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  Workshop 7: Controversial Public Policy Issues  
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Workshop 7

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Teacher Perspectives: Structured controversy

JoEllen Ambrose: The structured debate is a framework that you can use like a recipe. It is very directed. It tells you how to put the people in the groups and how to switch and how to do the consensus. You can fill in with any topic you want. It can be used in a variety of settings and a variety of situations.

I planned the groups. I kept them with the partners that they chose, but I purposely picked different pairings of people to add a different mix to it. They then were assigned position A, or position B, and they had some preparation time to pull arguments that support A or B.

The method [is] very structured. They only get three minutes to argue their side, uninterrupted. Then the opposing position gets three minutes. Then [I] ask clarifying questions to get them to find out what they missed or what they didn’t understand or what they could use when they switch positions.
The second half [is] the same activity, but they have to switch sides by physically changing chairs. [Again] they get a little bit of time to pull together arguments. Then they have another three minutes in which they argue the new position. B goes first. But they’re the former position A people. So all of a sudden, they’re doing a 180-degree turn. Then the opposing side comes back, and they go back into open discussion.

I like the idea of them changing perspectives by actually physically moving from the A position to the B position. It gets them to change their mindset a little bit. A fact might mean something else to them when they have to argue it in the opposite position. I [also] see a group-building process. What is the common ground here? Where do we come together? The small group dynamic went from a competitive debate mode to a cooperative learning mode.

You’ve got students participating. You get a lot of verbal response. I saw students in the debate digging in deeper. I saw them owning the questions. As that debate went on, especially in the clarifying part, they were defining their own learning. You could hear one student say, “Well, what do we mean by this? Where are we going with this?” They’re kind of taking themselves on a journey to a deeper understanding of a very controversial topic.

The topic of racial profiling was a very interesting one to pick because the kids could pick a position that [either] distanced them from their own experience or embraced their own experience. It was a real risk for some of those kids to share perspectives that were very personal [in] nature. As a white suburban teacher in a white suburban community, knowing that there are persons of color and persons who have a worldview that’s different than my own, I wanted this activity to draw that out. But students have to choose their comfort level. One student approached me during a break and shared something very personal. The student was very comfortable reflecting on his own experiences with racial profiling. But a lot of students weren’t comfortable, and some of the white students were afraid to develop that issue in front of their peers. I noticed one group had a conversation that brought up some very sensitive issues about how we judge people on the basis of color, even here in our school. I want students to have those kinds of discussions because I think it improves our school environment and I think it teaches them what it means to live in a diverse country.


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