Classic Ways to Teach Cases

By Barbara Leigh Smith, The Evergreen State College and Dwight Oberholtzer, emeritus Professor, Pacific Lutheran University

A classic way to begin a case is to divide the discussion into three basic parts

  1. An assessment of the problem situation
  2. A review of the possible solutions and
  3. A justified decision or judgment

In the first step it is useful to ask what are the issues, who are the stakeholders, what are their needs/issues here? It is always good to slow down the discussion to examine these aspects of the case first, rather than jumping to resolving the problem. Slowing down usually results in deeper probing of the issues and the varying perspectives.

As one writer on case teaching has observed, "artful unpacking is the heart of case discussion. Discovery-promoting questions invigorate, unsettle, and deepen the process, calling out a creative diversity of opinion (Oberholtzer, "An Introduction for Case Leaders" in Washington Center Casebook on Collaborative Teaching and Learning, Washington Center, 12-15) He recommends that the leader prepare a bank of inventive questions in advance. He identifies six kinds of discovery questions:

  1. Shifting Viewpoints- Shifting the discussion among the different characters provides a more emphatic and thorough understanding of the different points of view. In the case Whose History Should we Teach? , for example, the narrative focuses on Mary's perspective. Asking how it appears to the other characters will broaden the understanding of what's going in this situation and adding other players, such as the principal, would broaden the perspective even further.
  2. Changing Abstraction Levels-Asking questions at different levels of abstraction can also deepen the discussion. For example, one could ask "How does this appear to Jordan" or ask the much more focused question around specific comments he makes such as "When Jordan says 'not a good idea to stir all this up,' What is he saying?" Getting close to the text is one strategy here. Another is to ask broader questions that rise above the details such as "What role should teachers have in each other's curricular decisions?"
  3. Digging More Deeply-Case discussions often stop short of digging as deeply as they could to probe distinctions and consider complexity. For example, in Whose History Should We Teach? when considering options for Mary, it might be useful to go beyond simply listing options to consider the benefits and shortcomings of each option in detail.
  4. Shifting Time Frames-Sometimes shifting time frames is a useful strategy in discussing a case, but in terms of what might have happened beforehand and what might happen next. In Whose History Should We Teach, for example, it might be useful to ask how could the "opportunity" to implement House Bill 1495 in the curriculum have been presented to the teachers to engender a more positive reception to the idea?
  5. Another Intellectual Level-Shifting the intellectual level of the questions often produces different results. Moving from questions focusing on solutions vs applications or analysis vs evaluation is one way to do this.
  6. Unexpected Issues-Sometimes there are seemingly minor details in a case that can open up the discussion in productive ways or be used for deeper follow-up work. For example, in Whose History Should We Teach? , Jordan says at one point "I didn't steal anything from anybody." Guilt and grief are common issues when discussing diversity issues. Unpacking this point could lead to a rich discussion. Anna Maria's quiet comment about boarding schools could also be used as an avenue for deeper exploration, especially for students who knew nothing about this.

As a case is discussed in small groups, a recorder is usually tracking the conversation on butcher block paper that everyone can see. We suggest the following possible framework while cautioning that each discussion has some of its own dynamics and rigidity is to be avoided.

Board Work for Coming to Judgment

Questions for Each StepPotential Board Summaries
1.What is Really Happening?
How does the situation appear to each character?List of descriptive words or key issues for each case
How do the different viewpoints compare?List focused on key disagreement and agreements
2. What are the options?
What can the judgment-maker conclude from the other character's views?List of lessons or concerns that might make the final judgment more inclusive
What realistic solutions does the judgment-maker have?List of options that survive criticism for being impractical
What are the costs and benefits of each solution?List of options with benefits and shortcomings of each
3. What is the judgment?
Which solution is wisest and why?Summary of best solutions
What values does the judgment(s) reflect?Cluster of values underlying each judgment
What might the lessons for collaborative teaching and learning be?A list of case implications or teaching principles that might be ranked

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