Structured Academic Controversy: A Variant

by Harry on January 11, 2023

A grad student advisee of mine who had previously been a high school teacher introduced me to the Structured Academic Controversy when I observed her teaching a class for future secondary social studies teachers. I’d never seen it used before in class, and have to come to find a variant of it — but not the actual variant she used — a very useful strategy in quite specific conditions. Here’s roughly how she did it:

Students were given a controversial proposition. They were divided into groups of 4, and each of those groups was further divided into pairs.

Within each group one pair received materials favoring the proposition; the other pair receives materials opposing it. Students read material and discussed the most salient points of the argument to present.

Students presented their argument. Each pair had three minutes to present their ideas. After 3-minute presentations, each pair had a minute to rebut.

Then they swapped sides. So the favoring pair now had the opposing materials, and vice versa, and they went through the whole process again.

Then students reported back to the whole class.

The way the exercise is described above assumes that the students have not done any prior relevant reading or research. And its purpose when used in high school is really to get students to see all sides of the issue, and internalize the reasons that are given in the supporting and opposing material. It worked pretty well when my graduate student did it in my class, partly because we hadn’t, in fact, assigned material pertaining directly to the proposition that we were asking them to consider. But when I tried it s a couple more times it didn’t work so well.

Here’s why. First, I generally do assign reading pertaining to whatever I am going to want the students to think about in class and at least in small classes they mostly do it. I want them to draw on those readings, not to, essentially, choose reasons from a handout. Second, the swapping sides didn’t work at all. Students reported that the exchange after sides were swapped was exactly the same as the exchange before. This is fine if you are trying to get them to internalize what is on the sheet, but not if you are trying to trigger authentic exploration of the issues. I now use an adapted version of the SAC that seems to work much better with my students, in my circumstances:

Students are given a proposition and divided into groups of 4, each of which is divided into pairs, one of which is going to support, the other of which will oppose, the proposition
The pairs have 5 minutes to come up with their arguments.
Pair A spends 3 minutes giving its arguments to Pair B
Pair B spends 3 minutes giving its arguments to Pair A
They discuss the arguments they have each given, staying in role, for 5 minutes
They continue for another 5 minutes, permitted to break out of their roles and say whatever they now, on reflection, think.
We continue the discussion in the whole class, drawing on what they have said in their groups

I vary the times allocated to each task depending on the topic and how much time is available, and often drop the stage at which they have to stay in role. Students frequently report that they are glad that they were made to argue for a side they didn’t agree with, because it enabled them to see the why somebody might believe it. And the SAC is especially helpful for one particular kind of issue: one for which there is not much authentic disagreement in the room. Here are a couple of examples:

When I teach about whether the government should be involved in marriage, I use a short paper by Mary Shanley, called Just Marriage, and another by my deceased colleague Claudia Card called Against Marriage and Motherhood. Most first year students have never considered that state-sponsored marriage might be a bad idea, and for that reason they don’t really understand why it might be a good idea. I found that open-ended discussions quickly descended into me playing devil’s advocate on Card’s behalf, and being the center of the discussion. But when they do the SAC half the class has to support her position for at least a while, which gets the ideas a good airing without me being at the center of things. And the reasons and arguments get a fair hearing in the whole class discussion.

I’ve used, with graduate students (in Philosophy and Education), a paper by Stanley Fish arguing for a very austere view of what the aims of higher education should be. Personally, while I disagree with Fish’s position, I’ve found considering his arguments extremely illuminating. I’ve found that in open-ended discussion students (especially the Education graduate students) are very loathe to take him seriously at all. But in the context of a SAC in which some are forced, initially, to take his side, the subsequent whole class discussion is much richer and more subtle, and most people go away actually understanding what Fish is arguing (even if they still disagree).



Moz in Oz 01.12.23 at 2:28 am

I like that. At times I find myself feeling “someone has to present the other side”, usually when there’s a consensus in the group that completely overlooks reasons why their view might not be universally applauded. Especially if I think others are uncomfortable but don’t feel free to disagree. But I sometimes struggle when other people do exactly that, especially if they’re not clear that they’re steelmanning a position they disagree with to get us to think about it.

