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U-shaped Discussion

This support material is incorporated into critical challenges at grades 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12, however, it can be adapted for use at all grade levels.

The U-shaped Discussion strategy offers an alternative to the traditional two-sided debate. Instead of an adversarial debating format, this strategy encourages students to see the merits of all sides and to recast binary options as positions along a continuum. The goal is to encourage students to endorse positions provisionally while listening to others in an attempt to figure out the most defensible personal stance along a continuum of possibilities. Stress that students are not to try to convince others, but merely to explain why the position they are sitting in is the most defensible one for them. There is no need to reach consensus on the issue.

Approach A:

  • arrange the class in a U-shape
  • ask students with polar views (i.e., either strongly agreeing or strongly disagreeing with the proposition) to seat themselves at either tip of the U; ask students with mixed opinions to sit at appropriate spots along the rounded part
  • ask students at each tip of the U to state their position and offer a few reasons only (if there is an imbalance in strong support for one side or the other, locate yourself temporarily in a polar position to get the discussion going)
  • alternate from side to side, as students from all parts of the U offer their views
  • encourage students to physically move along the spectrum if they have heard reasons that cause them to want to shift their intellectual position on the issue.

Approach B:

  • invite students to individually decide which of three answers best represents their thinking: No, Yes or Maybe
  • ask the Maybe group to stand in line across the front of the class and invite several spokespersons to explain their reasoning; when they are done, ask if any students in the audience have changed their mind and, if so, invite them to join the Maybe group
  • ask the No students to form a line along the side of the classroom perpendicular to the Maybe group and invite a few spokespersons to present their reasons; when they are done, ask if any students have changed their mind and invite them to join one of the groups
  • ask the Yes students to line up on the other side of the classroom facing the No side (the three lines should form a U shape) and invite several spokespersons to present their reasons; when they are done, ask if any students have changed their mind and invite them to join one of the groups
  • encourage students who are in the Yes or No line to move closer to the Maybe line, if they are so inclined; conversely, invite students in the Maybe line to move to one end or the other, if they are attracted to that position
  • invite further discussion, encouraging students to change their minds when they hear reasons that cause them to question their current position.

The following documents can be adapted and re-saved for your needs.

Reflections on U-shaped Discussion Word
This chart supports students in thinking about four aspects of the discussion. To use this chart, the student:

  • indicates his or her position on the U and provides supporting reasons at the start of the discussion
  • summarizes interesting arguments offered by two other students that caused him or her to wonder about or rethink his or her position
  • indicates whether he or she moved during the discussion
  • provides reasons for remaining in the same position or for changing position
  • lists the four most powerful reasons that support his or her final position on the issue.

Self-assessment of U-shaped Discussion Word
An assessment rubric is available to help students assess their preparedness for the discussion.

Assessing U-shaped Discussion Word
An assessment rating scale is available to support assessment of student performance while listening to the discussion.


Adapted from Critical Challenges Across the Curriculum series. Permission granted by The Critical Thinking Consortium for use by Alberta teachers.

Last updated: July 1, 2014 | (Revision History)
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