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Tip of the Week: Structured Academic Controversy

One of the best things about working with social studies teachers is that I get the chance to see all sorts of great ideas and strategies. Several weeks ago, I watched a teacher use something called a SAC or Structured Academic Controversy.

It’s a discussion / debate strategy that I haven’t seen used before. And it worked great so I figured I would share it with you.

History and social studies classes are perfect places for debate. And we’ve all used debates as part of what we do. I’m a big supporter of the idea of having kids research and use that research to create persuasive arguments. I especially like the Fence Sitter idea.

But with these types of class activities, it’s easy for students to lose sight of the objective and get very competitive, focusing more on winning the argument rather than about what they should be learning. And I admit, I’m probably the worst. I love a good social studies argument. And I love to win.

Cause I’m right.


The Structured Academic Controversy can help with this problem. Kids still “argue” but the focus is on deliberative and civic discussion rather than winning the argument. It’s not just a pro/con debate but the sort of conversation that actually solves problems, the sort of conversation we’d like our elected officials to have.

The SAC was developed by David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota as a way to guide classroom discussions and to help students reach consensus while understanding contrasting positions.

Preparation steps

1. Select a historical question or statement that has contrasting viewpoints. For example:

  • Did we have to use atomic weapons to end World War Two?
  • Was the Civil War avoidable?
  • The US government had no choice but to retain Japanese Americans in internment groups during the 1940s.

2. Find a variety of documents that support each side. These could be a combination of both primary and secondary sources.

3. Think about how you will group students. You need groups of two that will later join another group to create a group four. Make copies of the documents or post online for digital access. For a SAC with four documents, plan on using about two class periods.

Classroom practice

The SAC strategy has five basic steps. Check out this example from the Stanford History Education Group people. (Anyone can view the example and documents but you’ll need to create a free account to download the lesson.)

1. Organize students into four-person teams comprised of two groups of two.

2. Each group of two uses the documents you prepared that represent different positions on your question or statement. Use the example to help kids track their analysis and prepare their positions.

3. The two smaller groups come back together and present their positions, taking turns as presenters and listeners.

4. This step is where a SAC differs from a typical debate. Rather than working to disprove the other position of the presenting group, the listeners simply repeat back to the presenters what they heard and understood. The groups don’t swap presenting / listening roles until the original presenters are completely satisfied that the position they shared has been parroted back correctly. The focus is on making sure both positions have been presented and understood.

5. After both groups have been heard and are satisfied that their position has been understood, both groups abandon their original assignments and work together as a group of four to reach a consensus. If consensus becomes impossible, the team spends time understanding what differences still exist.

A few tips

We’ve trained our kids to be winners – that a debate has a loser. So no matter how much you tell them, someone will still work to refute rather than to understand. So . . .

1. Practice active listening skills with your kids before turning them loose.

2. Make a rule – No interrupting during presentations. Ask kids to take notes about things they want to ask about later.

3. Kids will want to know what the “correct” answer is, to know who won. Encourage them to embrace the uncertainty that comes with doing history. There often isn’t a “correct” answer.

Have fun!

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