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Dissonance in the critical classroom: the role of social psychological processes in learner resistance.

Whereas the extant literature on critical pedagogy is ripe with discussions of resistance to oppressive conditions, only modest attention has been devoted to resistance to consciousness-raising education. Drawing on a diverse body of literature, this paper examines the socio-psychological underpinnings of learner resistance to problem-posing education. Principle attention is directed toward exploring the role dissonance reduction processes have in generating resistance to critical learning experiences. Implications are offered for critical teaching in adult and higher education.

Keywords: learner resistance, desocialization, cognitive dissonance, critical pedagogy


Significant scholarly attention has centered on the philosophical and pedagogical implications of counter-hegemonic education (Apple, 2004; Darder, Baltodano, & Torres, 2008; Freire, 1970; Giroux, 2001; McLaren, 1994; Shor, 1992). According to Kincheloe (2008), critical pedagogies challenge "oppressive forms of power as expressed in socioeconomic class elitism, Eurocentric ways of viewing the world, patriarchal oppression, and imperialism around the world" (p. 34). Despite commitments to themes of democracy, empowerment, and social equality, critical educational practices are commonly met with considerable resistance by students who have traditionally benefited from privileged social identities and dominant cultural arrangements (e.g., Bohmer, 1989; Bohmer, & Briggs, 1991; Chan & Treacy, 1996; Johnson, 2006; Trainor, 2009; Ukpokodu, 2003). Whereas the extant literature on critical pedagogy is ripe with discussions of "resistance to oppressive conditions," only modest attention has been devoted to "resistance to consciousness-raising education." As interest in this area of resistance theory grows, basic questions about its role both on and in critical discourse become increasingly germane.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the socio-psychological underpinnings of learner resistance to problem-posing education; Principle attention is directed toward exploring the role dissonance reduction processes have in generating resistance to critical learning experiences. I begin the paper by clarifying varying conceptions of pedagogical resistance. Second, I provide a theoretical review of the developmental processes associated with socialization and self-development. Third, I provide a brief overview of key issues and goals associated with critical pedagogy. Following this, I utilize research on cognitive dissonance theory to explore potential connections between dissonance reduction and processes of resistance. I conclude the paper with implications for critical teaching in adult and higher education.

Conceptualizing Learner Resistance

In educational research, the notion of student resistance denotes a variety of meanings and implications--from an emotional or behavioral expression of opposition, to a relatively conscious or even unintentional contrarian activity. Recent applications to student resistance, influenced by the fields of critical pedagogy and critical cultural studies, emphasize deliberate opposition to the "harmful effects of dominant [hegemonic] power (Kincheloe, 2008, p. 34). Although this approach to resistance can assume various means and encompass different participatory modes (e.g., writing, public speeches, protesting, political and legal action, civil disobedience), the general purpose is to cultivate students' awareness about oppressive conditions and inequalities, and in turn, promote self-empowerment and transformative socio-cultural change (Flynn, 2001; Giroux, 2001; Shor 1992).

A second orientation to student resistance and the one of principal attention in this paper pertains to resistance to critical pedagogy (e.g., Chan & Treacy, 1996; Flynn, 2001; Kumashiro, 2002; Trainor, 2009). Kincheloe (2008) asserts that too frequently mainstream education defends the status quo as it "teaches students ... to accept the oppressive workings of power--in the name of a neutral curriculum, in the attempt to take politics out of education" (p. 34). Given that students are inculcated to embrace objectivity and adopt ahistorical, dispassionate understandings of knowledge, they are often reluctant to delve into learning experiences that address the ideological, subjective, and contested dynamics of socio-cultural meanings (Kumashiro, 2002; McLaren, 1994; Shor, 1992). Opposition may also come from individuals who view critical pedagogical practices as threatening to their preconceived constructions of identity and social reality (Bohmer, 1989; Bohmer, & Briggs, 1991; Johnson, 2006; McFalls & Cobb-Roberts, 2001; Ukpokodu, 2003). Describing students that are initially discomforted by critical educational materials, Flynn (2001) observes that while their resistance is often "spontaneous...their reactions are not usually carefully planned or even intentional" (p. 25). Manifestations of learner resistance--which can be active or passive, unrehearsed or even premeditated-can include, among other things, emotional outbursts, denial of responsibility, absenteeism, teacher criticism, personal frustration, insensitivity, and defensiveness.

