Neither winning nor losing the debate

Nupur Rastogi

“I am very cautious of people who are absolutely right, especially when they are vehemently so.”Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

The world today is experiencing a plethora of conflicts from terrorism, fundamentalism and climate change to disputes among countries. While several institutions and international organizations are looking for solutions to the problems, academicians and scholars are rethinking the role of educational institutions and academic practices in contributing to the answers. While terrorism and fundamentalism are about the rush for power, dominancy, hatred, revenge, and cruelty, the conflicts over climate change are about unmindful deeds and a lack of connection between humans and nature. This disconnectedness has its roots in the race to get wealthy and successful at the cost of this earth. The conflict among countries and within countries is more about the obsession with ‘win and lose’ and to prove oneself better than everyone else.

To acknowledge and work towards these conflicts, global institutions like UNESCO invite scholars and educational institutions to work towards ‘Education for Peace and Non-Violence. Furthermore, academicians are working towards reassessing and redesigning educational practices that need analysis on parameters of their possible (indirect) contribution to the processes of conflicts.

Practice of debating
One such practice is that of debating in schools and universities. This is a practice of competition where both parties adopt a stance and defend it aggressively and passionately. Both parties present their arguments to ‘win’ the debate. The conclusion lies in one party winning and the other losing. Schools nurture students from their early years to show their potential while talking passionately for what they think to be ‘right’. The skills required to be a good debater are to speak passionately and fluently (close to aggressively) with the aim of winning the debate. Not to forget, the school’s reputation lies in the ‘win and loss’ of these students. Mainly, schools and universities organize these competitions to create conditions under which students stop listening to other viewpoints and reject ideas and people who might prove them wrong. This practice relies on the intention that somebody will have to lose for somebody to win. Even if the participants do not know the subject completely, the ‘hard facts’ save their position. This neither needs compassion nor kindness, just a goal to defend and win.

Jacobs (2010) writes that it creates a situation of negative interdependence among students, i.e., those on each side of the debate attempt to defeat those on the other side. For instance, if one side lacks information, the other side benefits. Thus, what hurts one group helps the other. This feeling of negative interdependence may discourage sharing among groups and may lead to ill-will. So, while preparing for such debates, the focus is not on the process, which is about students understanding the conflict and better ways of dealing with it. Instead, they learn to be opportunists who defeat the opponent by clawing and feeding upon the latter’s weak arguments.

In a world that is increasingly showing signs of the need to build empathy, sensitivity, and awareness among people, this practice and process of debating seems archaic, irrelevant, and most importantly, destructive. Today’s world needs young people who understand conflicts and take ownership of dealing with and resolving those conflicts. In the light of such a need, a debate competition encourages emotions of winning and losing, strong and weak, efficient and inefficient, skilled and unskilled, and does not leave any space for cooperation, compassion, consensus, collaboration, and collectivization. It does not require acceptance, understanding, and empathy for the ‘other’ perspective, which is so conveniently ‘otherized’ while making ‘hard facts’ as justification to this ‘otherization’.

According to developmental psychologist Connie Flanagan (2013), schools are “mini-polities” where young people “work out what it means to be a citizen of the larger polity”. These young people need academic practices that educate them to listen, tolerate and discuss other viewpoints. If the world needs to build the value of tolerance and coexistence among people, it will have to start with basic academic practices in schools and universities.

The practice of Structured Academic Controversy (SAC)
A potential alternative is the Practice of Cooperative Controversy, also called Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) or Academic Controversy. SAC was developed by two scholars of cooperative learning, David Johnson and Roger Johnson (1979, 1985, 1988), who advocate the essential role of the practice of SAC in schools in building cooperation, collaboration, consensus, and compassion among youngsters. In simple words, SAC is a structured academic exercise that encourages participants to understand, analyze and empathize with the contrary position, followed by a deliberate attempt to arrive at a consensus. Academic Controversy exists when one student’s ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions do not match with those of another, and the two seek to reach an agreement. It goes beyond mere exposure to multiple views on these controversies to having students grapple with these views. In SAC, participants must role-play, exchange opinions, and determine if what others say requires adjusting their own beliefs (Parker 2021).

