How to Avoid Arrested Development: Design for Cognitive Dissonance | Brent Kaneft | 8 Min Read

April 12, 2022

In Interdependence: Biology and Beyond, Kriti Sharma defines cognitive dissonance as “the sense of discomfort that arises when one experiences something that is deeply contrary to prior expectations.” Great schools and excellent teachers design experiences that produce a “sense of discomfort,” whether that is sending a class of students to the local food bank, challenging our students’ mathematical prowess, or proposing an intellectual concept that conflicts with a student’s existing beliefs. We want to position our students in the “zone of proximal discomfort” as often as possible because discomfort is the beginning of growth, but if we have not created a culture of systemic belonging, where students feel confident to push forward despite their discomfort, then we all lose. As Floyd Cobb and John Krownapple reveal in Belonging through a Culture of Dignity, “[b]elonging is the step before achievement. Indeed, achievement is built upon belonging.” Cognitive dissonance emerges at the threshold between belonging and achievement.

Sharma expands on why cognitive dissonance is important:

By noticing that our bodies do indeed react in certain pleasant and unpleasant ways when we are faced with any given idea, we give ourselves a chance to distinguish what we like and dislike as well as the chance to go on engaging the idea. Critical thinking at its best, then, is actually […] the capacity to take into account one’s own habits of thinking and feeling in the course of engaging ideas.

In short, without cognitive dissonance, we miss an opportunity to practice critical thinking, metacognition, and mindfulness, so depriving a child of experiencing discomfort actually impedes their ability to handle themselves outside of the school walls when they encounter anything “deeply contrary.” This is what Greg Lukianoff means when he writes about empowering the American mind. Independent schools and teachers are known for preparing students well for the future, yet we must be cautious when designing for cognitive dissonance. Because students are impressionable and present as a “captive audience” we must ensure that designing for cognitive dissonance is a means to one end: building the student’s capacity and strength to treat discomfort as a signal for growth, not regression.

Unfortunately, our culture is currently stuck in a bi-directional loop with complexity on one end and ideological simplification on the other. To navigate the liminal space, push the boundaries of our ideas and abilities, to engineer cognitive dissonance, is what an education is supposed to do. There is an inherent risk there, but the reward is creativity, imagination, growth, and innovation. Indeed there is energy and potential at the margins. For teachers to lead students to that space, parents must trust them, which is why the following principles are important.

Design Principles:

Encourage “Both/And” Thinking. Dichotomous or binary thinking — either/or — is an obstacle to growth. No single variable can fully account for complex problems. This is a myth perpetuated by the intellectually lazy, the romantically naive, or the ideologically committed. Dichotomous thinking makes weapons out of knowledge, and absolute judgments are exchanged for rigorous thinking. Consider how we speak about knowledge at times: “face facts,” “confronting truth,” and “knowledge is power.” There is a connotation of aggression, a weaponization against those who don’t think as we do. “Both/And” thinking honors the complexity and messiness of human life, whether the discussion is about American History or The Great Gatsby. For example, we can recognize the progress humans have made, as Steven Pinker has attempted to do, while also recognizing that we have more work to do. 

Develop Strength, Not Power. In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse argues that the development of power is associated with finite games, games that have a finish, a clear winner and loser, but strength is connected with infinite games and translates into the capacity for people to succeed in a game that never ends. Build your students’ strength by providing tools to engage with discomfort. For example, ask students for a journal reflection on sensitive topics before proceeding to a class discussion. This activity helps everyone collect their thoughts and regulate their emotions before entering into a possibly contentious debate. We are preparing students for an infinite game; whether that’s living a successful life or supporting the progress of democracy, they need to have the strength to make headway on a problem, even if its solution is beyond their scope.

Build Curiosity and Openness. In The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel says “[w]e [should] approach our here-and-now experience with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love (COAL).” This is an acronym I find useful as a framing device when teaching my students how to engage with discomfort. What we communicate by implementing a COAL mindset is that we care more about other people and their ideas than we do about being right, which supports the culture of belonging and allows for civil discourse. We want to assist students down the “nerdy dopamine path,” where dopamine “increases motivation to explore and facilitates cognitive and behavioral processes useful in exploration.” We want our students oriented to seek multiple perspectives, as Daniel Schmachtenberger of The Consilience Project recently suggested. This can be challenging when students respond to discomfort by shutting down; by sharing racist, sexist, dishonest beliefs; or by lashing out. Yet if teachers have built a strong sense of belonging in the classroom, then this approach often defuses the “amygdala hijack” that can accompany cognitive dissonance and allows for the conversation to continue. One caveat:

It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.