For the purposes of this article, I consider student resistance to be an adverse affective and cognitive response to critical pedagogy. (1) While the reasons and motives underpinning pedagogical resistance are indeed vast and multifaceted, Shor (1992) contends that a major reason for students' opposition to problem-posing education rests on "their having internalized narrow perspectives in mass education and mass culture" (p. 73) about self, society, and the relationships therein. Thus, to appreciate more fully the influence of cultural themes and messages on student resistance, I will now consider them in greater depth utilizing a social psychological lens.

Internalizing the Dominant Culture: Socialization and Self-Development

Social psychologists have long emphasized the importance of socialization in the acquisition of social knowledge (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Blumer, 1969; Mead, 1934; Sandstrom, Martin, & Fine, 2010). By and large, socialization is concerned with the dynamic, interactive processes through which persons learn the shared values, attitudes, and meaning structures of their respective societies and cultures. (2)) As Lauer and Handel (1983) observe, because humans live in a world of symbolic meaning, participation within any particular social or cultural group is largely contingent upon one's understanding of a group's symbolic environment; in this sense, socialization is principally a symbolic activity.

Although socialization is a pervasive, lifelong process, it is frequently conceptualized around two interrelated developmental phases: primary and secondary socialization. (3) Primary, or childhood socialization, serves as the basis for individuals' acquisition of language and social knowledge. Children are brought up and nurtured through various social networks within which they encounter and are cared for by what Mead (1934) termed their "significant others." Significant others convey and pass on to the child definitions of reality that are generally commensurate with their own positionality and social experiences (e.g., socioeconomic standpoints, religious orientations, political/social values); consequently, these formative experiences constitute the child's initial frame of reference (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Ishii, Klopf, & Cooke, 2006; Mead, 1934). While learning about the social world, children also acquire a capacity for role taking and playing; thus, via social interaction, children not only demonstrate increased appreciation of symbol usage, but also an ability to take on and employ the perspectives of specific others (Blumer, 1969; Mead, 1934; Sandstrom et al., 2010).

As children become progressively more sophisticated in their role taking capacities, they learn to move beyond their immediate environment to identify with a wider range of individuals, or what Mead (1934) designated as the "generalized other." The emergence of the generalized other supplies the child with the perceptual ability to assume the shared composite viewpoint, expectations, and values of his/her cultural group: "the attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the whole community" (Mead, 1934, p. 154). Gradually, communal values and beliefs are internalized as one's own, providing the individual with perspectives for self-judgment and social comparison. Berger and Luckmann (1966) underscore the phenomenological significance of this process:
   This abstraction from the roles and
   attitudes of concrete significant others
   is called the generalized other.
   Its formation within consciousness
   means that the individual now identifies
   not only with concrete others
   but with a generality of others, that
   is, with a society.... The formation
   within this consciousness of the generalized
   other marks a decisive phase
   in socialization. It implies the internalization
   of society. (p. 133)

This aspect of socialization not only pertains to role taking, but to the development of self as well. Mead (1934) maintained that much of the knowledge persons have about themselves is cultivated and facilitated by their interactions with others: "The individual experiences himself ... not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group ... to which he belongs" (p. 138). Thus, it is through a complex process of role and perspective taking that the child develops a reflective awareness that gives rise to a self-conscious mind.

As children transition into adolescence and then adulthood, they are increasingly exposed to cultural symbols and agents (e.g., relationships, institutions, popular culture, mass media) that further mediate their personal growth and social development. Hence, secondary socialization refers to "any subsequent process that inducts an already socialized individual into new sections of the objective world of his [sic] society" (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 130). Among the most common socializing agents are peer/reference groups, mass media, school, sports, places of work, and religion.