Process of SAC
Round 1. The SAC exercise starts with the participants choosing a position of proposition or opposition on the decided subject. Next, they prepare arguments to advocate for the selected proposition and present their views to each other, followed by a round of rebuttal and clarification.

Round 2. For the second round, the participants exchange their positions. Now they prepare arguments defending and advocating the new proposition. Then, they present their views to each other, followed by a round of rebuttal and clarification.

Round 3. The third round of exercise is when the participants attempt to find a common ground or arrive at a consensus, collectively, about both the positions.

Throughout the process, the participants employ constructive communication techniques of active listening, asking open-ended questions, and using neutral talk while advocating and defending their grounds.

Disputed Passage: A game-changer
The second round of SAC is a game-changer when it asks participants to exchange their positions. Johnson and Johnson (1993) say that this intellectual “disputed passage” causes students to become uncertain about the correctness of their views. A state of conceptual conflict or disequilibrium is aroused. This state of disequilibrium pushes them to think from a point of view which does not adhere to their advocacy and beliefs. The space gets created, pulling them from the rigidity zones and letting students explore the world from different perspectives.

During one such workshop on SAC with a group of graduate and post-graduate students at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, the participants shared that it was difficult to defend the other position they had targeted in the first round. A participant shared that she realized that “the fluidity of this quick change of stance, and defending both positions passionately make people humans”, and she was amazed by this human capability. Another participant shared his amazement that he could use the same data to defend and oppose the subject, which meant it was not about the data but the human power of dialogue. The participants shared that the second round made them feel empathetic about the contrary position they were speaking against in the first round. It helped them build a human relationship with the other people involved in the exercise.

The third round of the SAC exercise is the culmination of the previous two rounds asking participants to think collectively and arrive at a consensus. The idea is not to win or lose but to deal with the conflict collaboratively, to get a space to coexist with diverse perspectives. The third round may get messy when students find it challenging to reach a consensus or joint statement, even while advocating from both positions. The point is not to pressurize or make students uncomfortable but to create a safe space that promotes and encourages exploration and cooperation. Before jumping to SAC, things to keep in mind are creating a safe space in the classroom by doing some exercises on better communication techniques like active listening, teaching students to ask open-ended questions, and making neutral talks instead of sweeping/hot talks.

In addition, the supportive environment promoted by cooperative learning techniques such as Academic Controversy can address these issues not just as academic topics to debate in class but also as real-world matters that require real-world actions. This practice of SAC responds to the problems and conflicts that the world is dealing with today.

• Flanagan, Constance A. Teenage citizens. Harvard University Press, 2013.
• Jacobs, George. “Academic controversy: A cooperative way to debate”. Intercultural Education 21.3 (2010): 291-296.
• Johnson, David W., and Roger T. Johnson. “Conflict in the classroom: Controversy and learning”. Review of educational research 49.1 (1979): 51-69.
• Johnson, David W., and Roger Johnson. “Classroom conflict: Controversy versus debate in learning groups”. American educational research journal 22.2 (1985): 237-256.
• Johnson, David W., and Roger T. Johnson. “Critical thinking through structured controversy”. Educational leadership 45.8 (1988): 58-64.
• Johnson, David W., and Roger T. Johnson. “Creative and critical thinking through academic controversy”. American behavioral scientist 37.1 (1993): 40-53.
• Parker, Walter C. “Structured Academic Controversy: What It Can Be”. (2021).

The author is currently working as a research associate at Azim Premji University. The research objective is to understand adolescents’ ways of dealing with conflict. She has previously worked as an educator for over two years in a low-income private school. Her interest lies in studying and exploring interventions on conflict transformation, justice, and dialogue. She can be reached at

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