“Conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity”

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity and sets us at noting and contriving… Conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity. Dewey (1916, p. 188)

As outlined by Elizabeth F. Barkley in Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, “academic controversy” is a cooperative learning technique in which learners are grouped to debate two opposing views on an issue before attempting to reach a consensus on the issue (Barkley 199).

I have used debates in classes before to have students discuss issues that have sparked academic controversies, but I have never formally structured the activity in a way where students debate each side, before working toward a unanimous decision. Ideally, this student engagement technique (SET) would be implemented in one, three-hour session, where I present a highly contested topic for example the much-debated work by Andres Serrano, Piss Christ from 1987. Students could then research the troubled history of the work and form opinions as to if the piece is a thoughtful work of art or an outrageous blasphemy. In doing so students would not only learn about Serrano’s production but also the art market in the late 1980s, contemporary museum practices, theories in conceptual art, and what is often referred to as the field of cultural production. Ideally this SET would provide an opportunity for students to consider the often very complex, nuanced perspectives at play in art production. As Barkely notes, “participation in this SET challenges students to grapple with an fundamental dilemma in the discipline and deepens their understanding so that they are better prepared to address the issue either as future art historians or as citizens who care about the collections in their local, state, and national museums” (Barkley, 201).

Initially, the role of the educator is to select an appropriate, applicable controversy for the students to debate. As in other situations it is important that the task provide an optimal level of challenge, where the concepts are sufficiently difficult to stretch thinking, but not so difficult as to dampen the motivation (Barkley, 27). During the exercise the educator must truly facilitate the discussions in a way that moves the thinking along but does not stifle the sharing of opinions. Finally, the educator must conclude the exercise by leading an appropriate debrief that aligns the ideas discussed to the learning objectives and allows for students to make connections to other applications. 

Academic controversy is a great SET to use because the good far outweigh the bad. According to Jacobs, the strategy “maintains the educational benefits of controversy, while blending the benefits of cooperation, in order to facilitate an environment that encourages everyone to take part, to learn, to support the learning of others and to address important issues” (Jacobs, 295). It encourages a range of modes of expression other than speaking, for students to present their findings. Another consideration is the ways in which teachers, peers, and materials provide scaffolding for struggling students. And ultimately by encouraging students to empathize and argue different sides of an issue, the activity promotes agile, critical thinking (Jacobs, 293-295). Some of the cons for this SET include the potential for one person or pair to dominate the conversation, the activity could require an extended period of time to allow students to thoroughly research the topic and form a cooperative group, and the issue could become too controversial for students come to an agreement. That being said all of these disadvantages can be avoided if the teacher has created a positive learning environment where students can collaborate and respectfully challenge ideas.

I am excited to include the Academic Controversy SET in my lesson planning for this fall. Not only is it a fun activity but as Jacobs suggests, “The supportive environment promoted by cooperative learning techniques such as Academic Controversy makes it more likely that these issues can be addressed not just as academic topics to debate in class but also as real world matters that require real world actions” (Jacobs, 295). As such, I am looking forward to utilizing it as just one more way to promote active, engaged learning in art history classrooms.


Barkley, E.F. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper &Row.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1966 ed.). New York: Free Press.

Jacobs, G. M. (2010). Academic Controversy: A cooperative way to debate. Intercultural Education, 21 (3), 291-296.

Piaget, J. (1975) Equilibration of cognitive structures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s