The Cognitive Dissonance Model

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Cognitive Dissonance Model


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Why do some people go as far as defending their actions when they are confronted with their shortcomings?

How do you know if you work in a toxic school? I suspect dear reader, that you are not one of those school leaders who lead such an institution. After all, why would you read my blog? But, you may be a teacher working in a school in which teacher voice has been stifled. This blog explains how to recognise cognitive dissonance in those schools and how to recognise those *leaders.

Why do you intimidate other teachers?

I have been slowly working my way through some of the strategic ideas from The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler. You can read others in the series.

Why do some school leaders bully and intimidate teachers? Especially when they know it’s unhealthy and immoral, meaning, their decision-making is not in keeping with the values of education.

There is a big gap between what we think and what we do: when we do something despite knowing it to be a moral, wrong or stupid, we have a bad conscience.

I have written about cognitive dissonance before, and alongside Dr Helen Woodley, published her PhD research exposing a very unpopular topic within the teaching sector, Toxic Schools – or at least the leadership culture within a school and how it can be driven by high-stakes accountability.

I believe the mood of the school is determined by those who lead it. After all, teachers leave a school because of how it is led, not because of the school itself.

Are schools muffling teacher-voice?

We only to look at a recent article published by Schools Week, which exposed in a Freedom of Information request, an astonishing number of gagging orders (NDA:  Non-Disclosure Agreements) to keep departing teachers and support staff ‘mute’.

The psychologist Leon Festinger first used the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe our state of mind when our actions are not consistent with our beliefs. For example, when you make a decision that proves to be wrong, but we don’t want to admit it.

Does your line manager recognise their mistakes?

Some school leaders will find it difficult to recognise their mistakes. I’ve blogged about the mistakes I’ve made as a school leader… I may be wrong about my ‘dirty washing’, but at least I’ve had a go at describing where I think I’ve gone wrong, and more importantly, I have reflected and remain open to critique from those I have worked with.

Bullies, sorry, I mean school leaders who are narrowminded and do not seek feedback. They do not share their weaknesses with anyone, believing that they are right and plough on regardless of their decisions, no matter what impact it has on another individual.

Does your line manager seek feedback?

Why do these types of school leaders find it so difficult to recognise their mistakes? Is this due to the nature of high-stakes accountability or that relentless drive to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ badge and a CEO salary? Are they deluded or is this a deliberate act? And why do some school leaders go as far as defending their actions, enforcing a gagging order onto another teacher? Is there something to hide?

Rather than being humble, one of the more unlikable human attributes is self-justification.

This is a protective mechanism that enables the school leader to sleep at night and frees them from self-doubt. They only see what they want to see, and ignore everything that contradicts their view. They look for arguments that reinforce their position.

Try the graphic below to gauge your awareness of cognitive dissonance in yourself or others.

The Cognitive Dissonance Model

How can you manage cognitive dissonance?

So, how can school leaders overcome this dissonance? What drives schools to issue nondisclosure agreements, and why do they happen? Is capability about being capable, or simlpy disagreement?

I have been partial to voluntary redundancy agreements. Circumstances found my way which meant I was given ‘garden leave’ earlier than planned, but I suspect if I had stayed on, I would have been given a non-disclosure agreement long after the toxicity had started to emerge…  As a school leader, I have also been partial to capability procedures and nondisclosure agreements, following school protocol but ensuring that the process is kept as humane as possible. On reflection, I’m not sure if that is possible…

I rarely met a teacher who is incapable of teaching, but I have met many teachers who are incapable of following very disciplined school policies that seek compliance and evidence tracking in order to protect themselves from external accountability.

It’s very simple: Ask yourself, is the teacher capable or unwilling? If it is the former, that the teacher is not capable, then capability procedures must start after all support has been exhuasted. If it’s the latter, then it’s a disciplinary issue and action must be taken to ensure professional standards are sustained.

Footnote: *When I talk about ‘school leaders’, I don’t define this as the head teacher or senior leadership team, my definition is anyone with a teaching and learning responsibility who is responsible for others. If you direct someone else, you are a leader within a school.


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