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Structured Academic Controversy

Updated: Jan 6

Structured Academic Controversy is a cooperative learning structure that requires students to argue for both sides of a controversial issue and ultimately come up with a balanced opinion about that issue. Students work in pairs to study one side of an issue and then debate with another pair that has become familiar with the opposing side. Pairs then switch “sides,” study the opposing argument, and debate again. Finally, the two pairs reunite to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side of the argument. Eventually, students come to a consensus about their collective opinion in regard to the argument and present that idea to the other collaborative student groups.

This learning structure teaches students to think about issues from multiple perspectives before forming an opinion and to be open to revising their opinion when they are provided with new information. It also teaches them the importance of argument, conflict, and active listening in the learning cycle. In addition, it provides students with practice in seeking consensus. These skills are especially valuable to anyone working in the field of environmental science.

If you’d like to try this learning structure in your classroom, use the following steps:

  1. Place students into groups of 4.

  2. Divide each group of 4 students into two pairs of students.

  3. Provide one student pair with materials favoring one side of a debate.

  4. Provide the other student pair in each group with materials favoring the opposite viewpoint. ALTERNATE APPROACH: You could assign a position to each student pair and direct them to research arguments in favor of that position online.

  5. Prompt students to read the material they were provided.

  6. Instruct each student pair to discuss the reviewed material between themselves and identify the strongest points of the argument they were provided.

  7. Student pairs present their strongest points of argument to the other pair. Each side has three minutes to present their ideas. After each 3-minute presentation, each side has 1 minute to rebut.

  8. Students then “switch sides” and trade materials with the opposite side.

  9. Students read the new material and formulate their argument for their new side.

  10. Students present their arguments to the whole group in the same format as Step 6, except now they are representing the opposing view.

  11. Students informally share any prior biases they had before researching the question, and explain if and how their views changed during the activity.

  12. Students work together to formulate a consensus opinion on the topic, based on evidence and reasoning from both sides of the argument.

The best questions for Structured Academic Controversy have two clear sides, are interesting to students, are closely aligned with the curriculum, and have easily available and concise materials for students to read. Each packet of materials should contain a mixture of facts and opinions.

Some questions to facilitate thoughtful and nuanced discussions using Structured Academic Controversy in Environmental Science include:

  • Should we introduce GMO American Chestnut trees into the wild?

  • Would reintroducing mountain lions be a good way to control white-tailed deer populations in the Eastern United States?

  • Is it better to transition to electric cars or mass transportation?

  • Should we build more nuclear power plants in the United States?

  • Do the benefits of removing hydroelectric dams from the Columbia River outweigh the benefits of the hydroelectricity they provide?

  • Should we place more large offshore wind energy farms along the coast of the Eastern United States?

  • Are pets the best use of the resources devoted to them?

  • What would you do if you were no longer able to buy things?

  • Should we use GMO crops to reduce pesticide and/or water use?

  • Do you recommend that we start moving low-lying coastal cities (ex: New Orleans, Miami) to higher elevations now in anticipation of rising sea levels due to climate change?

  • Should we ban the disposable plastic bags commonly found in retail shopping venues nationwide?

  • Are plastic bags or paper bags worse for the environment?

  • From an environmental standpoint, should we all become vegetarians?

  • Do you think the United States should adopt a recycling system similar to that found in Germany?

  • Would you require that the United States require that all recycling processes occur domestically?

  • Is it more environmentally friendly to live in a rural area or a city?

If you haven’t used this technique before, we encourage you to give it a try in your classroom, and enjoy the discussions that flow from it!

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