Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Efficacy: What It Means and Why It Matters

Cognitive Dissonance—the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds contradictory ideas at the same time—has wonderful implications for learning and an educator’s understanding of this theory is vital to their role in the classroom. Children make many incorrect assumptions because they are constantly experiencing things for the first time. When learning language phonetically, it makes sense that the word “done” is spelled “dun” or that all animals give live birth because humans do. When the child realizes that their assumptions are incorrect they experience cognitive dissonance. Being in this state of dissonance, the child has the need to align their thoughts with reality and, therefore, must choose either to deny the information that they have been presented with and stick to their original theory, or to change their belief system to match their current experience. It is the educator’s role to ensure that the child makes the correct decision while they are in this state of cognitive dissonance and the presentation, attitude and language of the teacher impacts this every step of the way. The information must be presented in a positive way. The child must not feel as if it is a bad thing that they thought otherwise. They should be encouraged to accept this new information and be excited about learning something new rather than pine over the fact that they were incorrect and negatively impact their self-esteem. If a child feels that accepting the new information will make them look unintelligent, they may be more likely to cling to the knowledge that provides them with a higher sense of self.

Self-efficacy may be one of the most influential theories regarding education throughout all stages of development. Different from self-esteem, self-efficacy is a person’s belief about their specific abilities. Self-efficacy is considered one of the most influential protective factors for at-risk children and youth, and with the number of at-risk students on the rise, it is imperative that they have a good sense of self. Self-efficacy effects goal and decision making and guides behavior in all aspect of life, not just academically. If a child feels that they are not good in a specific area they are less likely to choose to do work within that area. This only makes their assumptions come true. Enough of this will contribute to learned helplessness which is a significant risk factor. Students need to feel that they are good at subjects to the extent that they are willing to continue to work at them. Educators can have a great impact on this through their expectations. It is all too common that teachers identify children as weak in areas or target them as troublemakers. Even if it is never verbalized, just the thought can have a negative impact. This is the self-fulfilling prophesy and relates directly to self-efficacy. Studies have been performed again and again analyzing teacher attitudes toward children and the child’s response. They suggest strongly that expectation and negative thoughts by the teacher or primary caregiver have significant impacts on the child’s behavior.

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