Cognitive dissonance, in its most basic definition, is mental discomfort.

Many districts incorporate data reviews as an integral component of their Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) process. At these reviews, academic, behavioral, and social-emotional data are meticulously examined by teachers and administrators to identify both positive and negative patterns and trends. The data guides questions concerning achievement and behavioral disparities. What is the data telling us? What do we need to change? What do we need to keep doing?

This process often involves educators challenging their preconceptions against the data presented, and scrutinizing their instructional methods in light of their students’ academic performance. 

Such analysis of data is very personal, and it’s easy to become defensive and blame others. Using cognitive dissonance in these analyses helps foster dynamic discussions among educators, through debate, exchange of ideas, and collaboration. Despite its complexity, when administered properly, cognitive dissonance can lead to vibrant conversations and serve as a catalyst for growth and improvement.

So why is cognitive dissonance good for a school district?

  • It promotes critical thinking by encouraging us to evaluate our assumptions, beliefs, biases, and practices. 
  • It encourages reflection and growth by prompting us to evaluate our beliefs. 
  • It fosters collaboration by allowing us to engage in dialogue and seek feedback from one another.
  • It contributes to a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging us to confront inconsistencies, reflect on results, and dig deep to understand what is happening.

What can school districts do to encourage cognitive dissonance?

  • Districts can take several proactive steps to encourage cognitive dissonance among educators. Offering targeted professional development that introduces the concept of cognitive dissonance and its educational benefits allows teachers and administrators to reassess and challenge their instruction. This encourages reflection while fostering open dialogue and creating a collaborative space for sharing experiences. Providing educators with resources (i.e. articles and videos) helps deepen their understanding and application of cognitive dissonance in data reviews, leadership, and staff meetings. School leaders should also empower educators to experiment with new teaching strategies and celebrate their growth in adapting these methods.
  • Cultivating a growth mindset within the school community emphasizes continuous learning and adaptation, allowing for staff members to engage in cognitive dissonance, a healthy sign of a thriving school district.

Ana Aleman-Putman is the Student Academic Excellence and Well-Being District Coordinator at Grandville Public Schools in Grandville, MI. She serves on the advisory council for Van Andel Institute for Education.