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…

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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).