Constructive Controversy

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Developed by Anders Wildt Woelders

Constructive controversy is an uncommon method of discussing or learning about a certain topic. When used, it is normally in order to reach a consensus about a controversial topic, without having any preconceptions about it, and leading the subjects to a judicious consensus about the controversy. While it can be used in any situation where a controversy exist, it is most commonly used in education, but the concept can also be applied to benefit in Project-management as a tool to help a group into more critical thinking in order to achieve better results when analyzing a situation. Constructive controversy is an interesting working method because it can often lead to the students, or in general participants, learning much more than just about the topic, because it can make one defend a viewpoint which they might not share from the beginning. This is because, very unlike a debate, participants' point of view is assigned by an instructor rather than something that occurs based on the individual participant's perception of reality. Constructive controversy can be seen as an application of the philosophical concept of Methodic Doubt, by René Descartes, which is described as “a way of searching for certainty by systematically though tentatively doubting everything” [1]

Studies of the concept have found that subjects faced with an intellectual challenge, who apply the methods of constructive controversy, often attain higher-level reasoning strategies, and develop more complex and coherent conceptual structures, as well as stronger critical thinking. [2] In these studies the concept was held up against concurrence seeking, debate and individualistic efforts, and the results showed that if constructive controversy frequently was used the subjects would be “imprinted with a pattern of intellectual inquiry that includes building coherent intellectual arguments, giving persuasive presentations, critically analyzing and challenging others’ positions, rebutting others’ challenges, seeing issues from a variety of perspectives, and seeking reasoned judgments.” [2]

This article is written as an in-depth description of a particular method. It includes:

  • History and a brief explanation of the concept
The concept is explained in this section along with the background and origin of it.
  • Step-by-Step Guide on how to apply it
Here the six general steps of how to apply the concept is accounted for. This section also contains an example of the application of the concept.
  • Discussion
In this section it is discussed when it is appropriate to use the concept and what the positive and negative aspects of it can be.


History and a brief explanation of the concept

History and Origin

The concept was first discussed by Aristotle, who was of the opinion that constructing a deliberate debate of advantages and disadvantages of a specific topic would end up with a constructive solution.[3] Earlier in society it was commonly believed that controversy was inherently destructive, and could not be used positively. In spite of this Thomas Jefferson believed that free and open-minded discussion should be the foundation of society, and that eventually this would lead to truth, especially if opposing points of view are advocated. [4] Sigmund Freud also indicated that intellectual conflict was a needed factor for psychological development. [5] The actual expression 'Constructive Controversy' comes from David W. Johnson's research. David W. Johnson is a social psychologist, currently working at the University of Minnesota. He began his research in the 1960s where he started documenting the role of intellectual conflict in instruction and decision making. He created the theory behind Constructive Controversy and on the basis of his research it is now a more much widespread method of learning than it used to be. [6] Despite of this constructive controversy is still not a common method as it requires more of its participants than other types of learning, though according to Johnson it can also yield much better results. Over the next four decades David W. Johnson, together with his brother and colleagues, would release countless articles, books and reviews on how to use constructive controversy in both decision making and for instructional purposes.[6]

Explanation of Concept

The basis of the concept is to have two opposing sides debate each other, from a predetermined point of view. This means that some participants might be debating from a point of view they do not share, and this is essentially what makes constructive controversy an interesting concept. By debating from a viewpoint one does not share, there is a possibility of becoming more open-minded about the subject matter. It will help the participants of the exercise to put themselves into another person's shoes, and thus broadening their own horizon.

Constructive controversy has been thoroughly researched within the realm of teaching. It can be used in many other different contexts, but the primary focus of this article is in the use of project management. The concept of Constructive Controversy in the context of project management is most useful in the sense of decision making, and risk management. The reason it can be effective in risk management is that research has suggested that many companies are unable to take risks effectively, because of persistent cognitive bias. However, when a group uses constructive controversy to discuss their opposing views for mutual benefit, they may be better at managing their risks, as the cognitive biases can be set aside. [7] Constructive Controversy can give a project-team new eyes when trying to discover and asses the different risks revolving a project, as when someone debates for something they are usually against, or the other way around, it could give a brand new perspective. That might lead to a better assessment of the risks in general, giving a more well-considered project in the end.

