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Why Teach with Structured Academic Controversy?

Controversies are an inherent aspect of decision making and problem solving. If individuals get intellectually and emotionally involved in cooperative efforts, controversies are likely to arise. Whether positive or negative outcomes result depends on how effectively leaders structure the decision-making process. If the decision-making process asks students to think divergently, to find out more information about the issue, and to argue constructively about alternative solutions or decisions, then structured academic controversies can lead students to build consensus rather than to maintain polarized stances.

Enhancement of critical thinking skills stems from changes in students' views about an issue and continues through development of a state of uncertainty or disequilibrium, which in turn motivates a search for more information and a more adequate cognitive perspective, and the derivation of a new, reconceptualized conclusion (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1997). Studies have shown that focusing course content on controversial topics positively affected students' attitudes toward citizen duty, political participation, and political efficacy as well as their political trust, social integration, and political interest. Recent research has shown that students' use of structured academic controversies has resulted in long-term change of their opinions (D'Eon, Proctor, & Reeder, 2007).

National Science Education Standards


Enhancement of Science Content Knowledge

  • Nature of Science
  • Historical and cultural influences on development of scientific evidence
  • In-depth content knowledge on specific topics related to controversy

Science Process Skills which can be enhanced through use of classroom controversy (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1996) include:

  • researching issues
  • organizing information
  • preparing a position
  • advocating a position
  • being able to rationalize one's position
  • improving oral communication skills
  • evaluating strengths and weaknesses on both sides of an issue
  • seeing issues from other perspectives
  • reconceptualizing one's position
  • synthesizing information
  • reaching consensus
  • enhanced motivation

Affective Components of Using Structured Academic Controversy


For Instructors
Teaching about controversies may be a source of anxiety for the teacher as well as for the students. Use of the constructivist strategy, Structured Academic Controversy (SAC), avoids potential areas of classroom conflict by focusing on goals designed to create a positive learning experience. The instructional goals and strategies should promote teaching of a controversy without: a) requiring students to take a dualistic stance; b) straining classroom interactions between students with diverse views; or 3) marginalizing students whose personal beliefs are diverse from the majority.

For Students
Rarely do individual students openly share their perspectives on controversial issues with instructors in a proactive way. My use of structured academic controversies began with Mary, an unusual science teacher-candidate who was my advisee.


Essay: Teaching evolution to all the Marys

One fundamental topic in the discipline of biology is the process of evolution. In my early days of teaching, I would preface the brief unit on evolution by telling my high school sophomores, "Evolution is something you need to know, but don't need to believe." I taught the concept in a straightforward, discipline-focused way.

My ideas about teaching evolution to students started to expand when I began teaching in a teacher preparation program. One of my students, Mary, was a devout Mennonite. She was also intellectually curious, hard-working, outspoken, and had a great sense of humor. Mary would frequently come in my office during office hours (imagine that!) just to chat with me about science education and the middle childhood program. During one of our conversations, Mary brought up the issue of teaching evolution. In our frank conversation, Mary told me that her religious beliefs were inconsistent with "believing in" evolution. Appreciating her frankness, I responded in kind, telling her that if she intended to teach in a public school, it was her ethical obligation to teach evolution as a scientific principle. I also informed her that even in some religious-affiliated high schools, the teaching of evolution (for knowing, not believing) was expected. Mary agreed that she could and would teach evolution in a public school setting.

Some of my students had very defined religious beliefs, some had none, either by choice or by chance. But whatever their belief systems were, my choices in how and what I taught in my science classroom were also guided by the principles of science, my interpretation of those principles, and my values as a person and as a teacher. How could I best serve the needs of my students, as a community of learners, to engage in scientific thinking? I felt the need to demonstrate recognition and respect for each Mary that I would have in class, yet at the same time promote unequivocally the importance of teaching science, not religion, in science class.

The Structured Academic Controversy unit was born! Use of this constructivist strategy avoided potential areas of conflict by focusing on learning goals to create a positive learning experience. The learning goals promoted teaching of evolution without: a) requiring students to take a dualistic stance; b) straining classroom interactions between students with diverse views; or 3) marginalizing students whose personal beliefs were diverse from the majority.

Read more essays by faculty about affective domain scenarios and situations that commonly arise in the classroom.




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