ERIC Identifier: ED321965
Publication Date: 1990-06-00
Author: Kleinfeld, Judith
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
The Case Method in Teacher Education: Alaskan Models.
Case teaching presents authentic, concrete teaching problems for students
to analyze. For example, a teaching case in the context of a rural Alaska
school describes a classroom fight between a native student and a white
student. It provides background on the rural school and community, demonstrates
what the teacher did, and shows what subsequently happened (Kleinfeld,
forthcoming). As students read and discuss the case, they consider questions
that teachers actually think about in such a situation: the causes of the
fight, the two students' feelings and interpretations of the event, and
the history of mistrust between the native community and white outsiders.
As a class "unpacks" this chunk of reality, students become aware that
such concrete classroom problems reflect not only pedagogical issues, but
also matters of ethics, politics, and educational policy.
This Digest is intended for teacher educators, student teachers, and
practicing teachers. The discussion describes the theoretical basis of
the case method and examines the strengths and limitations of the case
method. It also identifies sources of teaching cases, and it suggests ways
teacher educators (and their students) can apply the case method.
THEORETICAL BASIS OF THE CASE METHOD
Teaching cases have long been a cornerstone of professional training
in schools of business, law, and medicine. Recently, educators have begun
to explore their value in the preparation of teachers (McCarthy, 1987;
Shulman, forthcoming; Shulman, 1987).
The surging interest in teaching cases stems from an increasing appreciation
of the value of "narrative" forms of thinking as opposed to abstraction
and generalization (Bruner, 1986). "The conclusions of much formal research
on teaching," Bolster (1983, p. 295) points out, "appear irrelevant to
classroom teachers--not necessarily wrong, just not very sensible or useful."
Narrative forms of thinking are far more compatible with the ways teachers
actually organize their experiences and develop professional knowledge.
In fact, professional knowledge in teaching and in other fields consists
in large part of the accumulation of experiences in the form of concrete
cases. Experienced professionals develop knowledge of the kinds of problems
they are likely to encounter, what these problems actually look like, what
usually causes them, and which approaches are likely to be productive in
solving the problems. By providing vicarious experience with a variety
of concrete cases, the case method expands and sharpens students' understanding
of the profession.
Case method teaching also provides models of how to think professionally
about problems. Students learn how to use theoretical concepts to illuminate
a practical problem. They learn how to spot the larger issues implicit
in what might seem to be a minor classroom decision. Teaching by the case
method helps students learn how to think productively about concrete experience.
The case method thus enhances their ability to learn from their own experiences.
STRENGTHS OF THE CASE METHOD
Case methods are especially valuable in rural education. Cases can describe
in vivid and rich detail what happens in small, rural schools. Such schools,
unfortunately, are difficult to use as field placement sites for student
teachers, primarily due to their distance from most university campuses.
Well written teaching cases:
provide vicarious experience with important teaching dilemmas;
illuminate the human intentions, feelings, and misinterpretations that
are often the core of teaching problems;
provide models of how expert teachers think about actual teaching dilemmas;
increase students' repertoire of educational strategies by showing them
how expert teachers approach problems;
help students learn to spot issues and think professionally about practical
provide emotional preparation for an unjust world.
Students enjoy learning from cases, which appeal to the universal delight
in a good story.
LIMITATIONS OF THE CASE METHOD
Case method teaching is not a systematic means of transmitting facts,
organizing knowledge, or teaching psychological concepts and pedagogical
methods. Nor do cases give students practice in pedagogical skills. The
case method supplements, rather than replaces, other methods of teacher
Some faculty find it hard to locate good case materials. Many are not
sure how to go about teaching a case and fear that classes will degenerate
into a pointless exchange of personal opinions.
SOURCES OF TEACHING CASES
Collections of teaching cases are just coming on to the market. Currently
available casebooks are: Case Studies for Teacher Decision-making (Greenwood
& Parkay, 1989); A Casebook for English Teachers (Small & Strzepek,
1988); and Case Studies on Teaching (Henson, Kowlaski, & Weaver, 1990).
