Thinking About Teaching With Cases

The Enduring Legacy Native Cases Initiative1

By Linda Moon Stumpff and Barbara Leigh Smith
The Evergreen State College

Can we teach college students to be flexible, creative problem solvers capable of dealing with the unscripted problems they will inevitably confront in the real world? Using cases in college classrooms is becoming increasingly common as a response to numerous calls for more active forms of learning set in the context of messy, real world problems. Cases are one form of project-based, problem-based, or inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based approaches have been recommended by many recent reports on education (see, for example, National Academy of Sciences, Bio2010 and AAAS, Invention and Impact). Inquiry-based approaches give students exposure to the process of doing science and social science and building skills in analysis, communication, and problem-solving. The premise of case-based learning is that real world problems produce cognitive conflict that stimulates learning and initiates inquiry and collaboration by students.

Using cases in the classroom results in the kind of interdisciplinary, integrative thinking that is so important to the Tribal context. Modeling this kind of inquiry-based, high engagement approach, Evergreen successfully uses case-based learning in all of its Native programs, from the Reservation-Based Undergraduate programs to the Tribal Governance Graduate Program.

Cases have a long tradition in higher education, especially in the area of medicine, business and law. Harvard University is perhaps best known for this approach. The curriculum in its business school and at the Kennedy School for Government and Public Policy have been based on cases for many years. But in the past thirty years, case-based learning and problem-based learning (PBL) have become much more widespread. In his classic book, Teaching and the Case Method, C. Roland Christiansen argues that cases develop sensitivity to interrelationships and connections in complex situations. They promote understanding issues from multiple perspectives, and they build the ability to reach conclusions and to make and defend recommendations based on complex evidence. In a recent article, a leader in case-based approaches in the sciences, Clyde Herreid, indicates that case method teaching is highly productive in science classes where the use of cases causes student attendance to soar, increases student's positive attitudes towards the subject matter, and increases retention of material, and higher-order thinking (Herreid, 2005).

So what exactly is a case? Cases can simply be described as a story with an important educational message. Christiansen says a case is "an account of real events that seem to include enough intriguing decision points and provocative undercurrents to make a discussion group want to think and argue about them" (Christiansen, 1987, 265). Cases do literally come in all shapes and sizes. The possible sources of cases are unlimited. Materials that could be used include the internet, ads, Tribal newsletters, government documents, Tribal planning documents, newspapers, journals, cartoons, public hearings, memos, letters, minutes of meetings, etc. Teaching cases typically develop a focused narrative around a problem or an issue. The content of the case is based on actual events, and it is written to engage students in critical thinking and analysis. They are high on experiential knowledge and context. They place writers, teachers and students "in the moment" and encourage inductive reasoning. A good teaching case engages students with the complexities of a real situation and challenges them to pick out key factors, filter the information and identify possible solutions or courses of action.

There are many different types of cases. Many cases end on a question or a problem, but a narrative case can include a conclusion or a final decision. Students learning from this type of case analyze the outcome and develop other alternatives. A decision-forcing case doesn't include a conclusion or outcome. In this type of case, students analyze the information and processes in the case to suggest possible outcomes.

Good teaching cases include the four C's---context, conflict, complexity and challenge. Good cases are authentic. Readers find them realistic and life-like. They have an attention to detail and a level of concreteness that makes them compelling. Strong cases are open-ended and produce a sense of ambiguity that provides fuel for robust discussions. Cases are especially useful in exploratory fields where knowledge is limited since they provide the background and frameworks for hypothesis building and doing research. They can also allow a high degree of community involvement and access. Cases vary in terms of the amount of detail they provide. Sometimes students are provided only minimal information so that research and information gathering becomes a critical part of working the case.

Why Native Cases?

There are a number of reasons why we believe teaching cases are worth developing around Tribal issues. Cases can

