Reducing Resistance to Diversity through Cognitive Dissonance Instruction

By McFalls, Elisabeth L.; Cobb-Roberts, Deirdre | Journal of Teacher Education, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Reducing Resistance to Diversity through Cognitive Dissonance Instruction


McFalls, Elisabeth L., Cobb-Roberts, Deirdre, Journal of Teacher Education


IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHER EDUCATION

Before admission to the college of education, students at a large, predominantly White public university in the Southeast are required to complete a state-mandated course on diversity issues. The purpose of this course is to introduce students to diversity and effective ways of addressing it in future classrooms as a result of changing demographics. Often, students experience resistance to diversity issues because their current understandings or beliefs may not coincide with the information presented in class. One psychological theory that can address this phenomenon is called cognitive dissonance. In the study reported here, the principles of cognitive dissonance theory are applied to an instructional strategy used to reduce resistance. The results indicate that incorporating cognitive dissonance theory into instruction on diversity creates an awareness of dissonance (i.e., metadissonance) and has the potential for reducing resistance to diversity issues. Implications for teacher education are addressed.

   We must begin to encourage a dialogue [on diversity]; one without acrimony
   but with civility.

   --John Hope Franklin, Chair, Advisory Board for the President's Initiative
   on Race (1999)

Understanding diversity issues has become a fundamental component of teacher education programs in colleges and universities across the United States. By the year 2025, it is predicted that the proportion of students of color will increase to approximately 50% of the student population, and the majority of teachers will continue to be White, middle-class women (Bollin & Finkel, 1995; Singh, 1996). To ensure academic success for all students, teachers need to understand, appreciate, and respect the differences their students bring to the classroom. Furthermore, these classrooms should reflect an atmosphere of unity and diversity, which will lead to social justice, the ultimate goal of multicultural education (Ladson-Billings, 1992).

At a large, predominantly White university in the Southeast, students are required to complete a course on multicultural education before admission to the college of education. This course is intended to increase understanding and appreciation for the ways in which diversity has shaped American culture, social thought, social institutions, and intergroup relations. Race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, language, and exceptionality are categories that include all groups and individuals. Hence, the course takes a broad look at diversity in American life historically and currently and also considers its impact on education. Providing a realistic view of the challenges faced by educators, administrators, and policy makers when addressing the needs of a diverse student population is a primary focus of the course.

Most of the students who attend the course are White women with a working-class or middle-class background. Their average age is between 19 and 21. There are a few nontraditional students returning to school after raising families, serving in the military, or delaying higher education for other reasons. Most of the students are native to the state where the university is located. Most are from racially and ethnically encapsulated areas. Cultural isolation often leads to stereotypical, racist, and/or prejudiced attitudes toward those outside one's own group, especially when knowledge about others is derived from misleading and stereotyped media representations (Jordan, 1995). However, we have learned that we cannot assume that all students who enroll in the diversity course enter with racist or sexist ideologies. In fact, some students may actually welcome the opportunity to learn more and to discuss inequities in American society (Higginbotham, 1996). Yet, we have also learned that a large proportion of the students begin this class with consciously or unconsciously held ideologies that they attribute to "diverse" groups in society. …

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