ERIC Identifier: ED409828
Publication Date: 1997-00-00
Author: Johnson, David, W. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington
Univ. Washington DC. Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
Academic Controversy. Enriching College Instruction through
Intellectual Conflict. ERIC Digest.
Both theoretical and practical reasons support the belief that arousing
intellectual conflict is one of the most important and powerful instructional
procedures available to college faculty. Yet most faculty avoid and suppress
intellectual conflict, perhaps out of fear it will be divisive, or because they
have never been trained in how to use instructional procedures that maximize the
likelihood that intellectual conflict will be constructive, not destructive, or
because the current societal and pedagogical norms discourage them from doing
so. This situation needs to change, and intellectual conflict needs to become
part of day-to-day student life in colleges and universities.
WHAT IS ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY?
The path to using
intellectual conflict for instructional purposes lies primarily through academic
controversy. Controversy exists when one individual's ideas, information,
conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another. To
engage in controversy and seek to reach an agreement, 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 all group members can agree to. Structured academic
controversies are most often contrasted with concurrence seeking, debate, and
individualistic learning. For instance, students can inhibit discussion to avoid
any disagreement and compromise quickly to reach a consensus while they discuss
the issue (concurrence seeking) or appoint a judge and then debate the different
positions with the expectation that the judge will determine who presents the
better position (debate) or work independently with their own set of materials
at their own pace (individualistic learning).
Academic controversy, structured appropriately, results in increased
achievement and retention, higher-quality problem solving and decision making,
more frequent creative insight, more thorough exchange of expertise, greater
task involvement, more positive interpersonal relationships among students, and
greater social competence, self-esteem, and ability to cope with stress and
adversity. The process from which these outcomes are derived involves an
opposing point of view to an initial conclusion about an issue, a state of
uncertainty or disequilibrium, which motivates a search for more information and
a more adequate cognitive perspective, and the derivation of a new,
reconceptualized conclusion. The procedure used to implement this process
consists of five steps: (1) researching and preparing the best case possible for
the assigned position, (2) making a persuasive presentation as to the validity
of the position, (3) engaging in an open discussion by continuing to advocate
one's own position, attempting to refute the opposing position, and rebutting
others' attacks, (4) reversing perspectives and presenting the opposing position
as persuasively and completely as possible, and (5) creating a synthesis that is
students' best reasoned judgment on the issue.
WHAT IS THE INSTRUCTOR'S ROLE IN ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY?
instructor's role in implementing structured academic controversies is an
extension of the instructor's role in using cooperative learning. It consists of
specifying the objectives for learning and social skills, making a number of
decisions before beginning the process, explaining and orchestrating the
academic task and the controversy procedure, monitoring students as they engage
in the controversy and intervening when necessary to improve students' work as
individuals and a team, and evaluating academic achievement by processing how
well students used the controversy procedure. Academic controversies can be used
in any subject area with any age student. But to implement academic
controversies successfully, instructors need to teach students the interpersonal
and small-group skills required to cooperate, engage in intellectual inquiry,
intellectually challenge each other, see a situation from several perspectives
simultaneously, and synthesize a variety of positions into a new and creative
WHAT STEPS ARE INVOLVED IN ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY?
academic controversy, students are randomly assigned to groups of four, which
are then divided into two pairs. Each pair is assigned a pro or a con position
on an issue being studied. In step 1 of the procedure, each pair of students
researches the assigned position, organizes its findings into a conceptual
framework that uses both inductive and deductive logic to persuade the audience
that its position is valid and correct, and builds a persuasive and compelling
case for the position's validity. In step 2, students persuasively present the
best case possible for their assigned position, listen carefully to the opposing
presentation, and try to learn the data and logic on which it is based. In step
3, students engage in an open discussion, continuing to advocate their position
while trying to learn the opposing position. They critically analyze the
evidence and logic of the opposing position and try to refute both. At the same
time, they rebut the attacks on their evidence and logic in an effort to
persuade the opponents to agree with them.
