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Constructive Controversy

Constructive Controversy


This is a small-group discussion format designed to help students get the most out of an issue or case study by assigning them "positions" in terms of the issue presented by the case, asking them to generate arguments in favor of that position, then forcing them to argue against that position, and finally asking them to synthesize what they have learned into a position upon which both sides could most likely agree.

The activity

Constructive Controversy requires a case that has clearly opposing sides, or clearly opposing actions that the main players in the case must choose between. This can be as simple as ending the case which a question like: "What should the main character do? Action A or Action B?"

  1. Organize students into groups of four, each consisting of two pairs.
  2. Provide a case that ends with a question about what the main players should do.
  3. Assign each pair within groups to one position on the issue (e.g., one pair is assigned "pro" and one sign is assigned "con").
  4. Each pair is required to research the issue at hand and cooperatively develop their "best reasoned judgment" that supports their position.
  5. The pairs are allowed to assert their arguments to each other and try to refute the arguments against their own case.
  6. Then the pairs are required to switch positions, so the "pro" pair must now further research and develop the case for the "con" position, and vice versa.
  7. The debate is repeated, and finally groups are asked to develop a cooperatively-generated statement about the contours of the issue, and how a "best case" state of agreement might be reached. These statements need not be long, and can be presented to the whole class for discussion.


Do not require groups to generate lengthy documents: this inevitably lands on one person within the group and makes the workload unfair. Instead, ask for "position statements" that consist of bulleted lists of paragraphs, generated in class on laptops, if possible.

Example: Negotiating a joint statement among nations

Students are assigned the role of delegates from various nations which have competing interests in some way (claims on a piece of land, desires for something to be described in a certain way, economic interests in a certain event or place). Together, they must compile an encyclopedia entry describing the situation upon which they can all agree, with the teacher facilitating the negotiation conversation and projecting the statement as it evolves using a laptop and computer projector.


This conflict can be between individuals within groups, or between groups. This means that one can assign each group to be a nation and the negotiation takes place as a whole-class discussion, or groups can have a student representing each nation within them, with negotiations taking place uniquely within each group. The latter can be a bit more chaotic, but enables a final all-class discussion comparing the various synthesized products which can be fascinating.


Having unique negotiations happening in many groups simultaneously works best if there is at least one laptop in each group, so statement language can be quickly drafted, altered, re-drafted, and so on.

From: UT Professor of Music Sonia Seeman

From: D. Johnson, R. Johnson, & K. Smith (2000) Constructive Controversy: The educative power of intellectual conflict Change, January/February, pg. 28-37.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.