Thursday, 17 December 2015

Creating Cognitive Conflict

Creating “Cognitive Conflict” 

When I teach Indices I usually give this sort of worksheet. Which I think is ok, I have insisted that they must show their working and by the end I can gauge whether the student understands the concept or not.

After hearing Dr Malcolm Swan talk about “creating conflict", I wondered what that would look like in practice. I then came across this absolute cracker from Andrew Stadel (@mr_stadel)on his blog. Andrew gave them this worksheet (below) in which all the questions have been answered incorrectly. When I initially looked at this I did think this was not as powerful as a worksheet mixed with correct and incorrect answers. The richness of this activity is because all of the answers are common misconceptions and as Dylan Wiliams said: "good feedback causes thinking" I think the same applies to questions - "A good question causes thinking". 

After hearing Malcolm Swan speak about “creating conflict”, I believe this hits the spot and it places the student on the back foot and creates conflict.

For many students when they see:

Question 1, creates conflict with many students because they believe it to be correct, when I am adamant that none of the answers are correct - let the battle commence! Suddenly between the two students they start making suggestions as to what it could be. 

Another favourite of mine is question 5. This is a classic misconception that exposes students who do not have an understanding that the power of a half is the same as the square root.
One question which caused a lot of discussion among the mathematics teachers I showed this to was question 3.

Some teachers were not happy with this question, which to me means it is causing conflict with them, and therefore likely to cause discussion within the classroom.

How do I use it?
I believe the activity works best in pairs with the sheet printed and laminated with a set of post-it notes. I like students to work together so they can share solutions, argue in more logical and in reasoned ways which allows them access to mathematics and to take more ownership. It’s much more fun to try to think and reach solutions collaboratively so students don’t feel so isolated and are less likely to think of the task as a threatening business. 
The post-it notes allow me to see which students are making progress, and which students might need some support. It allows me to check their reasoning, and also to share best practice with the class.
After they have completed the activity - I then ask them to write up the correct method and answer in their exercise book. 

I write this blog and @robertkaplinsky throws this into the mix, another great idea, something else to try out.

If you have any thoughts or perhaps similar activities please share them in the comments section below.


  1. Looking forward to the series, Damian. Do you have a working definition of cognitive conflict you're working with? Is asking any student to consider any error cognitive conflict?

    Also: can you point me to the longer video of Malcolm that you excerpted here?

    1. My definition of Cognitive Conflict is when a students previously gained knowledge is challenged by newly assimilated information - this previous knowledge could be misunderstood / misinterpreted.
      I think cognitive conflict only occurs if the student believes the statement to be true, so in this example not all students would be cognitive conflict. Many students will not be in conflict, but I hope the students who have not mastered the topic will be. The students who have understood the concept I believe still get something out of the activity and need to explain their reasoning.
      I also use these activities where students "mark" the work and justify their reasons. I believe this does cause thinking but not as much or as powerful as Andrew Stadels worksheet. Thoughts? (I am not an expert, I am just sharing my thoughts - so any insights are appreciated).

      Here is a link to the longer version of the video it is from the Standards Units which were shared with all teachers in UK.
      Thanks for the comments, Damian

  2. I like this idea, especially working together to create a dialogue about each conflict.

    I feel I must say straight away that the word conflict has strange connotations for me, as it implies some kind of war or battle, which makes me uncomfortable for some reason - I think it might be to do with wanting to avoid conflict, and so something to avoid rather than resolve? The affective aspect feels important here somehow...

    In this task, you are directly challenging (even anticipating) 'incorrectness', and then correcting it. I wonder if there is more value in allowing mistakes to occur and then discussing them as and when they do? Although I imagine you do this alongside this as well. The language of incorrect/correct stands out to me, feeling perhaps harsh; in some way implying that incorrect answers are deficient in some way, whereas they could be viewed as making some kind of sense to the person that did them - perhaps you could 'soften' it in some way, saying something like: 'why do you think these answers made sense to whoever did them? how could you explain how they have misunderstood the meaning of powers?' I don't know how you might want to word this, but you know what I mean (something about valuing 'incorrect' answers too...) For example, it might be interesting to discuss *why* people might write 2^5 = 10 - it might make sense to someone who has started 2^1 = 2, 2^2 = 4, ...

    These are just my initial thoughts - please don't take them as a criticism of what you are doing - I really like the thoughtfulness that has gone into this - I am just really interested in the connotations and affective elements of this type of task and would be really interested to discuss this with you..


    1. Thanks for comments Danny, no criticism taken 😀. I understand your thoughts on the word conflict, I just want their minds in conflict - I want to rattle some minds. The reason I like this activity is because it slows down some of my students that want to race through work and finish with 8 wrong. I want the students to work together to resolve the conflict created by the answer.
      I do use this and other strategies for errors and misconceptions, and I really like you alternative "why do you think these answers made sense to whoever did them". I like this because I want my students to value mistakes as learning opportunities. I have been trialling "My favourite no" which I really like.
      Thanks again Danny, we will have to talk on the phone, perhaps after Christmas if you have some time we can arrange something?

  3. Hi and thanks for sharing this reflection.

    Malcolm Swan always brings clarity to complexity for me, and this is a nice example. I also loved Stadel's worksheet, but I used a slightly different format. I combined it with Nora Oswald's "Bucket 'O Lies" idea to teach this same subject. I wrote a short reflection about my experience if you're interested:

    Thanks again for your reflection!

    1. Thanks Nat, nice blog you have there. Damian

  4. Hi Damian

    While I agree absolutely with Danny that mistakes are to be valued and explored in class, I don't share his discomfort with conflict. I do a training session on misconceptions starting with a heading "Not all conflict is bad".

    Maybe I just like messing with my pupils' minds, but I like them wrestling with things and questioning their understanding (even if they right, just to cement their learning).

    In a constructivist view, there must be times when we need to shake the very foundations of a construct if it is flawed in order for a more mathematically correct construct to be developed.

    To me that's the purpose of the cognitive conflict - it's not bad or harmful, but necessary at times.


    1. Thanks Mike, I like the heading "Not all conflict is bad". Cheers for the comments.

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