Structured Controversy

What is Structured Controversy?

Using structured controversy in the classroom can take many forms. In its most typical form, you select a specific problem. The closer the problem is to multiple issues central to the course the better. This strategy involves providing students with a limited amount of background information and asking them to construct an argument based on this information. This they do by working in groups.

What is its purpose?

  • to help students gain deep understanding of all positions related to a controversial topic or issue
  • purposeful use of controversy
  • requires reasoned judgment, not mere factual knowledge
  • student groups argue for and against an issue, then reach a consensus that is supported by evidence

How can I do it?

  • Choose a discussion topic that has at least two well documented positions.
  • Prepare materials:
    • Clear expectations for the group task.
    • Define the positions to be advocated with a summary of the key arguments supporting the positions.
    • Provide reference materials including a bibliography that support and elaborate the arguments for the positions to be advocated.
  • Structure the controversy:
    • Assign students to groups of four.
    • Divide each group into dyads who are assigned opposing positions on the topic.
    • Require each group to reach consensus on the issue and turn in a group report on which all members will be evaluated.
  • Conduct the controversy:
    • Plan positions.
    • Present positions.
    • Argue the issue.
    • Reverse positions and argue the issue from those perspectives.
    • Reach a decision.


  • To avoid problems, clearly communicate to the students the debate rules that will guide the interaction.
    • Be critical of ideas, not people.
    • Focus on the best decision, not on “winning.”
    • Encourage everyone’s position, even if you do not agree.
    • Use paraphrasing when you are not clear about what someone said.
    • Try to understand both sides of the issue.

How can I adapt it?

  • Can be used as an alternative to a traditional debate.
  • Allow students opportunities to have input into topic selection, defining the positions and providing materials.

Teacher Resources

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