Carl Sagan

Be Professional. Propose ideas, don’t impose them. You bring a lens to the curriculum that is unique. Your political, religious, sexual, and social identity and experience have an influence on how and what you teach, as is natural. In most cases, that’s what independent-school parents pay for. But imposing ideas on students does not build their strength; they have to stand on their own two feet when they leave your classroom. Deciding what aspects of your identity to share with students is as much a part of your instructional philosophy as whether you start the class with a bell ringer or not. But as with every decision a teacher makes, always reflect on whether the decision is about student growth or your own personal needs. In other words, do you need the students more than they need you?

Parents and Cognitive Dissonance

How does designing for cognitive dissonance help us make sense of this wave of parent concern around issues of equity and inclusion, and more specifically, the teaching of critical race theory? If your school did not use terms like equity and inclusion, anti-racism, predominantly white institutions, or systemic racism, among others, prior to the summer of 2020, but you do now; if your school claims to have been doing equity and inclusion work for decades before the summer of 2020, but most of your parent community didn’t know a thing about it; if your school sent resources out in the summer of 2020 for parents to “educate themselves,” which suggests a “deficit thinking” mindset about parents; if your school has been “dysconscious” — demonstrating an “uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by adopting the existing order of things as given” before the summer of 2020 — then this parent backlash should have been easy to predict. 

Let me be clear, building more equitable and inclusive independent schools is non-negotiable [I define “equity” as providing everything a student needs for them to develop the values and achieve the mission of the school, from boundaries to encouragement to cognitive challenges. “Inclusion,” for me, is simply measured by the sense of belonging our students, teachers, school leaders, parents, alumni, and guests feel in our community]. But how we do that work is. Not every parent concerned about what equity and inclusion look like in schools is a racist. Again, either/or thinking is intellectually dishonest. The school is responsible for justifying its decisions around equity and inclusion work. If schools have made declarations pertaining to social justice, equity, and inclusion, they need to be willing to work through the cognitive dissonance constituents within their community may be feeling. This statement is not a defense of any schools’ or parents’ position on equity and inclusion; it is highlighting an opportunity for us to model what engaging with discomfort looks like.

Many parents, administrators, teachers, and students are uncomfortable right now. Nearly all of us are in a state of cognitive dissonance or have been, periodically, since COVID hit. We are literally awestruck — as Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt clarify, “the two themes that are central to awe[:] the stimulus is vast and […] it requires accommodation.” Awe, too, is a form of cognitive dissonance, and how we as teachers and school leaders “accommodate” this “vast” discomfort is important. For example, instead of suggesting parents “educate themselves,” what if we asked them to share their concerns and promoted a dialogue? What if, instead of summing them up as racist or privileged, we demonstrated extreme listening, whether we liked what they were saying or not? We may disagree, but, to quote James Baldwin, “[w]e can disagree and still love each other […] unless [the] disagreement is rooted in [someone’s] oppression and denial of [their] humanity and right to exist.” In these encounters, we must always protect the dignity of everyone in our community—doing so will ensure that growth is the result of these exchanges. 

None of us is doing this perfectly. If the equation were easy, we would have solved it by now. I think social psychologist Dolly Chugh’s definition of “good-ish” people is pertinent. “Good-ish” people are “trying to be better” and don’t “believe in the illusion that they are always a good person,” or that they always get it right. Bring the most powerful tool we have into this situation — humility. 

Parents know their children need to be challenged in order to grow, or else their children’s development will be arrested, but parents must trust the adults in charge of designing for discomfort. We teachers and school leaders are responsible for communicating the role of discomfort in learning and ensuring through consistency and clarity that our curriculum and instruction, our athletics and fine arts, our extracurriculars, and community trips are platforms not for ideological indoctrination, but for building our students’ capacity and strength to handle discomfort well in the future and to develop them as individuals who embrace complexity with confidence.

Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is Head of School at Wilson Hall School, a PK-12 independent school, in South Carolina. He holds a master’s in literature from James Madison University and earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from Indiana University (Bloomington) in May 2022. Since 2016, Brent has led teacher workshops on how to translate Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research strategies into the classroom, and since 2020, he has focused on research-informed practices in the areas of social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and equity and inclusion. Brent’s recent publications include "The Belonging Apocalypse: Woke Bypassing, Contemplative Practices, and a Way Forward for DEI" (IntrepidEd News) and "The Problem with Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures" (Independent School Magazine).

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