Conflicted about cognitive conflict

I’ve written before about the importance of challenging children’s misconceptions when it comes to teaching.

“Psychologists from Piaget to Sweller couch learning in terms of the acquisition and refinement of schema. One of the limitations, I hypothesise, of direct instruction techniques is the fact that students do not come to us ‘tabula rasa’ – rather they come with many preconceptions already in place. These preconceptions – Geary dubs them ‘folk physics’ or ‘folk biology’, etc – are sometimes extraordinarily difficult to change; even after the scientific knowledge has been taught and recalled successfully under exam conditions.”

Constructivist models of learning tend to focus on the role of cognitive conflict in the successful challenging of misconceptions. Cognitive conflict is the term educationalists use for the idea of cognitive dissonance and can be broadly defined as the mental discomfort produced when someone is confronted with new information that contradicts their prior beliefs and ideas. Where 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.

Cognitive dissonance is a fairly secure concept within psychology and thus it seems reasonable to suggest that provoking cognitive conflict might lead students to reject their misconceptions. For example, Piaget suggested that when a child experiences a discrepancy between their understanding of the world and a new experience, that they either assimilate the new information into existing schema or accommodate the new information by creating new schema. This has led some constructivist approaches to teaching to focus on ways to generate this cognitive conflict in lessons.

Does provoking cognitive conflict improve learning?

There are psychologically plausible reasons to think that it should. Firstly, the prevalence and enduring character of misconceptions are well documented: For example in science- Some Common Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions)

Secondly, they appear to interfere with the acquisition of new learning, either because the taught ideas tend to drift back towards the prior conceptions over time or because the new information is simply ignored. For example, from this article by the American Psychological association (How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning?)

“Alternative conceptions (misconceptions) can really impede learning for several reasons. First, students generally are unaware that the knowledge they have is wrong. Moreover, misconceptions can be very entrenched in student thinking. In addition, new experiences are interpreted through these erroneous understandings, thereby interfering with being able to correctly grasp new information. Also, alternative conceptions (misconceptions) tend to be very resistant to instruction because learning entails replacing or radically reorganizing student knowledge. Hence, conceptual change has to occur for learning to happen.”

Thirdly, we know that cognitive dissonance can provoke intense thinking on a particular subject: as the individual tries to resolve the differences between their prior beliefs and the new information. A happy side-effect of that intense thinking is that it should create very strong memories – as Willingham notes:

“Thus, the first principle for students is that memories are formed as the residue of thought. You remember what you think about, but not every fleeting thought—only those matters to which you really devote some attention.”

Do instructional techniques that promote cognitive conflict effectively challenge misconceptions better than direct instruction?

This is where I am genuinely conflicted!

Some of the early evidence on this appears to come from a series of experiments conducted by Bell in the 1980s.
Bell Cog Conflict
It certainly looks impressive, but there looks to be a large difference in the prior attainment (pre-test) of the two groups. We also cannot tell anything about the design from this graph (randomisation, blinding or what the control group actually involved). Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to get hold of either of the papers so that I can interrogate the design.

Postscript: A fellow blogger was able to furnish me with Bell’s 1993 summary of this research ‘SOME EXPERIMENTS IN DIAGNOSTIC TEACHING’. The graph above comes from Experiment 3 which involved four year 7 and 8 classes. In the experimental condition, groups of 4 students tackled workbook problems before a classroom discussion of the conclusions and conflicts involved. The control groups appeared to work their way through an instructional booklet of examples with practice. From what I can tell, there appears to have been no attempt at randomised allocation or blinding on what appears to be fairly subjective measures of outcome. There also appears to be no use of inferential statistics to see whether the differences between the group were actually significant in any way. In short, Bell’s conclusion that guided discovery was superior to direct instruction appears extremely bold considering the poor quality evidence!

More recently Guzzetti (2000) reviewed a decade of quantitative and qualitative studies and suggested that short pieces of text which directly challenge misconceptions had the strongest and longest-lasting effect on changing those conceptions.

