Two Core Principles about Learning: What every teacher and student must know about education theory

Posted on April 15, 2011


Cognitive Dissonance

Author:  Sanjay Goel,

In  May 2018, this article has been reposted by Stanford University’s repository for faculty development, Tomorrow’s Professor,  at



Out of the hundreds of theories related to human learning [1][2][3][4], two principles can be identified as core principles about learning  – cognitive dissonance and cognitive flexibility.

1. Cognitive Dissonance

(Very important background reference: )

Curiosity is the most fundamental requirement for ‘learning.’ Incongruity, contradictions, novelty, surprise, complexity, and uncertainty can arouse curiosity. Cognitive Dissonance Theory [4] postulates the following:

  1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.
  2. Recognition of an inconsistency results in cognitive dissonance, and motivates an individual to resolve the dissonance.
  3. Dissonance can be resolved in one of three ways: change in beliefs, change actions, or change perception of actions.

The traditional teacher-centric education does not create much dissonance among learners. However, instruction can be designed to create short term dissonance. This dissonance facilitates the learners to first recognize the need to change attitude, and then they should be guided through progressive changes to resolve the dissonance. Non-threatening levels of perceived meaning-deficits generate manageable cognitive load, an enabling flow of emotions, and positive incongruence. When the positive incongruence is within an individual’s ‘threshold,’ it supports learners to sustain their motivation, enjoyment, and efforts. This ‘threshold’ depends upon the learner, learning context, culture, and community. Hence, in order to help the learners to develop their ability to learn, and also the ability to solve ill-defined unfamiliar problems, the prime aim of higher education has to be to increase this threshold.

2. Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to ‘transfer’ what learners have learned in a context, to different, even unique situations is referred to as ‘cognitive flexibility’ [5]. Cognitive Flexibility Theory posits that the traditional linear teaching may be ineffective for ill-structured knowledge domains.  Spiro and Jehng suggested that learners need to develop their own knowledge representations to adapt knowledge for future use in different types of situations. This and other related theories like ‘Aptitude-Treatment Interaction’ and ‘Random Access Instruction’ recommend that for developing cognitive flexibility, especially for ill-structured domains, over-simplification, compartmentalization, and transmission of knowledge should be avoided. Instead instruction should support context dependence, multiple representations, construction, and interconnectedness of knowledge.

These two principles can be used by educators to  self evaluate and improve their classes and teaching style.  Even good subject experts’  classes can become insuffficiently effective on two accounts – (i) teachers do not initiate student’s active learning  by creating  the required cognitive dissonance  or (ii) they do not expose students to well diversified contexts and applications to create cognitive flexiblility.  Fortunately, there are several known ways to address both these problems in the context of any subject being taught to any level of students.   Concerned and innovative teachers enjoy applying these in their courses and even create novel ways to do so.  

I invite the professionals, teachers, and students to recall and reflect upon their interesting experiences with these two principles in their classes either as teachers or as students.

I have included  these two core principles in my proposed multi-dimensional framework for designing the pedagogical engagements as well as some instructional innovations and interventions in software development education [3][8][9][10][11]. 


[1]   Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness

[2]   Some Theoretical Perspectives about Learning and Teaching

[3]   Design of Interventions for Instructional Reform in Software Development Education for Competency Enhancement: Summary of PhD Thesis

[4]  Sanjay Goel, An overview of Selected Theories about Student learning, Indo-US Workshop on Effective Teaching and Learning at College/University Level, IIIT Delhi, 10-12 Feb, 2011.

[5]   L. Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford University Press, Stanford, USA, 1957.

[6]   Spiro, R. J. & Jehng, J., Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp 163-205, 1990.

[7]    100+ Anecdotes of Most effective Lecture classes as recalled and narrated by Computing students

[8]  Project-centric Evolutionary Teaching in Software Development Education

[9] SERO Model for Inquiry Teaching in Software Development Education

[10] Engaging Students in Puzzle Solving for Developing their Logical Problem Solving ability

[11]  Phenomenon of Learning – A Unified Explanatory Theory

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