Structured Academic Controversy:  Teaching Strategies in Action, by Brad Lopes

Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime? Did the 14th Amendment really abolish slavery?
These are the kind of questions that have troubled historians and teachers alike for many years. It is human nature to seek out definitive answers to hard questions. In many ways this can lead to dichotomous thinking around an idea. In other words, we tend to seek out the black or white, when in many circumstances there is nothing but grey. For young teachers, it can be difficult to discuss history because of the way false or unproven narratives have perpetuated themselves throughout the history of our education system, leading to plenty of black and white stories. Take the 14th Amendment for example. In a traditional setting it might be explained that the 14th Amendment abolished slavery and the United States largely moved on from such a practice. However, this simply is not true and, by presenting it as such, it paints a false narrative of never ending progress and the final years of established slavery in the United States. This ignores the fact that many freed former slaves were never given the ability to leave the plantations or homes they were previously bound to. This ignores the systems that were established to prevent these newly freed citizens from experiencing basic civil and human rights. By presenting such topics as black and white in the classroom, it is easy to miss the fact that the majority of history cannot be properly understood in such a way.
This is where the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) strategy comes into play. This strategy allows teachers to plan, facilitate, and reach a greater understanding of difficult subjects in history. By doing so, this also gives students a more accurate understanding of the past. Your typical SAC is planned for in the following way:

1. A controversial topic is selected by the class/teacher and a guiding question is formed around this subject. I will include an example below so you can pretend we are doing this exercise as I explain the procedure behind it.
a. Subject: Allied Troops and World War II
b. Guiding Question: Were the actions of the Allied troops as they moved closer to Berlin in 1945 war crimes?
c. Background Info: Many are aware of the atrocities committed by the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan) during World War II as they were highlighted at the Tokyo and Nuremberg Trials at the end of the war. However, both trials were organized by the London Charter, which only considered allegations of war crime violations committed by those acted in the interest of the Axis Powers. Research uncovered since 1945 has revealed a large array of war crimes that were also committed by the Allied Powers (United Kingdom, Soviet Union, France, the United States, Canada, etc.) during the war, including such instances as the actions of the Soviet troops during the Battle of Berlin, the United States’ actions during the Battle of Okinawa, and the mistreatment of Japanese soldier and citizen remains by the British, amongst many others. For many who are learning about World War II, this is new information to them and frames our understanding of the war and the actions groups take during the war in a different way.

A raid by the 8th Air Force on the Focke Wulf factory at Marienberg, Germany (1943).

2. Once the subject or topic has been selected, students are broken into groups. The group size is largely dependent on your class size overall, but it is recommended that you have groups of 4, with two people who will represent Side A and two others that will represent Side B. This strategy can be done with a few groups of 4 at the same time. It is recommended that you assign students to a particular group rather than let them chose largely because the skills highlighted by this strategy lose strength with a certain amount of bias or pre-conceived notion involved.
a. Class Size: 8 Students
b. Groups: 2 Groups of 4 Students
c. Stances for Both Groups:
i. Side A (2 Students): The Allied Troops actions should be considered war crimes.
ii. Side B (2 Students): The Allied Troops actions should not be considered war crimes.

3. Once students are in their groups they will be given a variety of documents, typically primary sources from that time period. This has been recommended to be done in two different ways:
a. Method 1: Both groups received the same documents and must use them to support their stance.
b. Method 2: Each groups received separate documents that they must use to support their stance.
c. Let’s select Method 2 for this exercise.
i. Side A: Receives and breaks down the Geneva Protocol and primary sources related to the treatment of Japanese civilians and troops by the United States and the United Kingdom, and the treatment of German citizens by the Soviet Union during the Battle of Berlin.
ii. Side B: Receives and breaks down a report of Axis War Crimes during World War II and primary sources that support the use of internment, chemical, and nuclear warfare, and sources that debate the accuracy of what occured in Berlin as Soviet troops invaded.
d. Each group then breaks down their sources and makes four or five claims that support their stance using supporting evidence from the documents.

Executive Order 9066 Notice, San Francisco (1942)

4. Once each group has their position developed, the two sides meet. They introduce each other to practice how to start a debate or conversation properly. Then Side A presents their stance. Side B is not allowed to interrupt or interject. In fact, Side B’s job is to listen to Side A’s evidence and make sure they are understanding their view accurately.

5. When Side A is done, Side B needs to be able to repeat their stance, the evidence they used to support it, and ultimately why they feel the way they do. Side B is not allowed to present until Side A feels it’s position is fully understood. This is a great exercise to help students learn how to listen and reflect back someone’s stance on an issue because of this step.

6. Once Side A’s point has been accurately reflected, Side B presents their position and Side A must adhere to the same rules established in the previous two steps.

7. Both sides are then allowed to have an open conversation to determine whether or not they can reach a consensus on the issue. If that is not possible, it is important to emphasis that such a consensus is not always possible in history and historiography overall. When this time period of open conversation has expired, students then share out their results to the class as whole and discuss whether or not they were able to reach a consensus and, if so, how they went about it.

8. (Optional) Finally, in a step that I like to do with each SAC, I let the students break from their assigned roles after they present their final results and see if the entire class can reach discuss and reach a consensus on the issue. This allows students to get more personal with the subject that was controversial after they have been presented a fair amount of evidence from both sides. There is a certain amount of developmental appropriateness that should be considered with this step on certain topics however.

“Raising A Flag Over The Reichstag” – May 2, 1945 by Yevgueni Jaldéi

Through that 7 to 8 process, students are presented with a controversial topic that displays the inherent greyness of history to them through primary source analysis, discussion and listening, and finally consensus formation. Largely due to the extensive nature of Social Studies, it can be difficult to present topics to students in a way that fully encapsulates the reality of such events. For example, it is one thing to cover Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Purchase as a deal that could not be passed up, but through an SAC you can start to show students why that purchase happened and what other factors were at play at the time (Napoleon’s reign in Europe and his subsequent actions in Saint Domingue, which is now Haiti) while also working on skills surrounding research, primary source analysis, listening, and discussion. Despite only learning mostly about this strategy during this past summer, it is already one of my favorite strategies because of its ability to better represent history to students and get them involved in engaging ways with primary sources and controversial topics. I am looking forward to implementing it more in my classes moving forward. After all, history is full of grey and should not be romanticized. As James Loewen describes in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) “The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history but honest and inclusive history.”

Resources of Interest
1. What is a Structured Academic Controversy?
2. How to teach with a Structured Academic Controversy?
3. PBS: Academic Structured Controversies
4. Was Abraham Lincoln A Racist? Example SAC