Stories Matter: The Transformative Power of the Case Study Method

Dr. Amy Gooden is an Assistant Professor of TESOL and Bilingual Education and Global Fellow at Lesley University. She is the owner and founder of the Improved Communications Consulting (I.C.C.) and Education Consulting Firm.

Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. – Native American Proverb

At a time when teachers are challenged to accelerate gains and eliminate gaps in student achievement, schools and districts need to move more proactively to provide meaningful, high quality professional development opportunities for teachers (Wei, Darling Hammond & Adamson, 2010).  Effective professional teacher development — which enables teachers to work together to reflect on and improve their practice and implement strategies to meet the needs of all their students — is  key in any effort to promote student achievement and ensure that all students are prepared for life beyond high school. Unfortunately, a general consensus in the literature on teacher education points to the following problems plaguing in-service and pre-service teacher education and professional development programs universally: a neglect of the sociocultural view of teaching and learning and an overemphasis on the rationalist mode, a need for critical reflection, a rare incorporation of the experiences of the educator into the curriculum, a lack of a bridge between theory and practice, and poor modeling of analytic processes and reflexive thinking. The case study method aims to address each of these gaps in teacher education and provide a more meaningful and applicable experience for educators. The Harvard Business School Approach to Teacher Professional Development© is a cutting edge strategy, inspired by both my years of experience with Harvard Business School manager training practices and a review of the literature on best practices in teacher education. These best practices include asking educators to write, share, and discuss authentic, teacher-generated stories.  Each story, or case, outlines an instructional dilemma, and engages its readers in the role of a decision-maker facing the problem (Ellet, 2007). Representing a departure from traditional, lecture-based approaches, this innovative, sociocultural teacher professional development approach places participants in a learning environment that requires active learning, critical reflection and dialogue, and co-construction of evidence-based solutions for current and enduring real life “stories” in education.

The author lecturing students about the case study method.

The author lecturing students about the case study method.

The case study method is based on the premise that diverse ideas and critical thinking lead to the development of a broader range of research-based solutions to contemporary issues and enduring questions in American education. The process of critical reflection on, dialogue about and inquiry into authentic teacher stories equips educators with a patterned approach to analyzing and solving real, multifaceted, 21st century issues in education. Users of this method will first place themselves in the role of the decision maker, as they read through the situation and identify the problem they are faced with. The next step is to perform the necessary analysis: examining the causes and considering alternative courses of actions in order to come to a set of recommendations.

The structured exchange of meaningful and relevant educator stories is a means of developing teacher thinking, attitudes, and beliefs about enduring and current issues faced by educators in the field. Case studies are stories by and about fellow teachers that give educators the opportunity to reflect on their reasoning, and at the same time provide tools of conversation and learning that stimulate novel ways of decision-making and problem-solving. Specifically, the case study method helps practitioners develop meaningful, innovative ideas for instruction, lesson and unit plan design and differentiation. 

The 21st century teacher’s competencies should integrate a solid theoretical and pedagogical base as well as dispositions that include cultural responsiveness, open-mindedness, contextual flexibility, and problem-solving orientations.  With its emphasis on reflective practice and validating teachers’ stories, the case study method is particularly attuned to the needs of K-12 educators. It is designed to promote teachers’ critical thinking by asking them to distinguish between facts and assumptions and surface and deep issues as well as to critically analyze contextual factors and multiple perspectives in order to co-construct evidence-based solutions. The case study method guides its practitioners towards creative yet grounded solutions to relevant stories s in contemporary classrooms, while simultaneously learning the lifelong professional value of collaboration in the field of education.

The power of stories has been well-documented in almost every culture; they are the oldest form of education. Anthropologists, psychologists, and educators have proven that stories are used to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values and collective memory. At a time when effective professional development is more important than ever before, I believe the exchange and analysis of teacher stories will play a crucial part in keeping reflective and informed instructional and curricular practices alive in our classrooms.

In an upcoming workshop sponsored by the Center for Arts and Scholarship, participants will have the opportunity to take their learning to the next level by experiencing and exploring how to implement the case method approach in their respective educational contexts.

Some of the topics will include:
    •    Understanding sociocultural approaches to teacher development and the school change connections
    •    Overview of the case method teaching approach
    •    Case writing principles
    •    Case discussion design
Transformative and engaging, the case study method is a novel means of promoting school change via a sustainable and scalable teacher-led professional development model that emphasizes teacher agency, critical and collaborative thinking, and reflective practice.

Gooden, A (2013). Building language educators: The implications of case-based pedagogy using practicum-based student-teacher-generated cases for pre-service language teacher education. Doctoral Dissertation: Boston University.

Ellet, W. (2007). The Case Study Handbook. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kleinfeld (1992) J. Kleinfeld, Learning to think like a teacher: The study of cases. In: J.H.    Shulman, Editor, Case methods in teacher education, Teachers College Press, New York (1992), pp. 33–49

Wei, R. C., Darling-Hammond, L., and Adamson, F. (2010). Professional development in the United States: Trends and challenges. Dallas, TX. National Staff Development Council

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