Hockey, Measurement and Cognitive Dissonance – What do I do with what I know?

So it is that time of year again…hockey season.  Perhaps not for the NHL, but seemingly everywhere else in Canada.  My wife and I braced for the inevitable this fall – two kids in minor hockey and all the related practices, games, meetings and miles. As a parent I lace ‘em up for my own kids 3 to 4 times a week.  If it ever gets cold again, and our backyard rink freezes, that will change to 6 or 7 times a week.

Thanks to Hockey Canada, the emergence of a new season also brings with it testing and evaluation.  We put our young skaters through 6 different skill and speed activities to measure both development and comparison to other skaters across Canada in the same age group. Shooting accuracy, agility and speed are all measured and assessed.


A nation-wide measurement tool naturally comes with some parameters and rules.  For instance, in one of the speed drills we use a stopwatch to measure the speed at which each skater completes a set route.  It was suggested that one of the rules was that skaters be given 2 chances to register a time and we would take the best time.  When I took on this particular station last year, stop watch and clipboard in hand, it seemed pretty simple.  That was until ‘Jimmy’ took his turn.  Jimmy was arguably our team’s best skater – fast, agile and nimble.  In games he usually scored his three maximum allowable goals and for the sake of this topic, he very seldom fell to the ice.


When he took his turn for the timed speed event, he gave it his all, but fell on his first two attempts as he sought to lean extra low  into the third corner.  I attempted to counsel Jimmy that he make sure he complete the course and register a good time, even if it was not his absolute best time possible.  I bent the rules a little and gave him a third attempt.  On his third attempt he fell again on the same corner.  Drat.


Enter cognitive dissonance. A while back I listened to a compelling episode from CBC’s program Ideas inspired by the book ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)’

Cognitive Dissonance according to Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior. This theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described it this way:

Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one’s own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together; that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other (Festinger 1956: 25).


He argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

  1. One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;
  2. One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,
  3. One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

Back to Jimmy. I found myself in a state of cognitive dissonance.  On one hand, based on all other experiences and observations, I knew he was our fastest skater who usually sakted an entire game without falling.  On the other hand, I felt bound to record him as our slowest skater based on his three failed speed attempts and my understanding of the Hockey Canada rules.

To alleviate my discomfort, I felt drawn to saying, ‘tough luck, kid’ as I could find refuge in the rules and the related societal norms:

  1. This skater was only supposed to be allowed two attempts, and I had already sought to help him by giving him a third.
  2. It would not be fair to the others to give him seemingly unlimited attempts.
  3. We didn’t have time to give him more attempts.
  4. Bending the rules sets a poor example for others.
  5. He needs to learn there are consequences to trying to skate recklessly fast.

Despite amassing a plethora of reasons why I should not give yet another chance, one glaring belief remained – the data did not seem to reflect his skating ability, but rather how he was approaching the assessment.

What would you do in this situation?

I find the same cognitive dissonance issue arises around zeros, late deductions and other effort/behaviour elements factored into grading.  Punitive/consequential grading too often flies against what we either know, or think, of the student’s actual knowledge or ability.

I would argue that of all the assignments, projects and tests that I have ever graded in 16 years of education, zero has been by far the least used number.  Despite this fact, I have many times assessed a missing assignment as zero when a student failed to submit an assignment. How have I navigated this rather glaring state of cognitive dissonance?  Go back to the rules:

  1. It would not be fair to others.
  2. Teach a societal or life lesson.
  3. I warned them.
  4. The course outline clearly stated the rules.
  5. No formal evidence of learning equals a zero.

But then again, what if I know the student knew something.  Darn cognitive dissonance.





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