Constructive controversy is more useful in the earlier stages of a project, since early phases such as the initiation and planning phases are when most of the important decisions are made. In the latter phases such as execution and closure, there won’t be much use for constructive criticism, unless something has gone wrong, and a new decision has to be made. Here it could also be used if the team has enough time to go through the process of gathering two sides and having them debate and contemplate. However, in the early phases it can be used when a group is faced with a difficult decision. Applying the concept can help team-members seeing the problem with new eyes and help the group come to a well-reasoned and critically analyzed decision.

Step-by-Step Guide

When people are faced with a problem or decision they will initially make a conclusion based on their own perspective, experience and rationale. This also happens when applying constructive controversy, but here they are asked to look past their own initial conclusion to see the problem from a different perspective. In the theory of constructive controversy there seems to be some disagreement on the number of steps. Some say 4, others 5 or 6. While it is the exact same process, different theorists have chosen to split it up differently. Since the father of constructive controversy, D.W. Johnson, described 6 steps[2], this article will split the process in 6 steps as well:

Illustration of steps
Model of the six steps
  1. The first step of constructive controversy is to categorize, organize and derive conclusions from the existing information and experiences. At this point the instructor will also split the group into two teams, and appoint them their initial viewpoint.
  2. The second step is to actively represent and elaborate your point of view and how you arrived at it.
  3. The third step is being challenged by opposing views.
  4. After being challenged, the group will feel uncertainty and disequilibrium.
  5. This causes the participants to actively search for more information and try to understand the opposing position and their rationale.
  6. Lastly the group will incorporate their opponent's information into their own reasoning, and may have a position change, or a stronger opinion of their initial point of view. This will make them transcend to higher stages of cognitive reasoning.

The Roles of the different participants when using Constructive Controversy

This section includes a table found in the article Constructive Controversy - The Educative Power of Intellectual Conflict by D.W. Johnson, R.T. Johnson and K.A. Smith[2]. This table was originally made for using constructive controversy for educational purposes. The following table has been fitted by the author of this wiki-article to be used in project-work. The 'Recitation' phase includes the first step of the theory, while the 'Group Discussion' phase includes both second and third step. Lastly the 'Controversy' phase includes the fourth, fifth and sixth step of the step-by-step guide.

Recitation Group Discussion Controversy
Coverage Instructor Group-members Group-members
Assumptions About Knowledge Static, reflects accumulated wisdom Dynamic, socially constructed Dynamic, socially constructed, applied and transformed
Group-member Role Recite Knowledge of facts, information Give Thorough explanations of understanding and implications Transform Knowledge into argument, critically analyze positions, view issues from different perspectives, synthesize
Instructor Role Ask close-ended questions, listen to and evaluate responses Pose open-ended questions, structure group discussions, monitor, facilitate Pose open-ended questions with defined sides, structure controversy, monitor, facilitate

Rules for using Constructive Controversy

In order to use Constructive Controversy in the most constructive manner a certain set of rules, or guidelines, will be presented in this section to help things along. Below ten rules are presented that will cover most of what could potentially start a full-blown conflict between team-members. These rules are found as part of an article on constructive controversy.[8] If everyone can conform to these rules, constructive controversy will be much more pleasant to use:

  1. I am critical of ideas, not people. I challenge and refute the ideas of the other participants, while confirming their competence and value as individuals. I do not indicate that I personally reject them.
  2. I separate my personal worth from criticism of my ideas.
  3. I remember that we are all in this together, sink or swim. I focus on coming to the best decision possible, not on winning.
  4. I encourage everyone to participate and to master all the relevant information.
  5. I listen to everyone's ideas, even if I don't agree.
  6. I restate what someone has said if it is not clear.
  7. I differentiate before I try to integrate. I first bring out all ideas and facts supporting both sides and clarify how the positions differ. Then I try to identify points of agreement and put them together in a way that makes sense.
  8. I try to understand both sides of the issue. I try to see the issue from the opposing perspective in order to understand the opposing position.
  9. I change my mind when the evidence clearly indicates that I should do so.
  10. I emphasize rationality in seeking the best possible answer, given the available data.
  11. I follow the golden rule of conflict. I act towards opponents as I would have them act toward me. I want the opposing pair to listen to me, so I listen to them. I want the opposing pair to include my ideas in their thinking, so I include their ideas in my thinking. I want the opposing pair to see the issue from my perspective, so I take their perspective.

