Teaching Idea: Cooperative Controversies
Working with 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?
With cooperative 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. 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.
To Implement a Controversial Controversy
1. During the preceding class period, identify the controversial question and assign readings that present both sides.
2. 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.
3. Review 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.
4. Within each group, students from each side share information and ideas about the issue to prepare their arguments.
5. 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 takes notes.
6. The con side presents arguments against the question which the pro side records.
7. Sides in each small group switch positions, and students on each side share information and ideas. (See step 4.)
8. The new pro side presents arguments in support of the question, and the con side reports.
9. The new con side presents arguments against the question, and the pro side records.
10. 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.
(Adapted from David J. Bredehoft, "Cooperative Controversies in the Classroom," College Teaching 39, 3 (Summer, 1991):122-25).