“Several investigations showed that instructional strategies like demonstrations, cooperative discussion, and nonrefutational expository text, designed to be coherent were successful in producing conceptual change for groups of students on the average. These effects, however, were demonstrated only immediately after instruction (Dole, Niederhauser, & Haynes, 1990 ; Hynd, Alvermann, & Qian, 1994a). Effects tended to dissipate over time. Only students who read refutational text did not return to their alternative conceptions when tested a month or more after instruction (Hynd et al., 1994a).”

However, these interventions were not always successful:

“Although some students became aware from reading refutational text that their prior ideas were inadequate, not all of these students were able to change those preconceptions solely by reading refutational text. Hence, although cognitive conflict may be necessary for conceptual change to occur, it is not sufficient.”

It also seems that peer-group discussions to support refutational text were also not always effective:

“in the other study, students were simply placed into small groups for cooperative discussion. In each of the studies, however, the most convincing, powerful, and persuasive group member or members were able to sway other group members to their naive conceptions. In some instances, individuals who participated in small group discussions were satisfied with their explanations, even though their ideas were contradicted by the refutational text.”

Instructional techniques centred around cognitive conflict will potentially fail for the same reason that cognitive dissonance doesn’t always lead to a change in attitudes and beliefs. For a start, people may simply ignore or reject the contrary evidence. They can maintain their prior beliefs by unreasonably questioning the validity of the evidence or reinterpreting the data. Finally, they may simply frame the disconfirming evidence as an anomaly – an odd exception that doesn’t challenge the ‘folk theory’.

In a study exploring the effects of cognitive conflict and direct teaching for students of different academic levels, Zohar (2005) reports how these issues have bedeviled research in this area:

“Studies have shown controversial results regarding the effectiveness of cognitive conflict in learning. Researchers have observed that in situations of cognitive conflict, students usually patch local inconsistencies in a superficial way rather than undergo the more radical kinds of conceptual changes implied by conceptual change theory.”

“For students to reach a stage of meaningful conflict, they need to have a certain amount of prior knowledge and a certain degree of reasoning ability to be able to grasp the gist of the conflict and to understand the new information.”

Zohar’s study sought to examine two teaching methods; ICC (inducing cognitive conflict) and DT (direct teaching) and their effect upon students with different prior academic attainment scores. The study taught a component of biology (factors affecting photosynthesis) upon which students had not previous received instruction. As well as the plant biology, students also had to apply ideas about control variables. Students engaged in a computer simulation of a photosynthesis experiment along with written worksheets and class discussion for both instructional conditions.

The results found that there was no main effect for teaching method – both ICC and DT instructional techniques had the same gains. However, there was an important interaction. Higher prior attainment students appeared to benefit from ICC whereas lower prior attainment students benefited from DT. This suggests that a potentially confounding factor in previous research on cognitive conflict may be the prior knowledge of the participants in the study.

The authors are keen not to present this as evidence that ICC should not be used for lower attaining students (there’s perhaps an indication of their possible bias in that they conversely insist that DT shouldn’t be used for higher attaining students!). However, what the results appear to underline is the complex interactions between prior knowledge, student motivation and instructional design which lead to the effective challenge of misconceptions.

This area would seem a rich one within which to conduct larger scale RCT research. However, there are significant problems with many of the designs which might help us pick apart the interactions between instructional strategies and learning outcomes because of the unfortunate habit of researchers to bundle together multiple interventions within these studies. For example, there is an RCT currently underway in the UK looking at the effectiveness of a programme called: Let’s Think! Secondary Science

“The structured programme challenges students’ thinking through cognitive conflict, reflects the social construction of knowledge by promoting collaborative working, and encourages students to reflect on their own thinking and learning (metacognition).”

In my view, the success or failure of this particular RCT won’t tell us very much about the role of cognitive conflict in provoking deeper thought processes and more accurate conceptions of science. For example, metacognition and collaboration are two strategies highly rated by the EEF, so a positive result for the study won’t tell us an awful lot about the role of cognitive conflict within the package.

