Cognitive Dissonance in Classrooms and Other Learning Environments:
According to Leon Festinger, who proposed the theory, Cognitive dissonance may arise due to two or more conflicting cognitions (thoughts.) Such dissonance is often experienced in adult-learning classrooms where the learners come in with prior knowledge that may oppose the new knowledge that they encounter in the class. This could happen because 1. the inaccuracy of prior learning, and 2. the differences in context.
1. Cognitive Dissonance due to Inaccuracies in Prior Learning:
For a multitude of reasons, there might be inaccuracies in the prior knowledge that is embedded in the learner’s schema. One of the main reasons is layering of information in the schema. Something learned long-back gets muddied through new information of various kinds (new experiences, new beliefs, etc.) When the trainer provides new information, it conflicts with the existing information and creates dissonance. This dissonance can lead the learner to either switch-off (“the trainer doesn’t know…why should I listen to her,”) or renege (“why the heck should I waste my time in this class, when the trainer doesn’t know.”) In the first case, you lose one learner’s attention; in the second, the effect propagates and you lose the attention of more than one learner.
This sort of Cognitive Dissonance is nearly impossible to predict. While in an on-ground session for a small group, you can watch the learners for signs of dissonance and then handle their dissonance individually; in online learning programs, you cannot handle the issue post-dissonance (there’s no possible way in which you can learn whether the learner is experiencing some sort of dissonance) so you must attempt to pre-empt it. One of the ways to pre-empt it is to cite credible sources for the new information. The more the learner trusts your intent and content, the more he or she is likely to accept the new information as valid – thus reducing the possibility of dissonance.
2. Cognitive Dissonance due to Contextual Differences:
When the prior learning was obtained in a different context than the current one, cognitive dissonance may occur in the learner’s mind.
An example that readily leaps to my mind is from my Instructional Design Training Programs. Usually, in a group of six to eight participants, at least one participant has a background in marketing/sales. When I start the topic “Characteristics of good Objective,” this participant assumes that I’ll be talking about SMART objectives. However, when I start talking about the three important characteristics of an objective as given by Dr. Robert Mager (Criterion-referenced Instruction – CRI), I see furrowed eyebrows and feel the vibes of cognitive dissonance. Then I mention that those with marketing and sales background would be thinking of SMART, but here the context has changed, and in the context of learning a different set of characteristics gain prominence, the furrows clear.
As you can see from the example, such cognitive dissonance can be forecast well in advance (especially if you’ve been careful and studied the audience profile properly,) and because you can see ahead, you can also be prepared (please refer to example above.) The online programs too can benefit from this strategy as it’s characteristically pre-emptive.
For Trainers/Online Facilitators: Have you experienced cognitive dissonance in your classroom/online programs? How did you handle it? If you were to encounter it in one of your trainings now, how will you handle it?
For Online Content Developers and Instructional Designers: In your past content-design and development assignments, did you project cognitive dissonance and tried mitigating it?
Write your reflections and thoughts in your notebook.