Structured Academic Controversy

By the time students reach adolescence many believe that every issue comes neatly packaged in a pro/con format, and that the goal of classroom discussion, rather than to understand your opponent, is to defeat him. The SAC method provides an alternative to the “debate mindset” by shifting the goal from winning classroom discussions to understanding alternative positions and formulating historical syntheses. The SAC’s structure demands students listen to each other in new ways and guides them into a world of complex and controversial ideas.

The SAC was developed by cooperative learning researchers David and Roger Johnson of the University of Minnesota as a way to provide structure and focus to classroom discussions. Working in pairs and then coming together in four-person teams, students explore a question by reading about and then presenting contrasting positions. Afterwards, they engage in discussion to reach consensus.

More About the Structured Academic Controversy

STEP ONE: Forming a Historical Question

Choose a historical question that lends itself to contrasting viewpoints (with a “yes” and “no” answer equally plausible).


  • “Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist?”
  • “Was President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb justified?”
  • “Did minorities receive a “New Deal” in the 1930’s?”
  • “Was the essence of the Black Panther Party violent?”
  • “Was the Age of Jackson an age of democracy?”

STEP TWO: Selecting Sources

Knowing Your Students

Considering Historical Context

Thinking About Perspective

Considering Quality

STEP THREE: Adapt Documents

Modify the text of the document

  • Make them shorter, clearer, and more focused
  • Use excerpts and ellipses
  • Cut any confusing or nonessential phrases to make it shorter and easier to follow
  • Replace difficult words with easier synonyms
  • Modify irregular punctuation, capitalization, or spelling
  • Underline challenging vocabulary and provide a vocabulary legend

More on Adapting Documents

Now create your own Structured Academic Controversy by using the SAC Lesson Template and replace the text in red with your own.

Structured Academic Controversy Example


1 Response to Structured Academic Controversy

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