Learning by Arguing
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Learning by Arguing

If you’re leading or facilitating a training session and a fierce argument breaks out, what should you do? Quash it right away and send the fighters back to their corners, so to speak?

Maybe not. Educational research shows that controversy over ideas can actually help trainees learn concepts and skills.

That’s more than a little counterintuitive. You might assume that when people at a training session engage in a verbal sparring match, it necessarily detracts from the lesson(s) to be learned, distracts the attendees, and wastes precious learning time.

But this doesn’t appear to be the case, according to studies of controversy in learning. Much of the research in the field has been done by the Johnson brothers, David and Roger, social psychologists at the University of Minnesota. They founded the Cooperative Learning Center to investigate how students and trainees learn together.

A clear edge over other approaches

A few years back, the Johnsons aggregated and analyzed data from a series of classroom experiments they and others had done, to see the effects of constructive controversy on learning, decision-making and problem-solving.  They compared how effective this learning approach was to three other techniques:

  • formal debate
  • concurrence-seeking, where the trainer’s main aim is to achieve agreement, and
  • individualistic learning, where learners work independently on their assigned materials

The data gave constructive controversy a clear edge. The average person who learned by constructive controversy scored higher than 66% of those who learned by structured debate, higher than 75% of those who learned by concurrence-seeking, and higher than 81% of those who learned individually. This assumes a normal distribution of the data on a bell curve.

Similar effects in favor of controversy were measured when it came to motivating and creating positive attitudes among learners.

It’s noteworthy that formal rules-bound debate, where one side first supports a proposition and the other then argues against it, was the next-most effective form of learning. So apparently there’s some learning magic in argument, whether formal or informal. What is it?

Sharpening skills

To answer this question, the Johnsons quote the 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke, who said: “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”

The researchers explain that when learners are presented with conflicting views, they’re obliged to examine their own position, deepening their understanding. They’re also impelled to seek further information and sometimes change their reasoning process in order to be more persuasive.

And where they are themselves persuaded by the opposing view, they have to incorporate that into their perspective. All of this bolsters learning, compared with individual study or processes that favor quick and easy agreement.

Keep it constructive

Remember, though, that we’re talking about constructive controversy. This can be achieved by the trainer assigning different trainees to research contrasting positions ahead of time. The trainer can also stimulate disagreements during the session, as long as the disputes are over ideas rather than personalities.

But according to the researchers, controversy isn’t as likely to lead to a contentious, bitter outcome as you might think.

Here’s how they put it: “A common misperception is that conflict will create divisiveness, hostility and ill-will among participants.” But in fact, their research found, constructive controversy actually engenders more mutual liking among participants than concurrence-seeking, debate, or individual learning, as long as the participants believe their opponents are competent rather than incompetent. Some 60% of those who learned by constructive controversy scored higher on mutual liking than the average person who learned by concurrence-seeking, while the former scored higher than 77% and 79% of the debate and individual learning groups, respectively. The effect appears similar to the respect combatants in a boxing ring might feel for one another after a hard-fought but fair bout.

What it looks like

What might a constructively controversial training session look like? Imagine a sales trainer is going to be talking to a group of salespeople about qualifying prospects.

Ahead of time, she sends an e-mail asking half of the participants to research and think about the idea that salespeople tend to under-qualify prospects, leading to wasted time and effort. She asks the other half to get ready to speak to the opposite idea, that qualifying prospects too ferociously can lead to missed sales opportunities.

Then, during the session, the trainer encourages people on the two sides of the issue to address each other directly but respectfully, trying to defend their position and persuade each other.

Voila! Constructive controversy at its best. And if you believe the research, these trainees will understand the material much better than if the trainer had presented it in a standard “I speak, you listen” way.

(This blog entry is based on the following article: Johnson, D., et al. (2000). Constructive Controversy: The Educative Power of Intellectual Conflict. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, Jan./Feb. 2000, 28-37.)


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