Although distinctions exist, many of the dominant values, frames (e.g., myths, folktales, narratives), and normative expectations of mainstream culture are embodied, enacted, and reified by its attendant institutions; consequently, institutional patterns exert considerable influence over the fundamental assumptions individuals have about themselves, others, and the larger community. Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel (2007) emphasize that the dominant culture "usually has the greatest amount of control over how the culture carries out its business.... The people in power are those who historically have controlled, and who still control the major institutions within the culture ..." (p. 10). Likewise, McLaren (1994) characterizes the dominant culture as an amalgamation of practices that "affirm the central values, interests, and concerns of the social class in control of the material and symbolic wealth of society" (p. 180). Furthermore, since privileged groups wield more institutional authority and power, they are uniquely positioned to influence the socializing experiences of less powerful groups (Shor, 1992). To the extent that individuals conform--actively or passively, willingly or reluctantly--to the dominant norms of society, the more likely they are to "benefit" within that society? Merrill (1961) observes, "These benefits may be either consciously or unconsciously realized, but they are nevertheless very real" (p. 63).

Scholars have identified a cadre of interwoven value orientations, assumptions, and dominant meaning structures within the United States that saturate its major institutions and reflect its largely modernist Western European heritage (e.g., Capra, 1984; Eitzen, 1974; Gudykunst & Kim, 2003; Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961; Merrill, 1961; Samovar et al., 2007; Stewart & Bennett, 1991). Prevalent among them are:

* a robust sense of individualism, self-assertion, and self-reliance;

* a belief in equality, fairness, and opportunity for all ("equal playing field");

* a predilection for competition and hierarchical authority;

* a commitment to objective/analytic thought, scientific rationality, and technological innovation ("certainty through science");

* an emphasis on work ethic, activity ("doing"), materialism, and utilitarian/instrumental outcomes; and

* an acquisitive mind-set toward nature and the environment.

Promulgated and reinforced over the course of hundreds of years, these privileged cultural patterns are inextricably related to a web of interlocking power relations and ideologies that imbue practically all aspects of contemporary social life.

Critical theorists argue that the excessiveness of these discourses has variously contributed (often unconsciously) to considerable cultural and societal imbalances which include unfair applications of power and resources, enduring social injustices and systemic inequities, exploitative hierarchical arrangements, and the marginalization/exclusion of alternative perspectives and histories (Apple, 2004; Darder et al., 2008; Capra, 1984; Kincheloe, 2008). In spite of these concerns, McLaren (1994) observes that these institutionalized principles persist, in part, because the "dominant ideology is so all inclusive that individuals are taught to view it as natural, commonsensical, and inviolable" (p. 184). Additionally, because these cultural values and principles are so deeply lodged within the fabric of major social institutions, they are customarily resistant to change (Merrill, 1961).

What do the pervasive nature of these dominant beliefs and messages mean for educators committed to teaching from a more critical and transformative perspective? How might students who have internalized conventional norms and practices respond to educational approaches that interrogate such deeply-rooted social principles and culture values? The following section examines these questions.

The Disruptive Implications of Critical Pedagogy

Sullivan (1987) describes critical pedagogy as "a broad educational venture which self-consciously challenges and seeks to transform the dominant [oppressive] values of our culture" (p. 63). Of particular interest are teaching and learning practices that, whether it be through curriculum, instructional methods or course structure, foster students' understandings of freedom and social justice, and empower them to question taken-for-granted ideological assumptions concerning subjects of race, age, ethnicity, gender, and class (Kincheloe, 2008; McLaren, 1994). Given that oppression manifests in various forms, critical pedagogues rely upon myriad approaches and intellectual traditions to encourage individuals to recognize, resist, and transform undemocratic norms and hegemonic apparatuses (Apple, 2004; Freire, 1970; Giroux, 2001).

