How To Spot Cognitive Dissonance In Schools?


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Cognitive Dissonance Not Listening

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday... Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Are the things you are doing in your school, stupid?

Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip and the author of several nonfiction works of satire, commentary, and business. Here is a video of Adams explaining ‘How To Spot Cognitive Dissonance’ that I have watched and adapted for the world of education.

This post explains how teachers can spot cognitive dissonance –  the mental discomfort experienced by a person – and when it is happening to you and to other people. This is what happens to humans – everybody – when we believe something to be true or not, and when we then re-write the theory and facts in order to re-engineer a story.

This process involves relatively rational thinking and then moves towards scrambled thoughts, which can last a short or a very long time. The difficulty is to spot what’s happening in your story or someone else’s. In Adams’ video, he describes how easy it is to spot cognitive dissonance – and not all of the time – and how and what clues to look for if you may be experiencing an illusion. Here are the various examples and how you may spot them in education.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Let’s assume a ‘good point’ has been made and for the sake of argument, Ross says, “We should abandon OfSTED and reboot the system!” As Adams suggests, “it’s such an unambiguously good idea, it’s hard to imagine who would complain.” Other people would react like this and collapse the point to one variable. “He’s just crazy!” Or someone will say, “Ross is just trying to seek attention!” Again, one variable.

One Variable

What we don’t often hear is this. “Hmm, Ross is a little crazy. It is a good way to get attention too, but, he has a good point and I think he’s trying to make the world better for teachers.” If you hear somebody process through all the variables, they are probably not in cognitive dissonance. If you don’t hear this and you hear someone (a teacher, school leader or an OfSTED inspector) offer the ‘one variable’, a good question to ask oneself is: “I wonder if this is just a one-variable option?” It can happen, but it’s a clue and your cognitive dissonance radar should turn on.

And again for definition, cognitive dissonance means when mental discomfort is experienced.

Absurd Absolute

If someone expands upon a good point to an ‘absurd absolute’, that’s a sure sign of cognitive dissonance. For example, Ross says “We should abolish OfSTED and start by thinking outside the box! Let’s give school leaders the free space in their schools to redesign a peer-to-peer led system.”

An absurd absolute would generate this type of response. “Yeah, now you’re gonna let head teachers leave their schools to their own devices and school standards will drop!” This is a sure sign of ‘absurd cognitive dissonance’.

Mind-Reader Hallucination

Another is the ‘mind-reader hallucination’ when somebody takes your point and thinks, “Yeah, I know your secret intentions is to XYZ…” Sometimes, they may be right … and this is also a big ‘red flag’. For example, personal relationships and misunderstandings about each others thinking and expectations.

Ignoring Predictions

Ignoring predictions is another example from Adams. This time he describes President Donald Trump. On one side of the argument people were predicting ‘Trump is a dictator and he’s going to open up concentration camps’. On the other spectrum, people were saying, “No, he’s really persuasive and he’ll make the economy hum and he’ll do a good job with North Korea.”

For several years I have been predicting that “one day OfSTED will cease to exist.” This type of predicting should give you pause about the use of ‘your filter on life.’

Word Salad

A word salad is a bigger example where too many words are used that one needs; which require a re-read. Yet, after doing so, still make no sense whatever. “I have no idea what Ross is saying.” Perhaps a reader’s cognitive dissonance may restrict someone from understanding what is being said and what it means. Perhaps another indication of what is going on…

Could this be true about OfSTED reports? There must be a reason only 19 per cent of parents read the full report. With all of its complicated education jargon, even though the report is engineered for parents, could the language actually be putting the primary audience off gathering the key facts about a school?

Unspecific Doom Forecast

Doom forecasting is prevalent in schools, particularly due to OfSTED goalposts. Here’s an example: “If this keeps on happening like this in our school, we’ll be XYZ.” A person will understand what is being said and understand the words, but did the response lead to anything specific or highlight the exact problem?

Verbal Cues

Finally, verbal cues are when a person replies with a sentence which start with: “So, you’re saying …. (is not what I am saying)” is broadcasting cognitive dissonance. Or a sentence – particularly on social media – that begin with “Bro” or “Dude” suggest that one is clearly not thinking when the ‘active’ part of a sentence is fixated on ‘bro’ rather than a ‘point you made’ will be a good indication of cognitive dissonance.

Worse? A social media reply with ‘Hahahahahahahahaha’ (plus Emoji) with no reason given is a classic example. A good response to this is to respond with “You left out the reason.” This could even be applied in real life when someone ‘laughs’ at the point you are making (with no reason). As Adams suggests, it doesn’t take a lot of time to ask someone who does so to ‘put some meat on your suggestions.’

Cognitive Dissonance in Education

Here’s an example of how cognitive dissonance might appear in classroom. An observer says to a teacher:

“Right, I don’t think this lesson was XYZ” followed with any of the above responses. It’s a simple example, but a good starting point to test your filter of response.

Here’s an example of how it might work across a school. A school leader says:

We are still going to grade our teachers because you’ve said that a) you want it and b) we also believe it’s good for consistency and standards.

Here’s an example of how it might work at OfSTED headquarters. A member of staff makes a point about ‘how inspection could target schools in most need of support.’

“OfSTED should use ‘machine learning’ to determine schools at risk of decline. We could demonstrate value for money by using prior data to determine where our school inspectors should go.”

If any of the above are a good idea which offer variables in the process, then this may suggest there is little or no cognitive dissonance taking place. It’s a good check on what’s going on in your school, our education system at large, or a ‘filter’ on your own perceptions or bias on education. Myself included!

Adams’ overarching piece of advice is to ‘look for the triggers’ in your world and use many of those listed above. If you spot it, challenge it in yourself and others.


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