  • Fill the void and inaccuracies in the literature. Cases can help address the gaps in the existing literature on Native perspectives and issues and provide engaging and timely information for the classroom and the community. Many of the few cases on Native Americans that do exist are not written from a Tribal perspective and foster misunderstanding .
  • Address Tribal needs in the wake of self determination. Tribal communities are in a period of rapid change and widespread experimentation. Cases can provide information on effective approaches, common issues, and dilemmas facing Tribal communities.
  • Build skills in critical thinking. Cases can foster student skills in decision making and critical thinking and promote interdisciplinary, integrative thinking. Considerable research shows that college students need to develop higher order critical thinking skills.
  • Promote student engagement and learning. Cases are usually taught using active learning approaches which are known to be more effective in terms of student learning and engagement. Our experience using cases with our Native students this year suggests that participation and teamwork are desirable outcomes of using cases.
  • Provide culturally relevant curriculum. Cultural relevance is an important dimension of effective educational approaches. It's motivating to students to experience curriculum that addresses real issues in their communities.
  • Surface and use hidden information. Cases are a good way of surfacing the large "hidden literature" on Native issues. While there is a gap in the published literature on many topics relating to contemporary Native American issues, it is also true that there is a large "hidden" literature in the form of studies, final reports, and case studies. Much of this information is under utilized but available through Native agencies, state, and U.S. Federal agencies, and foundations and other non-profits.
  • Address Tribal protocols and embody cultural sensitivity. Cases are particularly adaptable for working in areas where Tribal protocols and cultural sensitivity are key components of successful research.

What Does it Mean to Use the Case Method in Teaching?

The case teaching method is simply a combination of possibilities, styles and learning modes connected to the practice of teaching with case studies. We think Clyde Herreid's recent book, Start with A Story, is one of the best introductions to the various ways cases can be taught (Herreid, 2006).

Case teaching can be done using a lecture-oriented instructional approach but we think they are especially interesting when more active forms of learning are used. A variety of participatory pedagogical approaches can be employed to engage students- role play, debate, discussion, judge and jury, structured controversy, jig saw discussions, mock public hearings, and any number of others can be fitted to the main problem or issue of the case. Some good resources on these teaching approaches is provided at the end of this essay. By focusing on a problem, issue, or challenge that involves a decision or problem-solving strategy, case teaching emphasizes high-involvement when students place themselves in realty-based situations. This is particularly important for native students, since they do not often have the opportunity to engage with relevant curriculum based on experiences drawn from the Tribal context. We also know that many students learn more from more active forms of learning. When students put themselves into scenarios that are drawn from real situations, they get the opportunity to grow professionally as they try on the roles of decision-maker, political leader, or administrator, or concerned citizen.

Some have argued that case teaching methodology is based on an individualistic, western-inspired rationality. At Evergreen where collaboration is a central value, our experience shows that cases can be worked in groups and teams to focus on innovative group problem solving. Case teaching is effective in cross-cultural learning: this method was used with significant success and strong positive feedback in our Master of Public Administration Tribal Governance program. Case teaching can be adapted to any target group of students at any education level to provide a high-context, experiential and engaging method for building learning communities.

Successful case teaching usually changes the faculty role from lecturer to participant learner/facilitator, a role change that is sometimes disconcerting. What a case can do depends on careful planning and good teaching methods. Cases that promote deep learning often require students to do extensive work in addition to actually working the case in a class session. Many cases will have a teaching guide with objectives, guiding questions and suggestions on how to teach the case. These are especially helpful for those new to this approach. Working well with cases requires extra planning and the ability to adapt to a variety of responses, but the results are often amazing.

What Topics are Important for Native Cases?

To answer the question of what cases might be most useful, we convened a Native advisory board comprised of more than two dozen Tribal leaders in the Northwest. At a meeting held in January 2006 this group brainstormed and prioritized important topics for the cases. This priority list has been used extensively in deciding what case development proposals to support. Members of the advisory board are also reading and giving feedback on our cases as they develop. The cases are being field tested at five different colleges and universities including The Evergreen State College, Grays Harbor College, Northwest Indian College, Salish Kootenai College, and Bainbridge Graduate Institute. We invite other colleagues to try out our cases. Please tell us what you think!

Additional Resources On Cases and Active Learning

Barkley, E., K.P. Cross and C.H. Major (2005) Collaborative Learning Techniques. Jossey bass.

Bean, John. (1996) Engaging Ideas. Jossey Bass.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A.L. and Cocking, R.R., (eds.). (1999) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brookfield, Stephen and Stephen Preskill, (2005) Discussion as a Way of Teaching. Jossey Bass

Herreid, C.F. 2007. Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science. Arlington, Va: NSTA.

Johnson, David and Roger Johnson. (1992). Creative Controversy: Intellectual Challenge in the Classroom. Interaction Book Company.

Lynn, Laurence. What is the Case Method? A Guide and Casebook. 1996. Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development (FASID) in Japan.

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