**I wrote this post to accompany this video. They will make more sense if you use them together! **
My absolute favorite way to teach controversial topics is through an activity called a Structured Academic Controversy. I learned about this method at a civic learning seminar at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which I was fortunate enough to attend with several of my colleagues. We participated in our own Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) and we were instantly hooked.
What I love about SACs is that they require students to practice three important skills: researching, listening, and articulating evidence. This isn’t a debate or an argument, but rather, an opportunity to present evidence from two different sides of an issue and eventually, discuss the merits of both sides.
I find the topics and evidence for SACs mainly on two sites: Stanford History Education Group, and ProCon.org. I either print out the evidence for my students to study, or provide links so that they can read it on their Chromebooks. In order to keep the process moving, I put each step on a separate slide in a presentation so that students can follow along.
Here is an example of a Structured Academic Controversy I did with my sixth grade History students this year. We had just finished our unit on Ancient Greece, and I gave them the printed resources from the Reading Like a Historian website, which is free to use when you make an account.
This was the first time I had tried a SAC with this group of students, so we went over the expectations for the activity. My students are already arranged into mixed ability groups of four, so it didn’t require any prep work on my end besides printing materials, and organizing the instructions onto slides.
The sources provided through Reading Like a Historian are excellent, and they can truly be used to argue either side of the question. Since there are so many high-quality sets of documents on this website and ProCon.org, I haven’t made my own SACs with my own research. If the research is poor in quality, the discussion will not be nearly as deep or engaging, so I’m letting the experts take the wheel here!
I gave my students a whole day to read through the documents and look for evidence to support their side. This was the fourth or fifth time during the year that we had worked with sets of documents from the same website, so they were familiar with the format and how to analyze the sources.
In the documents I gave my students there was a graphic organizer to list four pieces of evidence from each side. Since this activity requires such deep thinking and the best of their communication skills, anywhere that I can provide scaffolding to free up my students’ attention for more important tasks, I will.
The next day, we had our Structured Academic Controversy. I always hype it up and make it sound like more of an intense debate than it really is. So many students came to class excited to pretend to be lawyers.
And, go! In my class, eight or nine students begin speaking once I set the two minute timer. Students have to lean in to hear one another, and I walk around the room to make sure that everyone is paying attention to the speaker.
Each teammate on Team A should talk for about one minute. If they run out of things to say, I tell them they still need to keep talking until the time is up.
The first round is really exhilarating for students. Team B is ready to burst because they haven’t gotten to speak yet, and Team A is giggling with relief now that they articulated their evidence before the timer went off. You have to slow them down a little bit and make sure that Team B is only clarifying at this point, and not moving on to their side of the argument.
Now Team B gets to speak, and Team A gets a taste of having to sit silently while listening to the evidence from the other side. Again, they should be writing down this evidence in the space provided on their graphic organizer.
Reset your timer and allow Team A time to clarify Team B’s points. If either group has any misinterpretations, the other group is sure to set them straight. They only have one minute to do this though, which is just enough time before they begin to launch into a full debate.
Even partners who were apathetic at first are usually excited to turn to each other at this point and figure out what they want to say back to the other team. I tell them there is an invisible wall in between the two groups; they should only be talking to their partner, not the other group.
This is the perfect time for students to bring in new evidence, restate evidence they already brought up, or respond directly to arguments the other group made. They are taking evidence, arguments and rhetoric, and adapting them to the situation at hand. This requires very high level thinking, even if they don’t realize it in the moment.
Everyone takes a deep breath! This is similar to the very first round, but each partner will only speak for about 30 seconds, and there is no clarification round in between the two groups’ statements.
At this point the two groups become one larger group of four. They can speak candidly now and talk openly about what they learned, and what they really think about the issue. It’s going to get loud in your classroom during these five minutes, but the conversations are great!
I usually have eight or nine groups of four in my classes, and I ask one person in each group to report out about their conversation. That person stands and addresses the class, and I usually ask a few questions about the process and their conclusions.
With this group, most students concluded that Athens wasn’t a true democracy since so many people couldn’t vote, but there were still several students who insisted that Athens was a democracy. They explained the evidence that led them to this conclusion, and I validated their conclusions. Some students were frustrated with each other, but I reminded them that it’s okay if we disagree, as long as we’re able to listen to each other first.
The reflection piece is incredibly important to this process, and to building the skills that I want students to learn from a SAC. I always do it the day after the conversation portion, and I give students about ten minutes of quiet time to answer these questions.
This is also how I give them a grade. The fourth question is, “What grade do you deserve on a scale of 1-10? Justify this grade.” Most students give themselves a fairly high grade, and that’s fine with me because simply going through the process is valuable, whether or not they have mastered the art of rhetorical and evidence-based argument.
They’ve researched. They’ve listened. They’ve practiced self-control. They’ve spoken respectfully and concisely. They’ve weighed two arguments against each other. They’ve reflected upon this slightly uncomfortable way of communicating. I think these are all such important skills to learn while students are young, and I pray that they carry them into adulthood.
My goal for next year is for all of my classes to participate in one SAC per quarter. The topics can be based on our content, or on current events. This activity incorporates so many standards-based skills, as well ask skills that simply make us good humans. Make sure to watch this video along with this post to hear more about why I think bringing controversial conversations into your classroom is so important!