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Education, Engineering, Science and Cognitive Dissonance

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:25pm
So Dr. Isis has kicked off a storm of comments discussing her Catholic beliefs and how they interact in daily life. Commenter MH in comment #108 discusses that such a mutually contradictory belief system would be a recipe for cognitive dissonance. Yet I would like to take a different tack on the question and explore the role of cognitive dissonance as it relates to education, engineering, and science.

Education seems to be all about producing conceptual change through cognitive dissonance. It could be the experiment in your high school physics class that keeps you up at night puzzling about why you saw what you saw. You could hear about an event in history that you were previously unaware of and ask why you have never heard of it. Picking up the newspaper today may have you dusting off your old economics and policy books as you try to sort through what seems to be happening in the global economic system. Personally, we encounter events, people, and things all of the time that challenge our existing models about how the world works for better, for ilk, for general interest, for our edification, what have you.

The search for assorted "standardized curricula" that works everywhere for all people tries to move education away from a process that produces cognitive dissonance. It's exceptionally impossible to predict how the information and process of schooling will affect the assorted participants. Parker Palmer has a spectacular chapter in T he Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life entitled "The Paradox of Wholeness" that illumines this idea. Moreover, the cognitive dissonance endured within the educational setting invites consideration of the existential idea that "being is becoming." Simply, life seems to have the tensions of paradox and cognitive dissonance at any time. Within these tensions, we find opportunities to recreate ourselves; often times, we benefit from self-recreation that does not choose one piece of the tension over another because we become comfortable within the ambiguity of paradox.

As an engineer, I can relate to this sense of paradox all of the time because I have an invitation to remake the physical world of objects. Generally making trade-offs between competing requirements characterizes engineering design. Within all of the models I can make, I live within the tension of trying to pursue the best option within the limited resources I have. For clarity, I chose to discuss the situation of engineering as a personal singular construction because I'm sure various engineers have different takes on the process of engineering design than I do. The tensions within engineering design manifest at the limit of one's resources. What would I do if I had better knowledge of the problem? More complete awareness of the context of use? Access to a different type of material? More time? Better models of the life cycle of the artifact? and the questions go on.

Doing science also seems to be a realm of cognitive dissonance. Einstein made the type of theoretical leaps he made by envisioning himself traveling next to a beam of light. I don't know how cosmologists handle the Big Bang as being the origin point to the entire universe where nothing existed before. A child confronted with a set of observations that do not match his or her predictions has a choice about what to do with that set of observations; to consider the observations fully, the child must make a choice to embrace cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance seems to be a feature about what it means to be human. Yes, it's challenging to live within this frame but to not embrace cognitive dissonance means that everything must make sense at all times and in every way at an individual level. Simply put, I do not think that's possible.
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