Central to critical pedagogy is a rigorous interrogation of dominant cultural beliefs systems and narratives, many of which form the underlying bases of students' definitions of social reality--i.e., ideas, attitudes, and perceptions largely normalized during childhood and adolescence and subsequently re-affirmed through cultural consensus. This illuminates one of the most fundamental challenges for critical pedagogues-because these meaning structures constitute the central, organizing schemas upon which persons have learned to perceive themselves and their social world, they are commonly the least susceptible to critical reflection and substantive conceptual change (Krosnick, 1988; Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955). Additionally, students that have traditionally benefited from privileged cultural arrangements are often the ones least likely positioned to problematize, or for that matter, recognize their participation within inherently oppressive social systems (McIntosh, 2000; Johnson, 2006).

Consciousness-raising education invites substantial changes to students' worldviews and social perspectives. Rather than complementing or neutrally conveying mainstream discourses and values, Shor (1992) observes that critical pedagogy engenders a sense of desocialization, which he explains as critically rethinking "learned behavior, received values, familiar language, habitual perceptions, existing knowledge and power relations, and traditional discourse in class and out" (p. 114). From this perspective, desocialization involves more than a critique of dominant paradigms; according to Shor (1992), it also acknowledges the political and potentially oppressive underpinnings of socialization in general.

Because critical pedagogies unpack the obscure, ideological workings of ostensibly "natural" social habits and conditions, it is common for these learning experiences to generate substantial tension and personal uncertainty as "familiar surroundings" are inspected and scrutinized in very "unfamiliar critical ways" (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 18). By unmasking contradictions embedded within privileged constructions of knowledge, desocialization holds the possibility of not only questioning well-established, internalized belief systems, but challenging a person's sense of selfhood as well. For this reason, it is not unforeseen for students to express or manifest frustration, denial, and opposition within critical learning environments (e.g., Bohmer, 1989; Bohmer & Briggs, 1991 ; Chart & Treacy, 1996; Chevalier & Houser, 1997; Johnson, 2006; Shor & Freire, 1987; Trainor, 2009; Ukpokodu, 2003).

Seeing that new meanings and perspectives are reconstructed within the context of existing interests and understandings, many critical educators have relied on notions of cognitive disequilibrium or tension to promote student reflection on dominant norms, prejudices, and conceptions of social justice. In fact, several authors have described the pedagogical value of dissonance in nurturing critically reflective thought on existing beliefs and mindsets (Mezirow, 1991; Taylor, 2007). Other recent studies, however, have shown dissonance arousal to encumber aspects of the learning process (e.g., Houser, Parker, Rose, & Goodnight, 2010; Walton, 2010). McFalls and Cobb-Roberts (2001) indicate that when students are exposed to themes and issues incongruent with their prior beliefs, they "are likely to experience dissonance that may be expressed outwardly in the form of resistance" (p. 165).

In light of this possibility, it is essential that educators consider the struggles dominant culture students may face when attempting to reconcile critical learning experiences with their own enculturated value systems. While there are myriad reasons for learner resistance, previous scholarship on attitude change points toward several plausible explanations for why dissonance-arousal may manifest as a form of learner resistance. In the following section, I explore these possibilities through the framework of cognitive dissonance theory.

Cognitive Dissonance and Student Resistance

Cognitive dissonance has been utilized extensively in the fields of communication, education, and social psychology as a framework for researching incongruities among attitudes, beliefs, and social behaviors (Cooper, 2007; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). In his seminal statement on the theory, Festinger (1957) reasoned that cognitive dissonance was an uncomfortable psychological state resulting from perceived discrepancies or contradictions between related cognitions, or cognitions and behaviors. Integral to Festinger's premise is the concept of psychological balance; specifically he argued that persons strive to maintain some degree of congruency among their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Because disequilibrium is experienced as an adverse cognitive state, individuals are purportedly motivated to construct or re-establish equilibrium whenever inconsistencies exist.