Some of my more social science papers at university were like this as a student. We got zero pro-ana material in a course that dealt with body image issues in modelling and body-building, for example. Coursework only considered the pathological parts with no discussion of where the boundary could be drawn. I struggled to understand that at the time, and I still have no idea whether the lecturer even drew a line (I presume somewhere before death but they wouldn’t say when asked).

The tricky part is when, as with the anorexia discussion, coursework crosses over with real life. Feminist studies really struggled with this especially with first year students. But also around issues like guest lecturers refusing to allow men to attend their lessons (real example). There are definitely issues where making students argue particular sides would be really ugly (“our legal system produces justice”, “the nakba is necessary”, “marriage is consent”…)


John Q 01.12.23 at 5:47 am

Derailing slightly, but LA Paul and I have a piece about transformative education, citing Fish for the view that the job of universities is “the mastery of intellectual and scholarly skill”, rather than working any personal transformation.

BTW, Fish’s position is very much the default view in Australian university education, to the extent that it’s seen as a more than a high-end trade school. The occasional mention of transformative experience might make it into the mission statement, but that’s about it.


J, not that one 01.12.23 at 3:48 pm

(Writing from the US) I wonder whether Brooks’s recent book on the temptations of narrative has anything to say about the transformative aspects of education. There’s usually an implicit image of where students are coming from. At one time it could be assumed even at elite universities that most of them were coming from traditionalist and even premodern backgrounds and were being introduced to modern critical ideas for the first time. At some times it could be assumed that they had essentially no window on the wider world as children and adolescents. The kind of curriculum described in the OP makes certain assumptions about how various kinds of critical thinking slot into the academic and post-academic world (something that seems to me to have changed just in the past few decades). “One doesn’t understand unless one knows the arguments both for and against” might not be accepted by everyone. For example, some might think one doesn’t understand unless one’s incapable of understanding the arguments against.


Peter Dorman 01.12.23 at 5:36 pm

I used to use a rather different version of this idea. For a particular topic — it might not be an issue controversy so much as a subject on which there are divergent approaches — I would select a set of readings by different authors, and, depending on class size, individual students or groups of students would be assigned a particular author. Out of class, they would read their text and figure out where the author was coming from. In class we would go around by having each author’s proxy summarize their viewpoint, and after that it would be open for discussion among the authors. Students were told they would be evaluated for their accuracy and consistency in representing the author they were given.

At the end we would step out of our roles and consider the layers to the process. What seemed to be the more and less attractive aspects of these texts? What happened when these perspectives were put into contact with each other? Were there, perhaps unexpected, points of similarity between ostensibly opposed positions? Or potentially significant differences between views outwardly on the same side? Did particular views fare better when the conversation veered into one aspect of the question rather than another? And were some views harder to proxy than others? Why?

I liked this exercise when I encountered “choke points” where there were multiple interesting perspectives, for instance on matters of historical understanding, political strategy, etc. It has the advantage, quite large in my opinion, of going beyond agonistic, two-sided representations of intellectual disagreement. Later, I would often have wonderful conversations with students individually about how it felt to “be” their particular author for an hour or so.

I’ll add that what makes me somewhat uncomfortable about the exercise in the OP, especially the first version, is that it reminds me of high school debating, which I found to be sophistic rather than enlarging.


Peter Dorman 01.12.23 at 5:44 pm

PS: The name I gave my proxy-the-authors exercise was a salon.


Harry 01.12.23 at 9:13 pm

JQ: Thanks! I’m going to teach that paper in my upcoming class on philosophical conceptions of teaching and learning!

Peter Dorman: I see how that would work well, and actually now I’ve read it I’m going to try it out in the same class I’m assigning JQ’s paper in.

On the high school debate thing: That’s what I feared the first time I saw it used. But I am really struck that it never has that flavour at all. Maybe its about framing: I talk to students about reasons — the idea is that they are trying to discern the reasons in favour of/against the proposition they have been assigned. So they are not arguing with each other, but deliberating together, using a division of labour.

I do a different thing, which I think is a variant of what often gets called jigsaw (actually what you describe seems like a variant of jigsaw too). I bring a paper into class and assign groups of 2 to sections of the paper, and then get them to explain their part of the paper to one another. This only works with some papers, and I haven’t tried using it in larger classes (because I predict it just wouldn’t work in larger settings).

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