to foster dissonances in your students.
  • If you are a student, enjoy trying to resolve the conflicts. You can post your trials in the comment box below each puzzling question. Some weeks after each publication we will include the explanations that eliminate the inconsistency.  
I hope you found this web site useful!

Sergio Montañez
Founder of Cognitive Dissonances

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