In his work, Festinger (1957) discerned three main modes for reducing cognitive dissonance: (a) changing one or more dissonant cognitions to make them more coherent; (b) acquiring addition information that sustains existing cognitions; and/or (c) minimizing/trivializing the significance of the apparent discrepancies. Though the theory makes no hard and fast predictions about how much dissonance an individual can endure or which mode of dissonance reduction will be utilized, Simon, Greenberg, and Brehm (1995) assert that "All else being equal, the easiest mode of dissonance reduction will be used, and the more one mode is used in a particular instance, the less other modes will be used" (p. 248). Generally, peripheral attitudes are modified more readily than core convictions and values (Eagly & Chaiken, 1995; Festinger, 1957; Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955).

The relevance of cognitive dissonance theory to critical pedagogy is well established. Previous scholarship has demonstrated ways in which cognitive disequilibrium can facilitate critical self-reflection and transformative learning (e.g., Chevalier & Houser, 1997; Houser, 2008; Mezirow, 1991, 1994; Joyce, 1984; Taylor, 2000). Although different views have been proposed, the basic explanation centers on the role of dissonance in modifying and revising psychological meaning structures. As a case in point, Jean Piaget (1977) suggested that when persons encounter experiences discrepant with pre-existing mental frameworks, they undergo a state of cognitive struggle that motivates a reorganization of cognitive schema. More recently, researchers have determined that dissonance-arousal can provide a means for individual social development and personal growth (e.g., Carrington & Selva, 2010; Gorski, 2009; Houser, 2008; Mezirow, 1991; Taylor, 2007; Walton, 2010).

Much like the way cognitive dissonance accounts for aspects of psychological growth, I argue that the theory also offers insight into why dissonance-arousing experiences might lead to learner resistance. Specifically, two of Festinger's three dissonance reduction strategies function to discount or neutralize cognitive discrepancies, theoretically leaving the individual's initial assumptions and perspectives unchanged. Should conceptual tension be as psychologically distressing as the theory posits, it is conceivable that the desire to diminish dissonance could thwart or disallow additional learning (e.g., critical reflection, self-examination). Accordingly, recent scholarship on cognitive dissonance and attitude change reveals several social psychological avenues that are readily available, not only for alleviating dissonance, but also for circumventing substantive refinement of cognitive schema (e.g., frames of reference, preexisting beliefs, value judgments). This research may clarify the processes by which dominant culture students construe and in so doing, resist consciousness-raising education.

For example, a number of investigations have found attitude salience and strength to play significant roles in the processing of counter-attitudinal messages; More often than not, research indicates that the stronger and more centralized the beliefs, the more resistant they are to change (e.g., Eagly & Chaiken, 1995; Haugtvedt & Petty, 1992; Pomerantz, Chaiken, & Tordesillas, 1995). In an experimental study, Zuwerink and Devine (1996) exposed eighty-four participants favorable toward allowing lesbians and gay men to serve in the United States military to a persuasive speech containing five arguments against lifting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (prohibiting gays and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces). Dependent measures revealed that the more individuals supported the policy change (high importance group), the more resistant they were to counter arguments. Additionally, the high-importance group reported experiencing more negative emotions (e.g., annoyance, frustration) in response to the speech. The results of this and other similar investigations suggest that both affective and cognitive processes mediate resistance to counter-attitudinal information (e.g., Jacks & Devine, 2000).

Applying cognitive dissonance theory, Simon et al. (1995) hypothesized that if participants' attitudes about a topic were made salient before engaging in a dissonance-arousing task, they would be likely to reduce their dissonance through trivialization--i.e., decreasing the perceived value of one or more the conflicting elements. In their study, college students composed persuasive essays supporting or opposing mandatory comprehensive exams at their university. To prime previously formed views on the subject, students in the high salience condition were instructed to reflect on their personal opinions on the topic prior to writing their essays. Evidence from a variety of dependent measures not only confirmed the use of trivialization as a method of dissonance reduction, but also found that when preexisting attitudes were "made salient to participants, and therefore more resistant to change, participants trivialized to reduce dissonance" (p. 250). Thus, efforts to devalue one or more of the disparate elements, rather than downplaying the inconsistencies themselves, aided in restoring cognitive consistency. These findings, which coincide with Festinger's initial formulation of the theory, point toward the effectiveness of trivialization as a dissonance reduction strategy.

