Claudia Khourey-Bowers, Kent State University
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: December 22, 2008


Vaccines have been used for thousands of years to protect against infectious diseases. In historic and contemporary society, there have been mixed perspectives on the value of vaccines. The medical community, especially those in public health, supports the widespread use of vaccines. Other communities oppose mandatory use on the basis of potential risk factors, philosophical, or moral reasons. Do vaccines provide benefits to individuals and to society that outweigh possible medical risks? Should vaccines be mandatory or should individuals have the right to choose to opt out of vaccinations based on philosophical or moral grounds?

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Learning Goals

Students should explore the benefits and risks of mandatory vaccinations, taking into consideration medical, social, political, and moral bases for decision-making. Students should also explore the balance between individual rights and the needs of society.

Context for Use

The topic of this structured academic controversy may be appropriate at the high school or college level. As with any structured academic controversy, advance preparation by the students and instructor is essential. The Town Council itself will take 60 - 70 minutes, depending on the depth of arguments that you expect from the students. Students should be given significant out-of-class preparation time to do the necessary reading and to construct their presentations, and they may need some in-class time to prepare with their teams. Students should have the guiding questions ahead of time as they prepare their comments.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will be given opportunities to learn about the role of vaccinations in eradicating many infectious diseases, the current risk factors of contracting infectious diseases in industrialized and developing nations, and other actual or potential risk factors of vaccinations. Further, students will be able to explore various philosophical and moral perspectives on the use of vaccinations.

Groups of students will be expected to learn about these concerns from multiple perspectives, including from among the following:

  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Scientists
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Physicians
  • American Chiropractic Association (ACA) Chiropractors
  • American Association of Churches and Temples (AACT) Board of Directors
  • Libertarian Party committee for Health Care Reform

Students will be expected to research and discuss the following questions related to vaccines:

  1. What are the benefits and risks of vaccination to individual health?
  2. What are the benefits and risks of vaccinations to public health?
  3. What evidence exists between vaccinations and specific risks, including autism spectrum disorders?
  4. From your perspective, what factors should be taken into account when determining what should be mandated in a democratic society?
  5. What responsibilities, if any, do individuals in a society have to the society as a whole?
  6. Should scientific or technological work in a pluralistic society like the U.S. be guided by ethical or moral principles?

Student Guidelines

(1) The class will be divided into 4 - 5 groups. All students are to read from the listing of suggested electronic resources provided. In addition, each group will be given a specific perspective to become "experts" on for the town council meeting. Each group is expected to become expert representatives of their group's position, yet remain open-minded about the worth of what each other group has to contribute to the discussion. (worth 25 pts)

(2) Each group will prepare a detailed, yet concise written summary of their position (CDC scientists, AAP physicians, ACA chiropractors, and AACT directors) on vaccinations. Your group's summary should be typed, 2 - 3 pages, and can be used during the town council. (worth 20 pts)

(3) During the town council meeting, each group will present, according to the protocol, their summary information, as well as prepared responses to Question Sets A & B. These prepared responses should be typed, and represent in-depth thinking of all group members. (worth 30 pts)

(4) Following the town council, each student will be asked to respond to open-ended questions about the instructional value of the process of structured academic controversy, as well as a personal reflection on the broader issues.

Town Council Agenda (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov6 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity may challenge previously unexamined beliefs of some students, so it requires care in establishing the rationale for the exercise. I emphasize that one instructional goal is to expand individuals' perspectives and understanding of others' points of view, not to try to change personal beliefs. As part of this, the role assignments are made publicly and randomly, so students' personal beliefs don't ever need to be revealed within the classroom setting. The second instructional goal is to convey how value systems and scientific evidence are integrated into positions and policies.


Multiple approaches to assessment are possible with the structured academic controversy format.

Students are expected to prepare their comments ahead of time, so those can be assessed with criteria that would be used with an essay or research report. Student or team performances during the Town Council can be assessed from the standpoint of effective communication, presentation style, respect and listening to other perspectives, or quality and organization of information. For help with developing rubrics, go to RubiStar .

More importantly, use of structured academic controversy can change student beliefs and attitudes.

Student beliefs and self-knowledge can be assessed through a short written response about the instructional value of the process of structured academic controversy, as well as a personal reflection on the broader issues of vaccinations, public health, and individual rights.

References and Resources

Vaccination and Public Health Advocates

Centers for Disease Control: safety of vaccines and side effects

Immunization Action Coalition: information for health care professionals

Kids Health Nemours Foundation: description of commonly administered vaccines for children

National Network for Immunization Information: information for parents and health care providers

American Academy of Pediatrics: general information about vaccines

American Academy of Pediatrics: concerns about possible link between autism and vaccines

Opposition to Vaccination

ChiroBase: Another take on a chiropractor's position on vaccines (not an official statement)

Medical Time Bomb: vaccines are not responsible for ending childhood diseases

Dr. Moskowitz: Homeopathic position on vaccines

Disaster watch: vaccines no longer needed

In the News - Public Responses to Vaccines

Public Health Intervention: refusal of Catholic school to include HPV as part of school vaccination program

CDC: Role of vaccines in controlling some infectious diseases

Barriers to public health: role of low socio-economic status and vaccination of children

AZ Central: Arizona court ruling

Quackwatch: the debate between immunizations and faith