Structured Academic Controversies in the Professional Physical Education Classroom

Article excerpt

Controversies exist when one student's ideas, information, conclusions, theories and opinions are incompatible with those of another, and the two seek to reach an agreement. (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991, p. 73)

Structured academic controversy is a cooperative learning strategy that can be used to promote learning in theoretical physical education classes at the college/university level. This teaching strategy can be used in classes such as motor learning, motor development, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. In this article, we will explain how the structured academic controversy is conducted and provide some examples of topics.


The concept of cooperative learning, according to Johnson et al. (1991), can be traced to the ancient Roman philosophy of qui docet discet, which translates into "when you teach, you learn twice." The popularity of cooperative learning continued from the 1500s to the early part of the 20th century. A turning point in the focus of learning occurred in the late 1930s, when competition began to surface in the academic arena (Pepitone, 1980, as cited in Johnson et al., 1991). This was the dawn of the standard academic competition among scholars that prevails in institutions of learning, from elementary schools to universities, all over the world.

In the 1960s, Johnson et al. began to work on cooperative learning with an empirical basis. As a result of their work, the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota was formed. Through the center's efforts, the body of knowledge regarding cooperative learning has been augmented and several exercises have been developed for use within the classroom to emphasize cooperative learning.

Forming Groups

Cooperative learning can be accomplished in informal learning groups, base groups, or formal learning groups.

Informal learning groups are generally short-term with little structure. A simultaneous explanation pair is an example of an informal cooperative learning group. During a lecture, after a question is posed, students are asked to select the person nearest to them as a partner. Each student individually formulates his or her answer to the question in writing. The students then share their answers with their partners. The partners listen carefully to each other and develop a new answer by building on each other's thoughts.

Base groups are long-term groups which are guided by peer support and long-term accountability. In a physical education class, students are divided into base groups of five members according to career interest (e.g., physical therapy, teaching, corporate fitness, athletic training). These groups remain together and provide support throughout the semester.

The formal learning group is directed by a more structured and cohesive unit. This group stays together until the task is completed. A structured academic controversy used within a formal learning group is the focus of this article.

Application of a Structured Academic Controversy

Structured academic controversy requires students to use high-level reasoning and critical thinking. The many critical thinking skills used in the process of controversy are depicted in figure 1 (Johnson et al., 1991, p. 7). In any structured academic controversy, topics must be structured so that there are at least two well-documented positions.

Gathering resources. First, instructional materials should be given to all students. These materials must include a description of the position to be advocated and resource materials for support of this position. A trip to the library or an interview with experts is appropriate for a structured controversy session that lasts for more than one class period, while providing the students with articles and summaries is more appropriate for a one-period structured controversy.

Preparing positions. Teachers divide students into even-numbered small groups. …