Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Academic Controversy: a cooperative way to debate

Came across a paper recently (see below for the full reference) which outlines a very useful technique to manage classroom discussions.

The technique is called Academic Controversy by the author, George Jacobs.

He writes:
"... one criticism of debate is that it creates a situation of negative interdependence among students, i.e. those on each side of the debate attempt to defeat those on the other side. Thus, what hurts one group helps the other."
The technique and the variations outlined in his paper are designed to promote "positive interdependence" and a deeper understanding of the topics in question.

The Technique

  1. Divide students into groups of four, divided into pairs. Assign each pair a position on a controversial topic. Give students limited time to prepare their argument.
  2. Each pair presents their assigned view, while the other pair listens and takes notes.
  3. Each side takes turns to rebut the arguements presented by the other side, and to defend their own position.
  4. Students exchange positions, and repeat the first three steps, taking the opposing view. During this stage, each pair will build on the work of the first pair; they won't merely be repeating the arguements already presented.
  5. As a group of four, participants "attempt to forge a common position, which could be one of the two positions assigned earlier" or an entirely different position.
  6. The group of four presents this final common position to the class.


  • Use turn-taking procedures to ensure that each pair or group is given equitable amounts of time.
  • Give students time to prepare slides or visual representations of their arguments, e.g. mind maps.
  • Provide students will scaffolding materials to assist them to prepare their arguments.
  • Involve students in the selection of topics.
  • Encourage students to use a variety of modes to present their arguments, e.g. role play, poetry, song, etc.


Jacobs, G. (2010). Academic Controversy: a cooperative way to debate. Intercultural Education, 21(3), 291-296.

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