Idea: Cooperative Controversies
instructors in various disciplines during the past year, we frequently
heard that although students in discussion sections may not have difficulty
stating their positions on issues, they often fail to voice their perspective
when it contradicts someone else's. How do you encourage students to take
a stand, teach them how to defend their position, and encourage them to
work toward mutual understanding?
controversy you can set up a situation which clearly draws two opposing
sides of a controversial issue; learners placed on both sides of the issue
cooperate to reach a consensus. Working in groups, students first define
positive or negative responses to a controversial question: for instance,
"Are both evolution and creation science scientifically valid?" After
stating their positions, groups plan and present the stance opposite to
that originally taken. For the detailed procedure, see Table 1 below.
You can have each student then submit a position paper stating current
thinking and an explanation of how and why it changed after the readings
and the cooperative controversy.
To have a successful
cooperative controversy in a fifty-minute period, you need to structure
the class carefully and willingly take a monitoring role as you release
control of the content to the students.
a Controversial Controversy
for Various Disciplines
the preceding class period, identify the controversial question and
assign readings that present both sides.
- At the
beginning of the class period, assign every student to a small group
(four to eight students). Assign half of each group the pro side and
half the con side of the issue.
group rules: (a) everyone participates on the project; (b) no arguing;
all opinions are honored; (c) no side conversations; (d) all show self-respect
and respect for others.
each group, students from each side share information and ideas about
the issue to prepare their arguments.
- The pro
and con sides of each group join in a circle. The pro side presents
arguments supporting the questions while each member of the con side
- The con
side presents arguments against the question which the pro side records.
- Sides in
each small group switch positions, and students on each side share information
and ideas. (See step 4.)
- The new
pro side presents arguments in support of the question, and the con
- The new
con side presents arguments against the question, and the pro side records.
- The class
as a whole discusses what has been learned through the cooperative controversy.
What do students know now that they didn't know before? Have students
changed their original positions? This summing up session should help
students organize their thoughts for their position papers.
David J. Bredehoft, "Cooperative Controversies in the Classroom," College
Teaching 39, 3 (Summer, 1991):122-25).
Was the discovery
of the Philippine Tasady tribe in 1971 an elaborate hoax, or was this
the most primitive tribe on earth with relics from the Stone Age?
Are art exhibits
such as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe pornographic, and should
they be supported by taxpayers' money?
laws be enacted to limit foreign countries' buying of U.S. properties?
children have the right to attend public school?
Is the greenhouse
effect fact or science fiction?
U.S. continue political sanctions against the government of South Africa
now that Nelson Mandela has been freed?
insanity plea be abolished for criminal acts?
belong in the public schools?
mercy killing be allowed for terminally ill persons like Janet Adkins,
who, with a doctor's help, killed herself because she had Alzheimer's