by David Johnson and Roger Johnson, University of Minnesota Center for
What Is Academic Controversy?
Controversy exists when one person's ideas, information, conclusions,
theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another, and the
two seek to reach an agreement (Johnson and Johnson, 1995). Controversies
are inherent in both academic content (intellectual issues exist in every
academic discipline and subject area) and cooperative groups (members
have different ideas, opinions, and conclusions as they are working together
to complete assignments and master learning).
Academic controversy is the instructional use of intellectual conflict
to promote higher achievement and increase the quality of problem solving,
decision making, critical thinking, reasoning, interpersonal relationships,
and psychological health and well-being. To engage in an academic controversy,
students must research and prepare a position, present and advocate their
position, refute opposing positions and rebut attacks on their own position,
reverse perspectives, and create a synthesis that everyone can agree to.
Structured academic controversy is most often contrasted with concurrence
seeking, debate, and individualistic learning. To resolve an issue through
concurrence seeking, students inhibit discussion to avoid any disagreement
and compromise quickly to reach a consensus. In a debate, students present
and defend only one position before a judge who ultimately determines
who presented the best position. In individualistic learning, students
consider issues independently, working on their own with their own set
of materials at their own pace. Academic controversy results in more positive
outcomes for students compared to concurrence seeking, debate, or individualistic
Why Use Academic Controversy?
There is considerable research evidence validating the use of academic
controversy (Johnson and Johnson, 1989, 1995). The positive outcomes for
students can be classified into three broad areas:
- Achievement: Academic controversy results in greater achievement
and retention; higher quality reasoning, problem solving, and decision
making; more frequent creative insight; more thorough exchange of expertise;
greater task involvement; and attitude change.
- Interpersonal Relationships: Academic controversy results in greater
liking and social support among participants.
- Psychological Health: Academic controversy results in greater self-esteem,
social competence, and ability to cope with stress and adversity.
Structuring Academic Controversy in the Classroom
Academic controversy is a cooperative learning strategy and, therefore,
must be carefully structured to include positive interdependence, face-to-face
promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal
and small group skills, and group processing. To teach an academic controversy
lesson, teachers must (a) make pre-instructional decisions and preparations
(decide on instructional objectives, group size, group formation, room
arrangement, instructional materials, and student roles); (b) orchestrate
the academic task, cooperative structure, and controversy procedure (explain
the task, structure positive interdependence, structure the controversy,
structure individual accountability, explain criteria for success, and
specify desired behaviors); (c) monitor and intervene (observe interaction
among group members, ensure adherence to the controversy procedure, provide
academic assistance, and teach controversy skills); and (d) evaluate and
process (provide closure, assess and evaluate student learning, and provide
group processing and celebration).
The controversy procedure consists of five steps (Johnson and Johnson,
- Organizing Information and Deriving Conclusions: Students
research a position, learn the relevant information, and prepare a persuasive
"best case possible" for the position.
- Presenting and Advocating Positions: Students present in
a persuasive and convincing way the "best case possible" for
- Uncertainty Created by Being Challenged by Opposing Views:
Students engage in an open discussion in which they argue forcefully
for their position, refute the opposing position, and rebut attacks
on their position.
- Epistemic Curiosity and Perspective Taking: Students reverse
perspectives and present the opposing position as accurately, completely,
persuasively, and forcefully as they can.
- Reconceptualizing, Synthesizing, and Integrating: Students
drop all advocacy, create a synthesis or integration of the opposing
positions, and reach a consensus on the best reasoned judgment that
may be made about the issue.
The Role of Academic Controversy in the Cooperative
A cooperative school is a conflict-positive organization that teaches
students how to manage conflict constructively (Johnson and Johnson, 1994,
1995). To do so (a) a cooperative context must be established, which can
be accomplished by using cooperative learning most of the day, (b) academic
controversies must be structured in the classroom to maximize learning
from intellectual issues and enable students to practice conflict skills
daily, and (c) all students must be taught peacemaking procedures so that
they can negotiate their interpersonal conflicts and mediate the conflicts
of schoolmates when necessary.
Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. (1989). Cooperation and competition:
Theory and research. Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.
Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. (1994). Leading the cooperative
school (2nd ed.). Edina, Minn.: Interaction Book Company.
Johnson, D. W., and R. T. Johnson. (1995). Creative controversy: Intellectual
challenge in the classroom (3rd ed.). Edina, Minn. Interaction Book
Source: The University of Minnesota Cooperative Learning
Center. Copyright © David and Roger Johnson
Back to the Top