Cognitive Dissonance in Postcolonial Analysis


In this reflection, I reference the dual-processing theory of cognition to describe why many students will experience cognitive dissonance when examining texts from critical lenses for the first time. When I was working in classrooms where eighty percent of the students were white, I needed to anticipate and mitigate the fact that the vocal and expressive manner is which Toshalis (2015) notes students will resist uncomfortable situations might increase my White students’ likelihood to commit acts of racist, verbal violence against the few Students of Color in the classroom. In these contexts, I build cognitive dissonance activities into inquiry units to give students the tools to recognize when they are experiencing cognitive dissonance and to provide them with strategies to work through the discomfort and enter into a space of abstract, higher order thinking. An example of one dissonance activity is on slides thirteen through sixteen of the presentation at the end of this post. This reflection demonstrates how I apply my knowledge of the ways students learn to develop context-specific teaching strategies, and it details one method I use to make the classroom a space that welcomes diverse perspectives.


I was sitting in the second row of folding chairs at an undergraduate conference, listening to a student present on the Bethany Indian Mission school’s colonial legacy, when I saw the conference moderator deflate in his seat at the front of the room, his head dropping in his hands. As the speaker concluded and the moderator pulled himself up, a red blush burned his pale cheeks. He thanked her and said, “I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence doing missionary work—and wow—you are making me rethink some things.” He cleared his throat, mumbled “I feel pretty lied to,” and then introduced the next speaker as he slid back down into his chair.

I knew the feeling. I was a first-year college student when I realized the discourse of voices my school and community promoted fed and fully satisfied me with a false myth of the United States’ democratic ideals. That realization first arose as a reaction to the ideas and arguments Edward Said (1979) presented in Orientalism. My instructor gave us a few minutes to journal about our responses to the piece. What? was the first sentence I wrote down. I’m kind of shocked, was the second. I can’t believe I didn’t learn this in school, was the third followed by, well actually, I can. Those first two reactions—sentences that expressed a mix of disbelief, confusion, and indignation (Toshalis, 2015)—were a necessary step concluding that the education I had believed to be neutral was constructed for the imperialistic purpose of affirming the value of White, Western cultural norms. I responded to the knowledge Said offered me with shock because it conflicted with what I had known and what I wanted to believe was true. When I had to resolve this conflict through analyzing both my previous thoughts and the new knowledge I gained, I made the judgment that my past ideologies were rooted in a colonial myth of Western greatness that, obviously by my reaction, was still operating prevalently in society. Like the moderator who realized he was “lied to” through the tension between what he knew and learned, having a moment to reflect on how my brain and body was accepting added information exposed truths about my ideologies that I would have wanted to ignore as a way of distancing myself from the position of the Oppressor. To encourage students to accept and not reject information that causes dissonance (Toshalis, 2015), we must give them the space to identify and analyze the desires or resistance to learning more that texts spark within them. We must help them discover that these reactions are clues as to whether their interaction with a text is challenging them to accept discomfort and disrupt their notions of commonsense, which is a necessary factor in anti-oppressive education (Kumashiro 2002).

Appleman (2015) notes that “colonist ideology constructs a world view that imprisons both sides. It precludes an ability for Western peoples to learn from histories and cultures of the colonized” who “became the creations of a cultural imagination that neither understood nor sympathized with them” (Loc 2341, 2359). To begin to understand colonialism and the forms of “Othering” that colonialist ideologies perpetuate within already Othered groups, I had to experience cognitive dissonance. I had to encounter information that dismantled what I knew as fact. This is why I believe reader response—not as finding “deep personal connections to texts” (Lewis, 2000,p.  256) but as examining “the stances [we] take up” (Lewis, 2000, p. 258) in response to literature— is a crucial component of critical literacy.  As Kumashiro (2002) notes, cognitive dissonance can create a “paradoxical condition of learning and unlearning (Kumashiro, 1999a) in which students are both unstuck…from the ways they have always thought…and stuck…needing to work through their emotions and thoughts” (p. 63). To work through the emotional responses we need to pay attention to the emotions manifesting.

It is important to remember that students often “want to undertake sociocultural analysis as unique individuals,” though “to broaden their sphere of understanding in addressing social issues, they need to think of themselves as public individuals as well” (Appleman, 2015, loc. 2447). Reader response can, just by asking students for their personal feelings, detract from critical analysis because it does not necessarily connect their ideologies to societal discourse. However, to understand how pervasive this colonial discourse is, how easy it is for Oppressors to ignore, I believe we have to pay attention to how texts situate us as readers and make us respond to that positioning. I think teachers can do this by framing response as not the result of a text plus an individual, but as the result of a socially-shaped text plus a socially-shaped individual.  

For a Child and Adolescent Development course, I worked with a small group to create a presentation about how cognitive dissonance can lead to higher cognition. Slides thirteen through sixteen contain a dissonance-inducing activity that I adapted from Gorski’s (2009) “Who said it?” quiz. Activities like these can serve as mentor texts that introduce students to feelings of dissonance and the strategies (like using level questions) they can use to work through their resistance. For instance, if students horizontally read Joy Harjo’s “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” alongside the information presented in their History textbooks, they will experience conflicting discourses that they can use questions from dissonance mentor texts to address. By focusing on their reaction, they can understand how it is a product of many societal factors alongside their transaction with the text. They can complicate the notion that responses are solely individual.


Appleman, D. (2015). Critical encounters in secondary English : Teaching literary theory to adolescents [Kindle edition]. New York : Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

Kumashiro, K. (2002).Theories and practices of antiopressive education. In Troubling education: Queer activism and antiopressive pedagogy (pp. 31-71). New York: Routledge.

Lewis, C. (2000) Critical issues: Limits of identification: The personal, pleasurable, and critical in reader response. Journal of Literary Research, 32 (2), 253-266.

Toshalis, E. (2015). Make me!: Understanding and engaging student resistance in school [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

(1) Comment

  1. Elizabeth Anderson says:

    Hey Ashley,

    Thanks for sharing such a well-thought out post on cognitive dissonance and its use in classrooms. I was (weridly enough) in a practicum classroom as the issue of cognitive dissonance was raised to IB English 12 and AVID IB English 12 students. Our cooperating teacher would continually repeat “remember that when you feel discomfort, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you disagree.” I liked the reminder because I think that learners can often throw up shields around themselves and retreat to comfortable spaces rather than challenge what they know. To confuse dissonance with disagreement can create defensive learners and comfortable status quos. Learning is not repeating what we know, it is exploring the unknown, and that includes emotions that raise discomfort.

    I think that colonialist ideas are a great way to demonstrate how cognitive dissonance creeps up. It can be scary to question the fundamental things you believe to be true. It means that you feel as though you have been “lied to” as you bring up. I also felt this way when I realized that colonialism was actually an evil, not a good.

    Side note: Ohh… if you haven’t read “Sapiens” by historian Yuval Noah Harari yet, I highly recommend it. It is a beautiful text about the entire history of our species. I felt cognitive dissonance several times, and especially around the ideas of what it means to be human, if we have really evolved by becoming technologically advanced, and what colonialism has really done to us as a species overall. I promise, this book has some mind-bogglingly perspective-changing moments.

    Sort of side note: I am very impressed with your blog post, this feels like a published article in some journal. And, your blog is beautiful. Wow! I just want to peruse it for awhile. Also, the artwork thumbnails with the collages are such a beautiful touch.

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