That Can’t Be Right!

“Few of us take the pains to study the origin of our convictions; indeed, we have a natural repugnance to so doing. We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.” – James Harvey Robinson

"A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."

“A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

In educational circles, we call what is described above as cognitive dissonance–a well documented and generally accepted phenomena. On the negative side, it can prevent us from positive change and learning. The most often cited example involves smokers who continue to smoke in spite of relatively objective and convincing evidence of the health hazards. After all, grandpa smoked a pack a day, and he lived to be 95. We alter information to support our behavior and existing beliefs.

But this is when the bad news is also the good news. On the positive side cognitive dissonance allows us to hold fast to our beliefs even in the face of adversity. I recently made the error of engaging in what I thought would be a healthy exchange with another blogger. He’d made some comments about public education that I did not agree with–not a problem, really. But when I challenged what he said the dialog deteriorated rapidly with him steadfastly refusing to answer my questions or address my concerns with statements he’d made. The shame of it was it could have been an interesting discussion.

My “agenda” was to defend public education–not that I think it is perfect by a long shot. But it is the system we have and in spite of a number of flaws, there’s a fair amount of teaching and learning going on. I’m still not sure what his agenda was, but it included a lot of politics and some diatribes regarding the white majority, inadequate funding due to the “blankity blank” governor of his state, and an implied lack of commitment on the part of teachers. (His original position was that “we” are teaching children myths about society and reality in school.)

What interested me was how each of his attacks raised my hackles, admittedly because he was challenging my beliefs in a way that seemed very unfair. As long as I didn’t get too emotional I could see some sense in what he was representing. But it was clear that his solution to everything that is wrong with public education and the country in general would be fixed if we simply adopted his belief system. Anything he doesn’t believe is a myth.

In one of my responses, I suggested that I believe when I am in a classroom or working with children in any setting, my two primary objectives are to first convince them they are capable of learning and doing. One of my criticisms of the system is that kids get turned off too easily and quickly. My second priority is to make them think–not simply adopt someone else’s beliefs or call someone else’s a myth.

His reply to this was a cynical “How’s that working out for you?” My reply was “Quite well, actually.” And I terminated the exchange. Of course what he isn’t going to hear is my admission that these are not easy tasks. In general kids are more open to exploration, but beliefs form quickly. Even five-year olds have a pretty solid idea of how the world should function–one reason there’s so much tattling in the early grades.

It doesn’t improve with age. Last year I had a fifth grader inform me that he truly hates to read. My initial reaction was “that can’t be right.” He couldn’t defend his belief but that didn’t much matter to him. He just hates to read. This fellow is very likely going to go through life believing he hates to read and any indication to the contrary will evoke the “that can’t be right” response from him. He will likely go on believing that reading is a drudgery to be avoided.

But guess what!? I will go on believing something could happen that will change his feelings about reading. I wish I knew what it was and I wish I could make it happen sooner rather than later. There is little to be gained from blaming his hatred on a myriad of factors–that just reinforces his opinion. But make no mistake, I am going to go on believing that he could and well may learn to enjoy reading.

And between us exists a positive tension–the sort that keeps the world in balance. Heck, given the continued development of technology, he may do quite well in life without ever learning to love reading in the traditional manner. After all, the technology exists for virtual assistants to read to us.

One of the joys of being involved in education is the opportunity to deal in possibilities. In order to deal in possibilities we have to be prepared to challenge beliefs–the beliefs of others and our own.

“A disciple…can never imitate his guide’s steps. You have your own way of living your life, of dealing with problems, and of winning. Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible. Learning is making it possible for yourself.”

― Paulo Coelh


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