Why Teach with Structured Academic Controversy?

Initial Publication Date: December 22, 2008

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

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.

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