Another area of dissonance reduction research has focused on the constructs of self-affirmation and identity. Steele and Liu (1983) investigated the influence of dissonance on self-perception and found that self-affirming thoughts and actions restored cognitive consistency. These authors discovered that in cases where discrepant information threatened or challenged one's perceived image of self, acts that bolstered or re-affirmed important dimensions of the self-concept diminished dissonance by re-casting the self in a more positive light. Thus, in basic terms, it appears that self-threatening forms of dissonance-arousal can be neutralized by augmenting and reestablishing other self-validating attitudes and judgments. Other studies have recorded comparable findings (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999; Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993).

Scholars have also uncovered connections between group membership and social support, and dissonance reduction processes; in fact, several recent studies have looked at the roles social identity and group affirmation play in the reduction of cognitive disequilibrium. Glasford, Dovidio, and Pratto (2009) found group affirmation (i.e., positive aspects of group identity) to play a compelling role in dissonance reduction, particularly in situations where in-group identification was salient. After measuring the strength of their national identity (United States), undergraduate students were asked to specify the extent to which they approved of the principle of noncombatant immunity, taken from the 1949 Geneva Convention; to provoke dissonance, participants subsequently read a short passage featuring examples of the U. S. military defying that principle. Glasford et al. discovered that students with greater in-group identification (i.e., national identity) experienced less cognitive discomfort after reading the passage and that among these individuals, group affirmation was more effective at reducing dissonance than self-affirmation strategies.

Other reports on cognitive dissonance have demonstrated that in cases where shared group identity is germane, group membership and social support provide useful mechanisms for dissonance reduction as well (McKimmie et al., 2003; McKimmie, Terry, & Hogg, 2009). A plausible raison d'etre for these findings is attributable to the tendency for people to compare their values and actions against the normative expectations of others. As previously discussed, the gradual acquisition of the generalized other as a part of self-development involves internalizing the basic beliefs, ideologies, and general attitudes of society--standards that form the basis for self-judgment and self-validation (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Mead, 1934). Festinger (1954) noted that "The more attractive a group is to a member, the more important that group will be as a comparison for him [sic]" (p. 131).

In addition to the dissonance reduction conditions discussed above, several other psychological phenomena have been found to influence the processing of dissonance-arousing messages (Jacks & Cameron, 2003; O'Keefe, 2002). One way of dealing with disconfirming social information is through a biased assimilation effect, or tendency to consider information that corroborates preexisting assumptions and beliefs as more credible than evidence that disputes them (Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979). Similarly, a perseverance effect involves a propensity for belief systems to remain unchanged even in the face of contradictory experiences (Anderson, Lepper, & Ross, 1980). Consistency may also be maintained or restored by means of selective exposure--the inclination to seek out information and viewpoints consonant with current attitudes, while avoiding those that confute them (O'Keefe, 2002). Jacks and Cameron (2003) also report on the effectiveness of counter-argument (refutation) and attitude bolstering (self-validation) in resisting counter-attitudinal information.

In short, the struggle to reconcile internalized cognitive tension may provide an impetus for conceptual development, but only if the drive to allay dissonance does not arrest further opportunities for transformative growth and learning. Should critical pedagogy engender cognitive disequilibrium in students, the research reviewed here points to several socio-psychological mechanisms that are easily and readily available for reducing dissonance and resisting problem-posing themes. Trivializing alternative explanations, bolstering present held views and beliefs, reverting to normalized comparisons, and re-affirming the self-concept are among the ways that cognitive discrepancies be resolved and/or disentangled. What's more, the presence of dissonance does not necessarily mark or educe extensive conceptual/perceptual reconstruction. As the research suggests, student resistance is likely to be associated with a range of related cognitive processes and judgments, and could arouse an array of emotional states and behaviors. In any case, it is clear that pedagogical resistance is the result of a multifaceted interaction among various cultural, social, affective, and cognitive phenomena.

