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The Benefits of Implementing a Structured Academic Controversy in the Classroom

By Michael Karlin

Recently, our research team at Indiana University published a study entitled “Design and Implementation of a Structured Academic Controversy for Preservice Teachers in a Computer Education Licensure Program”.  The complete study is available for free at that link, but this blog post will summarize the study, as well as offer some additional ideas for 6-12 implementation. 

While our study focused specifically on preservice teachers (undergraduate students who are training to become teachers), the approach has also been widely used at the secondary level as well.

For those unfamiliar, a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) is a pedagogical approach designed to help students navigate controversial issues in a collaborative way.

In general, research suggests that incorporating discussions on controversial issues in the classroom can help increase student engagement as well as provide students with a safe space to explore and debate ideas that are different from their own.  SACs are a specific approach to navigating controversial issues, and some of the initial discussions of their use in research literature came from David Johnson and Roger Johnson in the 1970s.

And while the SAC approach can be beneficial for student learning in classroom environments without technology, new edtech tools offer some exciting and engaging ways to implement SACs in the modern classroom (which I’ll elaborate on towards the end of this post).

There are variations on the SAC approach throughout research and practical implementations, but for us, the SAC approach looks like this:

Choosing the Topic: To begin, the teacher (or the teacher with the students) chooses a topic.  Similar to a problem-based learning scenario, this topic should be one that engages the students, but it should also be something controversial (i.e. where there are multiple, valid viewpoints that can be addressed).  In our study, we were working with preservice teachers in our Computer Education Licensure Program, and we asked the question “Should 1:1 iPads be rolled out school-wide in K-4 classrooms?” 

Preparing Instructional Materials: Next, we prepared an introductory presentation for our preservice teachers, outlining the topic.  We decided to include news stories and real-world events from nearby schools, to help the students feel more connected to the content and understand that this was an issue they would likely face in their futures. 

Structuring the Controversy: Our class had twelve students, and we broke those students into 4 groups of 3.  Each group was assigned a different perspective, and all perspectives were outside of their own (i.e. roles they were not familiar with).  We had a group of “teachers” a group of “technology leaders” a group of “administrators” and a group of “parents”. Each group was assigned a particular stance on the issue, and told that they would need to prepare a 10-minute research presentation outlining their answer to the controversial question, as well as prepare for a 15-minute Q&A session from the other groups and our expert panel (more below). 

Research: Students then worked in their group to conduct research and create their presentations.  One of the most important elements of the SAC for us was the role-playing element, where our preservice teachers took on a perspective outside of their own to defend.  We reminded them of this throughout their research so that the materials they found supported the argument they were trying to build. 

Presentations: Student then delivered their 10-minute presentations that they had prepared, followed by a 15-minute Q&A session.  We also brought in a panel of experts for the presentations, so we had actual parents, teachers, technology leaders, and administrators in the room to question and challenge our preservice teachers.  This was absolutely the highlight of the activity, and there were some wonderful discussions that happened here.

Discussion: At the conclusion of the 4 group presentations we had a classroom discussion/debrief where students quit the role-playing and discussed the activity from their own perspectives.  This was helpful as a reflective tool, but also as a way to discuss the challenges, debates, and arguments that were raised during each of the Q&A sessions.

Expert Panel Remarks: Following the discussion, each member of our expert panel provided a short summary of their overall thoughts, and discussed who they agreed with and disagreed with, and why.  

Decision-Making and Reflection: During this final portion of the activity, students were provided with a reflection form, asking them to make a final decision about the controversial topic and to provide justification for why they made the decision that they did. 

Overall, the activity was incredibly well-received by students and experts alike.  We had great discussions, and the conversations that students were able to have with each other and with experts really showed an advanced understanding of our topic.  Our study has additional details on the specific results we saw, for those interested in digging deeper. 

However, one thing we didn’t get to do, was add in lots of fun edtech tools.  We used PowerPoint and Google Slides, and we recorded the session so students could reflect on it later, but I think there are some great tools that would really add value to an activity like this.

Something like Flipgrid could be used to get students talking about the issue before hand, or reflecting on the SAC afterwards.  Tools like Project Pals could be used to help students scaffold their argument during the research phase.  Padlet could also be used to help students create graphic organizers while they build out and organize their arguments. And even Twitter (or another tool) could be used to host a backchannel chat while students gave their presentations (or as a reflection tool between/after presentations).  Even something as simple as a Google Doc would be great for students to keep notes and work collaboratively throughout the research process. 

As for the types of issues to incorporate at the 6-12 level, there is certainly no shortage of controversial issues today!  On the STEM side, you’ve got climate change, GMOs, STEM cells, cloning, and so many more. On the humanities side, you’ve got banned books, gerrymandering, the electoral college, foreign government election interference, just to name a few.  And in general, many PBL topics can also be modified to fit an SAC approach.

Finally, for those interested in learning more about SACs, here are some additional resources that I’ve found helpful in the past:

Overview of Structured Academic Controversies

Example Worksheets and Scaffolding for SACs

How to Teach a SAC from Copy/Paste

Teaching SACs in the History Classroom

SAC Resources from Pedagogy in Action

This article originally appeared on The Ed Tech Round Up 

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