In the World, But Not of the World — Cognitive Dissonance and Altering Student Perspectives

Girl reading bible in fieldIn November 2015, I was fortunate enough to present at Biola’s biannual Justice, Spirituality, and Education Conference. The theme for the conference was “Raising Flourishing Children in a Perishing World,” a subject that has been relevant — as we all know — since the first set of brothers (i.e., Cain and Abel) roamed the earth. My own particular presentation was titled, “Paradigm Building and Paradigm Shifting: How Jesus’ Dialectical Approach Can Assist Us in Teaching Our Children to Be in the World, but Not of the World.”

Given this focus, I began my presentation by introducing Bronfenbrenner’s “Ecological Theory of Development.” This was done so I could illustrate the plethora of factors that can impact a person’s development (e.g., family, church, peers, culture, extended family, neighbors, school boards, government agencies, mass media, economic situations, teachers, health services, religious organizations, neighborhoods, biology). Our children are — like it or not — influenced by all of these factors as well. Consequently, there are three choices we, as parents and teachers, can make in light of such influential domains.

  1. We can try to assert control over all the factors, which becomes — as one can imagine — exhausting as well as futile given the time demands such behavior would require.
  2. We can simply ignore or dismiss the factors as irrelevant and inconsequential, which is also a mistake due to the substantial and overwhelming impact such factors can have in our children’s development.
  3. We can create an environment in which children are presented with alternative perspectives specifically intended to cause what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance. That is, as adults who profess to be Christians, we should continually provide our children with premises that can counterbalance the inaccurate viewpoints being offered by the world.

A very simple way of accomplishing this is to create cognitive dissonance through what I call the “what if we all acted or thought in this manner?” approach. That is, by assuming a perspective in the extreme (i.e., everyone acts this way) one can begin to have an honest and open dialogue about how good or bad a particular perspective or posture can be.

For example, what if no one took care of the poor? What if everyone opted to abort children? What if we all agree that it was okay to mistreat just one set of people? What if everyone you know went around lying? What if no one went to school? Or, what if only the rich were allowed into heaven? By proposing and openly discussing such questions with our children, we can assist them in developing a technique that can help them identify fallacies within any of the ideas that are purported by the world as reasonable courses of action.

Another way to create cognitive dissonance and compel your children to re-evaluate their thinking is to simply offer an alternative perspective that juxtaposes the current one, which is the model that Christ often employed during His sermons when He uttered the words “you have heard…but I tell you…” Consequently, for Christian students to be able to be in the world, but not of the world, their teachers need to create lessons and/or experiences that can honestly and openly allow them to challenge the inner beliefs they have formed from the world.

Some examples of such experiences are: going on short-term mission trips, volunteering to serve the poor, serving the homeless, asking them to open the door for someone else, taking them to controversial debates, forcing them to write on a topic that takes a point of view with which they do not agree, and/or involving them in service learning opportunities.

For example, if one of our students (or children) comes to us and says all Christians are hypocrites, the right response might be to connect them with a Christian organization that is unequivocally living out the Gospel. If your child comes and says that life has no meaning, perhaps the best approach might be to help them become pen pals or friends with individuals who have struggled to survive a life-threatening illness or hardship . . . or to read an inspiring biographical article, chapter, or book about someone who overcome great odds in their struggle to live. Or maybe, just open the Scriptures and study the life of Joseph — his rejections, suffering, and hardship and how God was still present in all of these difficulties.

It is critical to note, however, that none of this can be accomplished if we do not love our students and/or our children. We must never forget that to employ cognitive dissonance as an educational tool, one must first be grounded in the fruits of the Spirit. Teachers and parents must thoughtfully, patiently, and lovingly employ such techniques after they have first established a loving relationship with their children, just like Jesus did with those whom He instructed. Otherwise, the technique can backfire, severing relationships as well as the potential for honest and open discussion.

In short, we must prayerfully provide students the space to struggle through their own thinking by letting them come up with and defend their own thoughts, rather than rushing them to conclusions. In other words, we lovingly support our children in their journey of seeking, finding, and understanding God’s truth.

As you reflect on your own teaching practices, prayerfully consider:

  • Lord, I understand that all learning extends from the level of trust and love that exists between my children and me. Please show me specific ways that I can love my children in the journey of listening, being present, and patiently watching them struggle through and defend their own thinking.
  • Lord, give me the wisdom to identify instances and methods through which I can lovingly challenge the damaging perceptions that my children have already accepted from the world.
  • Lord, please help me identify experiences that will show my children how to be in the world, but not of the world.

Lord Jesus, help me welcome the perspective of my children without judgment or resentfulness. As I teach, let me understand how I should approach every issue so that I may bring You glory through my actions and my thoughts.  

Lord, guide my mind so that I can wisely, patiently, and lovingly help my children find their true identities in You, yet preserve their place in this world as a change agent for Your Heavenly Kingdom. Help me guide my students so that they become biblically grounded clear thinkers and beacons of light to a world that so badly requires it. I ask all this in the the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Luciano Cid, Ed.D., Assistant Professor of Education, Biola University