Finally, it is critical to note that student resistance, from a constructivist perspective, is not merely a gratuitous rejection of knowledge. As Poplin (1988) explains, "One does not simply take information in from the external environment without first judging its personal value and its relationship to what is already known" (p. 407). It is important to remember that students do not passively assimilate learning experiences, but rather attempt to make sense of them as they integrate new ideas and experiences with preexisting schema. For dominant culture students in the critical classroom, this sense-making activity may evoke intense discord and opposition; for others, it could involve an extensive reconstruction of the material that conceptually aligns it with previously held assumptions and relationships. In any case, students are actively striving to foster meaningful interpretations of their respective learning situations (Poplin, 1988). Thus, in the case of dominant culture students, pedagogical resistance may result when conflicting value judgments and practices generate deep uncertainties about a seemingly certain social world?

Implications for Critical Teaching in Adult and Higher Education

How can educators invite students to critically dialogue on their values, privileges, and cultural assumptions in ways that are supportive to their growth and development, rather than threatening? How might cognitive dissonance nurture, rather than constrain, meaningful reflection on alternative experiences, narratives, and social differences?

First, critical educators should strive to help their students make personally relevant connections between new and previous learning experiences. As Poplin (1988) emphasizes, "learning is not simply the taking in of new is the natural, continuous construction and reconstruction of new, richer, and more complex and connected meanings by the learner (p. 404). The aim here is to prepare students for the kinds of pedagogical experiences that incorporate dissonance-arousing materials and experiences into the course curriculum. Chan and Treacy (1996) highlight the merit of directly articulating course objectives, expectations and assignments at the onset of the term, and advise structuring the curriculum in a way that gradually immerses students into more conflictual issues and topics.

While examples abound, one approach might include actually making cognitive dissonance a basic educational objective. Paul Gorski (2009), for example, has demonstrated the value of explicitly naming and discussing cognitive dissonance while teaching about issues of oppression and social justice. By encouraging his students to identify and dialogue on subjects that serve as sources of their discomfort, Gorski (2009) reports fewer instances of learner resistance, as well as an increased willingness on the part of his students to question conventional norms and social conditions. A qualitative study by McFalls and Cobb-Roberts (2001) provides additional support for the benefits of cognitive dissonance instruction in critical classrooms.

When considering the possibilities of dissonance, teachers should also bear in mind that individual students will likely grapple with, as well as relate to, disso nance-arousing experiences in distinctively personal ways. Hence, what engenders discomfort for one person may be of little interest or concern for another. Educators might consider engaging students in critical conversations on topics and problems that are of particular importance to them, thus allowing more relevant and varied opportunities for disequilibrium to occur. At any rate, teachers are advised to establish learning expectations that help bridge students' prior experiences and developmental abilities with curriculum content and methods of instruction (Poplin, 1988).

Secondly, regarding learning episodes where conceptual conflict is likely to arise, it is suggested that critical educators suspend closure on controversial problems to further enrich opportunities for reflective thinking and the reconstruction of sociocognitive meanings. Premature closures, which frequently reinforce oversimplified conclusions and clear-cut rationalizations, run the risk of curtailing conditions favorable to in-depth perspective-taking and divergent thinking. Moreover, Johnson and Johnson (2003) warn that premature closures may inadvertently curtail dissonance and thus abbreviate potentially creative, thought-provoking tensions and experiences. What's more, pressures to finalize problems or to sanitize explanations of contentious issues could ultimately obscure the underlying complexity of many social and political struggles centrally relevant to critical pedagogy.

