History Nerdfest 2018: Using Structured Academic Controversy to teach 21st century skills
It ranks right up there with the Holiday season, KC Chiefs football, and the first weekend of the college basketball tournament. It’s National Council for the Social Studies conference week. I’m lucky enough to get front row seats and am trying to live blog my way through it.
Like most of you, I first ran across the Structured Academic Controversy idea via Sam Wineburg and his Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum. Specifically SHEG’s Was Lincoln a Racist lesson. But there’s always been that sense that Wineburg and his troop of SHEG geniuses adapted the strategy to fit their needs. And maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. So thanks Georgia Brown from Grayslake, Illinois who led a conversation this afternoon about what it can look like outside the SHEG universe.
So let’s start with the basics. What is a Structured Academic Controversy?
It’s a cooperative learning strategy developed brothers David and Roger Johnson to engage small groups of students in the discussion of controversial issues. Through a series of steps, add to their understanding of an issue or question. After students have fully explored and analyzed the pro and con arguments on an issue or question, they work as a group to reach a consensus on the issue.
So it’s not a debate. There are no winners and losers here. We’re just trying to find the best answer to the question. But looking at pros and cons gives kids the chance to look at multiple perspectives without the pressure of having to “win.”
Feel free to head over to the original Johnson brothers article and get their research and instructions. And you’re done. But we had a great conversation about what it can look like in the classroom so don’t be afraid to head back here for a few more tips and tricks.
Georgia started with the basic steps in the process she uses:
Select an enduring issue that is central to the course and where values are in conflict. Clarify for students the purpose of the deliberation — to come to a decision. State or elicit from students appropriate behavior and norms — for example: Hear all sides equally and speak one at a time. Listen well enough to respond to and build upon each other’s ideas. Back up opinions with clear reasons.
Students read (or are presented) general background information on the issue. They identify relevant facts, as well as the stakeholders and their primary concerns.
Students are split into groups of four, and further into pairs.
Each pair reads about a different position (pro and con) on the issue.
Each pair plans a presentation of its position and arguments. Having students focus on the three most important arguments is helpful.
One side presents, the other repeats
One side presents their three important arguments to the other side. The other side needs to listen carefully, take notes, and then repeat the arguments back in order to be sure that they understand them, asking clarifying questions as necessary.
The pairs switch and the process is duplicated
Now, the side which originally listened is the one to present their arguments. As before, the other side will listen, take notes, and repeat the arguments back.
Each side provides feedback to the other until everyone is satisfied that their position has been heard and understood.
Dissolve pairs to come to consensus/disagreement
The students proceed as their own individual selves, using information both from their experiences as well as the background readings. Use something like this prompt to get kids started:
Forge a position as a group. Feel free to change your mind. See if you can come to consensus on this issue, or at least clarify the disagreement.
This can take many forms. Short written responses. Quick oral group share outs. Using Flipgrid. But something that requires students to reflect and process their thinking.
Georgia shared a few handouts of stuff she gives to kids. This example focused on the issue of gun control:
Here’s her reflection rubric:
I also found a set of SAC rules from the Johnson brothers:
The SAC strategy clearly aligns to 21st century skills:
- Critical thinking
But it also aligns very nicely with the different skills in the Common Core History Literacy Standards. The Deliberating in a Democracy group has put together a White Paper that does a great job of tying those skills to the activities in a SAC.
Learn more at Teaching History site about what a SAC might look like with more specifics .
Sample questions Georgia uses:
- Should there restrictions on guns?
- Should high school football programs be cancels due to the risk of concussions?
- Should the DACA program be extended?
- Should we raise the minimum wage?
- Should we tax sugary drinks?
- Should states abolish the death penalty?
She teaches government so her sample questions are more more current events-ish. But we need to start thinking like SHEG did – what might be some history based questions that you can use with your kids?
We talked about where we might find good primary sources if we’re doing a history-based SAC. Especially if we need to find pro and con documents. We basically agreed to think more in terms of perspectives rather than simply pro and con. (Though a straight pro vs. con might engage kids more. Your mileage may vary so be willing to experiment and play this idea.)
We also thought a SAC would be a great hook activity to a full blown DBQ. And that DBQs already online might be good places to find primary sources.
Some more great suggestions?
Model this for your kids before asking kids to do it. Maybe record a video of you and another teacher.
Ask kids to rank the reasons of the other group rather than just copy them down and before getting to their own. Which reason is the best and why? Which is the most compelling? Which one really caught their attention?
Places to find SAC lessons:
Places to find resources for your own SACs:
- NYT Upfront
- Opposing Viewpoints in the Gale database
- Pro/con in the SIRS Issue researcher
- ABC-CLIO Database
- Blue Feed Red Feed