A series of teaching cases centering on problems in rural, multicultural
schools has been developed by Judith Kleinfeld and can be ordered from
the Publications Office, Rural College, University of Alaska, Fairbanks,
Alaska 99775. The following titles are currently available: Malaise of
the Spirit; The Teacher Who Came to Rivertown; Harassment in Lomavik; and
A Troubled Student-Teaching Experience in Rural Alaska. (The first three
are also available from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service: ED 308
028, ED 302 363, and ED 302 362, respectively.)
Faculty do not necessarily need to use commercially published cases--or
even written sources--for teaching cases. Students often bring up stories
of their own teaching experiences or field observations. Teacher educators
can turn "anecdotes" into "cases." Students' anecdotes invite fuller description
and consideration of the troubling situation, and the methods of case teaching
can guide the discussion with an analytic framework. Faculty might, for
example, ask their students such questions as:
What are the issues here?
What alternative strategies might you consider?
What is at stake here?
In short, a "teaching case" is not necessarily a piece of writing; it
is a way of framing problems and analyzing experience.
WORK WITH YOUR OWN TEACHING CASES
Teacher educators can develop their own teaching cases to prepare students
for the particular problems in a local context. The Alaska cases, for example,
were developed by local teachers, faculty, and graduate students. The problems
of teaching in remote Alaska villages with Yupik and Athabascan Indian
populations are so unique that no relevant curriculum materials were previously
available. This observation doubtless applies also to situations in many
rural and small schools, or in other schools that serve ethnic minorities.
The Harvard Business School (1989) publishes a helpful set of notes on
how to write a teaching case.
Teacher educators can also use case-writing as an assignment to develop
students' skills of reflective inquiry. In Alaska, for example, faculty
ask students to write a case based on their student-teaching experiences.
This assignment creates an opportunity for students to reflect on situations
they found troubling. Students can examine these situations from different
perspectives, evaluate what they did and what they might have done, and
think carefully about what they might learn from their student-teaching
To prevent a case discussion from becoming superficial exchanges of
opinions, faculty must think through what they are trying to accomplish--what
issues the case illuminates, what theoretical concepts it illustrates,
and what understanding the case can develop. Christensen's (1987) Teaching
and the Case Method is an excellent source for approaches to case teaching.
It is often helpful to divide a case discussion into two stages: (1)
problem analysis; and (2) problem solving. The problem analysis stage begins
with such questions as:
What are the issues here?
How does this same situation look from another character's viewpoint?
What went wrong here? The problem-solving stage begins with such questions
What would you advise the teacher to do at this point?
What might the teacher have done earlier to prevent the crisis?
What changes might prevent this problem from happening again?
The cases developed in Alaska give students rich descriptions of the
kinds of problems they are likely to encounter in rural teaching. They
also illustrate the ways to approach such problems. Case method teaching
shows students how to think professionally about problems and it helps
prepare them emotionally for representative problems. When students encounter
such problems themselves, they will have met and thought about them before.
Bolster, A. (1983). Toward a more effective model of research on teaching.
Harvard Educational Review, 5(3), 294-398.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds: Possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Christensen, R. (1987). Teaching and the case method. Boston: Harvard
Greenwood, G., & Parkay, F. (1989). Case studies for teacher decision-making.
New York: Random House.
Henson, K., Kowlaski, T., & Weaver, R. (1990). Case studies on teaching.
New York: Longman.
Harvard Business School (1989). Catalog of teaching materials. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard Business School.
Kleinfeld, J. (forthcoming). Learning to think like a teacher: The study
of cases. In J. Shulman (Ed.) Using case methods in teacher education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
McCarthy, M. (1987). A slice of life: Training teachers through case
studies. Harvard Graduate School of Education Bulletin, 22 (1), 7-11.
Shulman, J. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Using case methods in teacher education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform.
Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.
Small, R., & Strzepek, J. (1988). A casebook for English teachers.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.