Previous scholarship provides educators with several suggestions for sustaining dissonance so students "can learn at deeper levels" (Palmer, 1998, p. 83). For one, teachers can employ pedagogical approaches that infuse paradox, conflict, and ambiguity into the curriculum (Lewis & Dehler, 2000; Palmer, 1998). In these learning conditions, students are exposed to multiple and contradictory viewpoints and explanations, which not only encourage a re-examination of personal positions and beliefs, but also enlarge their understandings of the subject matter as a whole. Relatedly, teachers can make use of pedagogical strategies for enhancing students' tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. For example, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) recommend using critical group discussions for fostering "a general tentativeness toward their [students] own (and others') intellectual claims" (p. 22). As a form of public discourse, classroom dialogue could also be used as a means for transforming potentially defensive, polarizing debates into mutually respectful, non-adversarial conversations (Barge, 2002; Bohm, 1996). Dialogues beget openings for participants to voice personal questions and concerns, and encourage students to collaboratively deliberate on the rich and varied perspectives offered by their peers. (6)

The final recommendation is to cultivate a learning climate conductive to personal safety and transformative growth. Because dissonance-inducing experiences hold the potential of revealing deeply sensitive and vulnerable aspects of the self, educators must recognize the importance of learning conditions that afford students the liberty and safety to risk take and self-explore absent fear of ridicule or criticism (Houser, 1996, 2008). Houser (1996) cautions that dissonance offered without adequate emotional encouragement could amplify into greater fears and frustrations, and hence, impede further learning. While approaches will obviously vary, educators should present opportunities for establishing a safe, nonthreatening learning environment, particularly in those cases where self-reflection and critical consciousness-raising are central educational aims. Among other things, positive influences on learning relationships include cooperative group interactions, affirmation of individual interests and concerns, prosocial classroom roles and values, mutually respectful and supportive relationships, and a sense of connection and community with peers.


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Associate Professor

Department of Communication

School of Liberal Arts

Cameron University


(1) Rather than characterizing resistance from a teacher-centered or behavioral perspective (e.g., misbehavior, disobedience), I situate it in a manner similar to Chan and Treacy (1996) who characterize learner resistance "not as a description of a particular type of student but rather as a reflection of the complex dynamics that arise between students, teachers, and course content..." (p. 213). For more thorough reviews of pedagogical resistance see Kumashiro (2002) and Monaghan (2003).

(2) Sandstrom et al. (2010) caution against definitions that represent socialization as a mechanistic or deterministic activity, or as a process that merely replicates the existing social order. Because humans are active, goal-driven agents capable of naming, creating, and reconstructing various aspects of the social environment, they are capable of influencing "the contents and outcomes of their own socialization" (p. 78).

(3) This discussion draws heavily on concepts outlined in Berger & Luckmann's The Social Construction of Knowledge: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966); and Sandstrom et al.'s Symbols, Selves, and Social Reality (2010).

(4) The use of the term "benefit" can be misleading when used in the context of oppressive relationships. As McLaren (1994) points out, subjugated groups may unsuspectingly consent to and participate in ideologies and discourses that actually perpetuate their own oppressive circumstances. Additionally, the material welfare of subjugated groups may depend upon some recognition/adherence to dominant meaning structures. In this sense, benefits, much like the notion of privilege, are situated within asymmetrical power relations, and are enmeshed in various historical, cultural, and political systems. For similar discussions, see Freire (1970), Shor (1992), and Johnson (2005).

(5) Cross-cultural scholars have identified several common organizing principles in Western culture that appear to contribute to our drive for cognitive consistency. Notable among these are an orientation for certainty, Cartesian dualisms, linear/deductive systems of logic, and a general intolerance for ambiguity (Gudykunst & Kim, 2003). Additionally, research by Heine & Lehman (1997) suggests that cultural variability (i.e., individualism, collectivism) may influence the way cognitive dissonance is perceived and/or resolved.

(6) Of course, affirming diverse views means that students are free to compare, contrast, critique, question, and disagree with ideas so long as it is done civilly and respectfully. The goal is not to suppress or circumvent conflict, nor is it to craft an environment unfriendly to dissent. Chan and Treacy (1996), as well as Palmer (1998), maintain that classroom tensions are an invaluable part of the learning process and can lead to a greater appreciation of difference. Similarly, Flynn (2001) asserts that resistance in the critical classroom cannot only be beneficial, but that "in its positive manifestations is necessary for successful teaching" (p. 33).
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Author:Walton, Justin D.
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Date:Dec 1, 2011
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