The Power of “Constructive Controversies”

Icon squareby Debra Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Transformative learning necessarily involves change — in knowledge, in perspective, and ultimately, in behavior. Key to this process is the idea of perspective transformation. There are many ways to link course learning to opportunities for students to shift their perspectives, about themselves and about others. Helping students transform their perspectives begins with their ability to recognize differences in viewpoint, as well as to recognize limitations in their own perspectives.

One concrete instructional strategy that can promote changes in perspective is that of using “constructive controversies” (Johnson et al., 2000). Constructive controversies “create opportunities for students to practice managing intellectual differences in a structured manner” (Dannels, 2015). Johnson et al. describe the ideal steps in structuring a constructive controversy for the classroom as follows:

Step 1: Choose an intellectual “conflict” appropriate to the course and the discipline, which has two distinctly different positions. (To the extent possible, choose conflicts or contested arguments authentic to the field/discipline.)

Step 2: Randomly assign students into groups of four, and assign each pair either the “pro” or the “con” side of the conflict.

Step 3: Provide clear instructions on the tasks, which typically include:

    • Students research their assigned position (by consulting materials provided by the instructor or discovered by students themselves)
    • Each pair prepares and presents a persuasive argument for their assigned position to the other members of their group
    • Group members engage in open discussion with the opposite position.
    • Then, the pairs reverse positions and present a persuasive argument on behalf of the opposite position.
    • Finally, the whole group prepares a final product or presentation that summarizes each side appropriately, synthesizes the points of agreement among all four group members, and/or arrives at a more holistic joint position.

Step 4: Evaluate students’ learning and their group processes/effectiveness.

This kind of structured process can take place over one or two class meetings or over a longer period of time, depending on the amount of research and discovery needed. It also “provides students a structured and controlled space in which they can practice disagreement and intellectual conflict” (Dannels, 2015). According to research conducted by Johnson et al., the use of constructive controversies can cause students to “reevaluate their attitudes about the issue and incorporate opponents’ arguments into their own attitudes” (i.e., perspective transformation), and studies suggest these changes in attitude are greater, and longer-lasting, than when students simply read about an issue.

Using a process like constructive controversy can help us to show students that the intellectual questions in our disciplines are alive and contested. So often, students see disciplinary content as settled, simply waiting to be memorized. Constructive controversies allow us a space in which to demonstrate how productive intellectual conflicts can be. Finally, this kind of practice also strengthens students’ ability to engage with the conflicts inherent in an unjust world and to encounter others with greater empathy.

What are the controversies in your field that have potential value as “constructive” controversies? What other approaches have you tried to help students inhabit two opposing sides of an issue? Share your thoughts in the comments section on this post.



Dannels, D.K. (2015). 8 Essential Questions Teachers Ask: A Guidebook for Communicating with Students. New York: Oxford U P.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., & Tjosvold, D. (2000). “Constructive Controversy: The Value of Intellectual Opposition.” Eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 65-85.

2 Responses to “The Power of “Constructive Controversies””

  1. Dear Deb,
    This is a very valuable teaching strategy. Since I teach research-related courses most of the time, I am not sure whether or not I can implement this. However, I will try to do this in future.
    I can think of many issues in social science, including race relations, immigration issues, Affordable Care Act, etc. ….. I will be teaching an online course of qualitative analysis course at the graduate level this summer. In this course, students will gather data regarding health-care system in the U.S. and health-care providers’ perspectives. I was looking for something that I can use for Conversation among the students. I will certainly integrate this technique, using an online discussion.

    This post was very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Hisako! Glad you found the idea helpful. The approach does seem well-suited to the topics you mention. Let us know how it goes!

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