An attempt at synthesis

Unguided teaching approaches are ineffective and it seems wise to apply direct instruction like a ‘first-line drug’ in most circumstances. Before any child can intellectually tolerate and reasonably engage with the discomfort of cognitive conflict they need a firm foundation in the subject matter. Without that foundation, attempts to teach through cognitive conflict may fail because working memory is overloaded or simply because students can’t recognise the importance of the disconfirming evidence being presented.

As the knowledge base becomes secure, there is an argument that other instructional approaches may be more effective at tackling misconceptions. However, this is by no means certain. Even if students have a fairly solid knowledge base to work with, there’s no guarantee that provoking cognitive dissonance will successfully cause them to change their ideas. It requires quite a considerable degree of intrinsic motivation to tolerate the discomfort of dissonance long enough to examine the issues more than superficially.

So, I remain conflicted on this issue. It seems there are good reasons to believe that a combination of direct instruction and cognitive conflict can successfully challenge misconceptions, but the question is how and when to time these conflicts so they produce conceptual changes that are secure and long-lasting.

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14 Responses to Conflicted about cognitive conflict

  1. Pingback: What’s important about subject knowledge? | Evidence into practice

  2. John Crossland says:

    As the original project manager and team leader for Let’s Think Secondary Science(LTSS) it is appropriate for me to respond to your confusion over the status of cognitive conflict in the LTSS project. Cognitive Acceleration (CA) the original theoretical basis for LTSS is based not just upon cognitive conflict but also the work of Vygotsky and his concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and mediation. The implementation of this approach in CASE and CAME across both primary and secondary schools has a 30 year pedgree of proving its impact in many studies across the World ( This impact has shown far transfer effects within the subject focus of the research but simultaneously across other subjects.

    This is the first time the updated CA approach, now called Lets Think, has been tested by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in a Randomised Control Trial (RCT).

    Cognitive coflict is not about difficulty of understanding but as you say a mismatch to the current evidence. I prefer mismatch to the labelling of a misconception. The history of science is littered with what are now known as misconceptions but at the time they were accepted as true because they fitted the evidence available at that time. If the lesson activity presents evidence within the individual’s, or better still, the collaboratve group ZPD then the cognitive conflict produced will encourage new learning related directly and immediately to the learning needs of the individual and/or the group. If there is no conflict then only recall is required amd mo new learning. The LTSS pedagogy produces a very high pace to learning. This is something direct teaching through cognitive load theory can never achieve unless all of the class are having the same mismatch at the same time.

    Of course with an entirely new topic for the class, then carefully strucured direct teaching using cognitive demand theory can lay the foundations for individuals to construct their own meaning from the teaching. This does not prevent the individual from constructing a mismatch based upon previous knowledge and understanding but such well structured teaching can be effective in these circumstances.

    The LTSS research design was never intended to test cognitive conflict against cognitive load theory because
    they have a different purpose in the process of learning. Research over 30 years demonstrated the impact of the LTSS approach to EEF and they choose to more rigorously test it in an RCT with 50 schools. So far the infomal feedback from schools is very positive. The EEF formal evaluation report is due out by the end of 2015.


    • Thanks for the comment and the detail on the LTSS research. Good luck with the rest of the trial. The results will be interesting – even if I’m a disappointed they won’t shed light on cog. conflict specifically!


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  6. Adam says:

    Hi Nick – really enjoyed this. I wrote this a little while ago which touches on our amazing ability to disregard conflicting evidence in favour of our preconceptions

    On twitter I remember you referenced a debate about whether misconceptions really can be overwritten or whether they are just suppressed. Do you have any further reading for that? I’m really interested in the idea of a secondary vs primary misconception and how we can address them. Many of our students’ misconceptions are, by definition, based on things we have told them (e.g. when a substance is heated the particles expand) rather than having acquired “naturally” (heavy things fall faster). I want to research this further but don’t really know where to start!!


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