Evil Teaching Method: Cognitive Dissonance

I really do believe that being a good teacher involves not only knowing your subject matter, but also understanding human nature.

By nature people will do things that are bad for themselves.   People seek out the easiest, most self-destructive pursuits:  convenience food, passive entertainment (television or internet), and spending too much money on things they don’t need.   The type of experiences that people remember are very different,  people will remember things that took a great deal of effort or challenged their conception of the world.

This brings us to some basic cognitive theory.   Most people will seek to get some consistency in their thoughts – and conflicting information will need to get resolved.    Had a hard day at work for no apparent reason?   Your brain will try to supply reasons, telling you anything from “I must really be working hard,”  to the opposite “this job sucks, they don’t deserve me”.   Once you have rejected one position, you will hang on to the other position more.

There is a dark side to this:  cults use this as a form of mind control.   “Reject your ideas about _____ and believe in _______”.    People who go through hazing or even just simple abuse will convince themselves that it was somehow worthwhile.   Go figure.

Using Cognitive Dissonance:   people value hard lessons more than easy ones

So when it comes to using cognitive dissonance, remember you are dealing with some very potent stuff.   I make sure I lay some groundwork before I do any of this.   I start out by letting them know that I value hard work and effort.  I even outline what reenforces lessons:   read first, listen to lectures and take notes, immediately do some questions.

  1.  Create an ordeal, because students will place more value on hard lessons than on easy ones.    For me I have a daily quiz, and I like to put some tough tests at the beginning of important sections.   This is a signal that “oh, I didn’t get this, I should spend more time on it.”   It also emphasizes what is important to study.
  2. Place a high value on work and asking questions.   One of the things that I will occasionally say in class is that “which is harder:  learning or ignorance?”     Lending value to taking things slow rather than rushing things means that students will place more value on their process than on rushing to get the answer.
  3. Give them a new identity.   One thing that I do is include extra credit and bonus questions.   The upshot is that they get used to doing more, and start to see themselves in the role of achievers.   I know I enjoy telling my students they have “leveled up”.


So don’t feel bad about giving your students a hard time.    They will value your lessons more for doing it.

It’s good to be evil.

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