Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance In Effective Teaching

I wish I had been more successful applying the cognitive dissonance concept in my science, engineering, and journalism classes while I was teaching in middle school. On those all too rare days, however ,I was blessed and excited with a glimpse of what learning could be. One such experience revolved around what I called the “Paper Structure” problem with the base question - How much weight can be supported by a single sheet of copy paper? I set a few parameters on how the paper was to be hung/supported then using a paper clip and a one pound fishing weight attempted to hook the weight laden paper clip over the sheet of copy paper with a resulting zip and tear with the weight crashing to the floor with a thump. Then I proclaimed that one set of students in the past had supported 8 pounds of weight using only pieces of wooden dowel , short lengths of 18 gage aluminum wire, eight pounds of fishing sinkers, a paper punch, scissor, and that lonely sheet of paper. Off they went for a week of exploration. These middle school kids universally were focused, excited, and self directed for that entire week. They shared, experimented, collaborated, asked questions, and learned to live with and grow from continual ‘failures’. What sparked the activity was ‘cognitive dissonance’. I must add, though, that showmanship as a set up to initiate the process is important in the contrived atmosphere of the classroom. I used, modified and evolved this activity over 5 years and 60 different classes of students. It was universally effective. Incidentally, the idea for this activity came from and Annenberg sponsored project I viewed one day on PBS.