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Navigation Strategy
Of the many forms conflict can take, one of the most common is disagreement about issues or ideas. Handled constructively, such differences can be productive, yet, all too often, people approach their disagreements destructively. In schools, as in the larger society, students and teachers often have difficulty knowing how to handle differences of opinion. Academic controversy is a process designed to help students understand opposing viewpoints in a context that is collaborative rather than competitive. It turns differences of opinion into vehicles for students' growth and learning.

Video Summary
At the Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities in New York City, Peter Mason's students develop conflict resolution and critical thinking skills through the process of academic controversy. The issue is wolves -- whether timber wolves in Minnesota, the last remaining viable herd in the U.S., are to be "controlled" as destructive predators or protected as a valuable species.

Although rural Minnesota is far removed from the Big Apple, students in Mason's class have no trouble engaging the passions of this controversial issue. They work in groups of four: two students in each group represent ecology groups that want to protect the wolves, and two represent farmer and rancher organizations that want to control them. They the pairs switch sides. Ultimately, the group's task is to develop a plan for the future of the timber wolf in Minnesota on which both sides can agree.

What is Facing History?
Academic controversy is a rigorous, formal process in which students engage in and work through intellectual conflicts. David and Roger Johnson, the founders and guiding lights of the cooperative learning movement, developed academic controversy because they observed that students and teachers alike find it difficult to deal with divergent views and opinions. Academic controversy establishes norms and a common "script" for resolving intellectual differences.

In academic controversy, students work in groups of four to address a particular issue (see "Rules for Academic Controversy.") Within these foursomes, students divide into pairs. Each pair is assigned one of two opposing points of view on the issue. They then follow the steps outlined below to air their differences and, finally, synthesize their arguments to arrive at a consensus.

Steps in Academic Controversy

Students:

1. Create the best case for their positions. Students thoroughly research the issue, then organize and frame logical, compelling, well-reasoned arguments.

2. Present the best case for their positions. Students present their arguments persuasively. While each side presents, the other listens, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.

3. Engage in open discussion. At this point, students on both sides continue to advocate for their positions while attempting to refute the evidence and the reasoning of the other side.

4. Reverse perspectives. Pairs switch sides, adopting the point of view they earlier tried to refute. The job of each pair is now to present the best case for what was previously the opposing position. In turn, they listen as the other side presents the best case for what used to be its position.

5. Synthesize. Opposing pairs join together to select the best reasoning from both positions and meld them into a new position to which all can agree. The entire group then writes a joint report explaining the synthesis, including a thesis statement, a rationale, and a conclusion.


Activities for Students


One


Active listening is a key element of perspective-taking, and it is an important part of the process of academic controversy. To prepare students for academic controversy, you might want to use the paired listening activity that is part of the communication skill building strategy.


TWO


Students can get started with academic controversy by working first on an issue that requires no research -- for instance, an issue involving the school, such as scheduling, or a community issue with which students may already be familiar. Take students through the process step by step. (As in the video, students probably will require extra support when it is time to switch points of view and "own" the other side's position.) Students can gradually work up to more complicated topics requiring considerable research. (Some possible topics are listed in "Topics for Academica Controversy" below.) If students are amenable, you might audiotape or videotape portions of their presentations for them to critique and learn from later.


* Should tobacco companies be held liable for tobacco-related deaths of longtime smokers? (science, health, social studies)

* Was Ronald Reagan a great president or a disastrous leader? (history, social studies)

* Should medically assisted suicide be permitted by law? (health, social studies)

* Does Liszt or Brahms more closely embody the Romantic spirit in music? (music)

* Is television violence damaging to young children? (social studies, media studies)

* Was Juliet's father justified in insisting that she marry Paris? (literature)





Rules for Academic Controversy

(from Creative Controversy by David and Roger Johnson)
  1. I am critical of ideas, not people. I challenge and refute the ideas of the opposing pair, but I do not indicate that I personally reject them.
  2. I remember that we are all in this together, sink or swim. I focus on coming to the best decision possible, not on winning.
  3. I encourage everyone to participate and to master all the relevant information.
  4. I listen to everyone's ideas, even if I don't agree.
  5. I restate what someone has said if it is not clear.
  6. I first bring out all ideas and facts supporting both sides, and then I try to put them together in a way that makes sense.
  7. I try to understand both sides of the issue.
  8. I change my mind when evidence clearly indicates that I should do so.

Academic Controversy:  Strategy | Workshop | Resources
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