If these guidelines are not taken into account, the discussion could be a lot less constructive. Potentially a discussion could evolve into a full blown conflict if the topic in question is an actual controversial problem. This is especially important if the instructor knows that there is already friction between some participants or if the participants are easily upset.

Example of Constructive Controversy being used in Project Management

This section contains a made up example in order to illustrate how to use constructive controversy in project management. In this example Michael is the instructor while Carl, Agnes, Andrei and Jean-Luc are all group-members.

A project group from the film company ArtHouse Inc. has been tasked with creating the framework for a new big movie. The project group consists of the leader Michael, and his group of Carl, Agnes, Andrei and Jean-Luc. The first decision they have to make is whether they should shoot on celluloid film or digital. Michael knows his project group well, having worked with them several times before. As he realizes this is the first time the company has had the option of shooting on digital, he guesses that Andrei will not give it a second though or have anything to do with it, as he considered himself sort of a film-purist. He also knows that Jean-Luc has been speaking about switching to digital for some time, and thus will be a great proponent for digital. (Step 1) As Michael enters the room he suggests to his group that they should use constructive controversy to make the decision. He puts Andrei in a group together with Carl and asks them to argue for the use of digital. Jean-Luc and Agnes are placed on the other team together, arguing against it. Michael leaves the two teams alone for a while to prepare for the debate. (Step 2+3) After a while he goes back to the room to start up the debate. As the two teams discuss the subject matter, arguing the pros and cons, Michael notices that Jean-Luc actually believes the arguments for why the movie should be shot on film. Andrei on the other hand seems to be more lenient towards digital. Michael decides to stop for the day, and the team goes home.(Step 4+5) Both Jean-Luc and Andrei have become interested in the choice of medium, and decide to do some research. (Step 6) The next day, Michael instructs the group to sit down together and talk the decision through, based on what they have learned from their discussing yesterday, but now from their own point of view. Now both Jean-Luc and Andrei are surprisingly lenient towards shooting on digital, because of the advantages it has for this specific project. They make a joint decision to shoot the movie on digital, without the bias Michael knew existed in the group from the beginning.


This article has presented most of the uses for constructive criticism. There are many possibilities, as it can both be used for educational purposes along with risk management and decision making in project management. Another proposed use for constructive criticism in project management is as a tool for conflict management. If used correctly with people the instructor knows the limits of, it can be used proactively to manage a potential conflict. If the instructor knows that two people would normally disagree on a certain topic, it could be used to make them understand the reverse point of view, before something happens that could escalate the potential conflict. This way of using constructive controversy is also exemplified in the case example. This method of application would be optimal if it could be done without anyone feeling targeted. If one group member feels deliberately targeted he/she could withdraw, or not want to participate, thus getting nothing out of it and instead escalating the conflict. The rules for using constructive controversy might come in useful here.

As with most working methods, constructive controversy is not always optimal to use. It requires a lot of effort from the participants and will usually also take longer time to use, compared to a debate or individualistic learning. This means that in stressed situations, it is not a good way to go. This further strengthens the argument that constructive controversy is better used in the early phases of a project, especially the initiation and planning phases, where there is not yet much pressure on the different decisions and stress factors have not yet arisen.

