Cognitive Conflict to Foster Meaningful Learning

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by Erick M. Izaguirre Zepeda, Keiser University Language Institute

Human’s search for knowledge is a lifelong process. It takes us many years to construct our own conceptions and beliefs. Many times this construction process demands a lot of studying, reading, and research. Sometimes these conceptions come from family traditions and values that are handed down from generation to generation. It is obvious that when learning something requires so much effort, this new knowledge we have acquired is of great value for us. After all we have dedicated our neurons to building ourselves a mindset we feel identified and comfortable with.  But what happens when our conceptions, beliefs, and ideas are debatable to people we consider knowledgeable and trustworthy? Are we open to listening to new and different ideas and willing to change our own ones in case we are convinced by the reliability of the new sources of information? Or do we just ignore what the new data states because we already have our own mindset?  Have you ever changed any of your conceptions or preconceptions thanks to/ because of new and extremely contradictory material that was presented to you? If you have, then you have experienced cognitive conflicts and you clearly understand what it is about and what it feels like.

Cognitive conflict

The cognitive conflict or cognitive dissonance theory is a branch of the well-known constructivist theory by Piaget. It suggests that “when children or learners experience a discrepancy between their understanding of the world and a new experience, they can either assimilate the new information into existing schema or accommodate the new information by creating new schema”. This has led some constructivist teaching approaches to focus on ways to generate this cognitive conflict in lessons.

To illustrate the concept of cognitive conflict and how it fosters the process of conceptual change and meaningful learning, I would like to tell you the story of my friend Paul. Paul was born in Puerto Cabezas and moved to the United States when he was 8 years old. He spent more than 25 years there. When in the States, he got into lots of troubles especially because of drugs consumption. He was addicted to alcohol and crack. All these problems he had led him to be deported back to Nicaragua.  Paul says that he lived so much discrimination because of his skin color, that he did not want to be black; in fact he hated being black. One day when he was still in America, soon before being deported, he had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the “Black Hebrews”, a movement which states that “Jesus was black, and Hispanics, Native Americans, and Negroes are the only real descendants of the tribes of Israel and, for instance the only ones included in God’s salvation plan”.

For many of us this new input might not make any difference, but for Paul it was a very significant new piece of information. Since that day Paul’s life has changed dramatically. Paul no longer consumes crack or alcohol and he is trying to live his life according to God’s will since this theory made him feel there was still hope for him.

Another possible way to define cognitive conflict is: “The mental discomfort produced when someone is confronted with new information that contradicts their prior beliefs, values, and ideas. When cognitive dissonance arises, the person will typically seek to reduce this discomfort either by changing their ideas or by avoiding (e.g. ignoring) the new information”.

As we can see, there are two possible consequences of the cognitive conflict. The first one is a very positive one. This is the one that helped Paul make significant changes in his life because he felt attracted to the new concept he was faced with. On the other hand, the second option is not so encouraging for those teachers who would like to implement this strategy into their classes. What type of teacher would like to run the risk of encountering students who will simply discard the new information being presented? This is completely against the real objective, isn’t it? I am pretty sure this new information about Jesus I just discussed did not and will never cause you to change your preconceptions or beliefs about Jesus. But do you think you will forget it?

I am part of the highest percentage of people who will not seek to reduce the cognitive discomfort by changing my idea about Jesus. Furthermore, it makes no difference to me what color he was. However, I am completely convinced that I will never forget about the “Black Hebrews” and what they believe.

Cognitive conflict in English teaching 

If the context in which Paul learned so meaningfully was the key to a conceptual change in his mindset, we can conclude that the same phenomenon might happen in the case of our English students. Our advantage as English teachers is that even though we usually try to teach our students values and socially acceptable behavior, changing people’s conceptions is not our main concern, but to provide them with the elements (language) to explain those of their own or other people’s. When the target grammar and vocabulary are presented through contextualized material that contradicts students’ previous beliefs and conceptions on such topic, the new information might not be assimilated enough to cause a change in their behavior, i.e. conceptual change, but the tools or instruments used, e.g. the language such as terms, vocabulary and grammar structures, will be understood and remembered. In the case of English teaching this aspect previously mentioned is the key to students’ meaningful learning, which is the goal we all pursue as teachers.

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