In step 4, the students reverse perspectives and present the opposing
position as sincerely, completely, accurately, and persuasively as they can. In
a controversy, students are asked to adopt a specific perspective (a way of
viewing the world and their relationship to it) in preparing the best case for a
position on an issue being studied. From preparing a rationale for the position
and advocating the position to others in their group, students become embedded
in the perspective. Adopting the assigned perspective is necessary to make sure
that the position being represented receives a fair and complete hearing. To
free students from their perspective and to increase their understanding of the
opposing perspective, students reverse perspectives: Each pair presents the best
case possible for the opposing position, being as sincere and enthusiastic as if
the position were its own. Doing so has many benefits, including increasing
students' ability to synthesize the best evidence and reasoning from both sides.
The fifth step is synthesizing, which occurs when students integrate a number
of different ideas and facts into a single position. Synthesizing involves
putting things together in fewer words, creative insight, and adopting a new
position that subsumes the previous two. Students must drop all advocacy and see
new patterns in a body of evidence. They do so by viewing the issue from a
variety of perspectives and generating a number of optional ways of integrating
the evidence. The dual purposes of synthesis are to arrive at the best possible
position on the issue and to find a position that all group members can agree to
and commit themselves to. In achieving these purposes, students should avoid the
dualistic trap of choosing which position is "right" and which is "wrong," avoid
the relativistic trap of stating that both positions are correct, depending on
one's perspective, and think probabilistically in formulating a synthesis that
everyone can agree to.
WHAT IS THE RESULT OF ACADEMIC CONTROVERSY?
democracy is founded on the premise that "truth" will result from free and open
discussion in which opposing points of view are advocated and vigorously argued,
that truth will arise from the uninhibited clash of opposing views. To be a
citizen in a democracy, individuals need to master the process of advocating
one's view, challenging opposing positions, making a decision, and committing
themselves to implement the decision made (regardless of whether one initially
favored the alternative adopted).
Thomas Jefferson based his faith in the future on the power of constructive
conflict. Although numerous theorists have advocated the use of intellectual
conflict in instructional situations, some have been reluctant to do so, perhaps
because of a cultural fear of conflict, a lack of knowledge of the procedures,
and cultural and pedagogical norms discouraging the use of conflict. Academic
controversy provides a clear procedure for faculty to use in promoting
intellectual conflict. The skills required to implement this procedure are
intellectual skills that all college students need to develop sooner or later.
And engaging in a controversy can be fun, enjoyable, and exciting.
Johnson, D.W., and R. Johnson. 1995. Creative
Controversy: Intellectual Challenge in the Classroom. Edina, Minn.: Interaction
Johnson, D.W., R. Johnson, and K. Smith. 1986. "Academic Conflict among
Students: Controversy and Learning." In Social Psychological Applications to
Education, edited by R. Feldman. Cambridge, England.: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Johnson, D.W., R. Johnson, and K. Smith. 1989. "Controversy within
Decision-making Situations." In Managing Conflict: An Interdisciplinary
Approach, edited by M. Rahim. New York: Praeger.
Johnson, D.W., G. Maruyama, R. Johnson, D. Nelson, and L. Skon. 1981.
"Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structures on
Achievement: A Meta-analysis." Psychological Bulletin 89: 47-62.
McKeachie, W. 1986. Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College
Instructor. 3d ed. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath.
Petersen, R., and M. Tiffany. 1983. "Instructional Strategies for
Constructive Controversies." Paper presented at an annual meeting of the
American Educational Research Association, April 11 EN15, Montreal, Quebec. ED
234 053. 20 pp. MF-01; PC-01.
Smith, K. 1980. "Using Controversy to Increase Students' Achievement,
Epistemic Curiosity, and Positive Attitudes toward Learning." Doctoral
dissertation, Univ. of Minnesota.
Smith, K., D.W. Johnson, and R. Johnson. 1982. "Effects of Cooperative and
Individualistic Instruction on the Achievement of Handicapped, Regular, and
Gifted Students." Journal of Social Psychology 116: 277-83.
Tversky, A., and D. Kahneman. 1981. "The Framing of Decisions and the
Psychology of Choice." Science 211(4481): 453-58.
This ERIC digest is based on a full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report Volume 25-3, Academic Controversy: Enriching College
Instruction through Intellectual Conflict by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson
and Karl A. Smith.