In education many instructors choose not to use constructive controversy in fear of losing control of the classroom, which might cause some to lose their own sense of being a good instructor. Others are afraid that they are not trained well enough to dive into academic controversies. For constructive controversy to work properly two things must be in order; the instructor must transfer the knowledge of experts in the field to the students and secondly the students must have a full and solid grasp of the topic in question. If these are not in place, the method can result in an animated and noisy discussion, which no one really benefits from. It could be argued that these are the same reasons a team leader could hold back from using it in project work. Losing control of the group, creating conflict instead of avoiding it could be one, and not adequate information about a topic to engage in constructive inquiry might be another. It also depends on the social skill of the participants. A group of people with low empathy and conflict seeking personalities might not be the best place to using constructive controversy, especially if the instructor/group leader does not have much experience with it. David W. Johnson found that when used properly in education it yielded a lot of benefits. The following table shows what Johnson witnessed when trying the concept on students opposed to the findings of using other forms of teaching.

Controversy Debate Concurrence-seeking Individualistic Learning
Deriving conclusions by categorizing and organizing information and experiences

Being challenged by opposing views

Uncertainty about the correctness of own view, cognitive conflict

High epistemic curiosity

Active representation and elaboration of position and rationale

High reconceptualization

High productivity

High positive cathexis

Deriving conclusions by categorizing and organizing information and experiences

Being challenged by opposing views

Uncertainty about the correctness of own view, cognitive conflict

Moderate epistemic curiosity

Active representation and elaboration of position and rationale

Moderate reconceptualization

Moderate productivity

Moderate positive cathexis

Deriving conclusions by categorizing and organizing information and experiences

Quick compromise to one view

High certainty

Absence of epistemic curiosity

Active restatement of original position

No reconceptualization

Low productivity

Low positive cathexis

Deriving conclusions by categorizing and organizing information and experiences

Presence of only one view

High certainty

No epistemic curiosity

No oral statement of position

No reconceptualization

Low productivity

Low positive cathexis [9]

Johnson and Johnson state that there are two possible contexts for using constructive controversy: cooperative and competitive[2]. Their research has shown that using it in a cooperative context gives the participants a much more complete picture of the opposition's position and greater utilization of the information. Using constructive controversy in this case can also inspire participants to seek out people, even from outside of project work, with opposing opinions to find understanding and test the validity of their own ideas. In a competitive context it can promote more close-mindedness, rejection of the opponent's ideas, and even rejection of the opponents as persons. For constructive controversy to be used fruitfully in this context it is important that participants acquire collaborative and conflict-management skills as well as perspective-taking. Johnson and his research team focused on two specific approaches that can help participants use constructive controversy in a fruitful manner. The first is disagreeing with an opponent while confirming his/her personal competencies. If a person is just criticized, with the implication of personal incompetence, it will cause that person to be more critical of other people's ideas and increase their commitment to their own ideas. On the other hand by criticizing someone's idea while, at the same time, confirming their personal competence, is much more likely to result in a greater liking of the person criticizing ones idea, and also gives a less critical of view of the opponent's ideas with greater interest in seeking out more information about the opposing ideas. The second skill Johnson and his team focused on to help groups that are using constructive controversy is perspective taking. Participating in controversies tends to give greater understanding of others' perspectives, which gives rise to creative, high-quality problem-solving as well as better understanding and improved personal relations. Using Constructive controversy in a competitive context with unskilled individuals, who refuse to see the problem from any perspective, but their own, and are not afraid to make personal attacks will rarely, if ever, be constructive. The method simply works much better if the participants have cooperation on the forefront of their minds, or are at least able to criticize ideas without criticizing a person and are open-minded enough to see things from another perspective than their own.


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, Karl A. Smith "Constructive Controversy: The Educative Power of Intellectual Conflict", 2010 - Published Online
  4. Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, Eric C. Marcus, "Handbook of Conflict Resolution - Theory and Practice", 2006, Second Edition, Jossy-Bass p. 90
  5. Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, Eric C. Marcus, "Handbook of Conflict Resolution - Theory and Practice, 2006, Second Edition, Jossy-Bass p. 69
  6. 6.0 6.1
  7. Dean Tjosvold, Zi-you YU, "Constructive Controversy and Risk-Taking for Team Innovation in China", 2001
  8. David W. Johnson "Constructive Controversy: The Value of Intellectual Conflict", 2008
  9. David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, "Critical Thinking Through Structured Controversy", 1988, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Found here
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