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Teacher Educators Turn to Case-Study Method

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White Plains, NY--For nearly three hours every Monday evening, the future teachers in Rita Silverman's educational-psychology class here get what is referred to in business-school shorthand as a "concrete chunk of reality."

That exposure comes to these Pace University students in the form of "case studies"--complex, richly detailed stories about real problems faced by real teachers.

The stories spur the students to debate such knotty questions as how to draw the line between being a friend to a student and being a teacher, how to handle a student who has been physically abused at home, and how to discourage a student's unhealthy dependence on a teacher.

The students argue. They defend their positions with psychological theory. They come away with more questions.

"It's like practice teaching without actually going into the classroom," said one student, Pam Liebson.

Long established as a pedagogical approach in schools of law and business, the case-study method is increasingly being viewed as an equally powerful tool for training teachers. Beyond its usefulness for injecting reality into an "ivory tower" setting, the technique is seen as a way to make abstract theory come alive for prospective teachers and help them practice the critical-thinking skills needed to deal with the complex problems they will face on the job.

"Why give teachers a body of knowledge that suggests there are set answers to the problems they face when it's just not so?" asked Ms. Silverman, a professor of teacher education at Pace. "What we hope to do is give teachers a repertoire of behaviors that can be used in problem solving."

'Wired' for Stories

While only a handful of teacher educators across the country are thought to be using the case-study method now, the notion is not a new one for the field. The idea gained prominence in 1986, however, when the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession issued its landmark report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century.

"Teaching 'cases' illustrating a great variety of teaching problems should be developed as a major focus of instruction," the report said.

Another voice lending credibility to the idea in recent years has been that of Lee S. Shulman, the influential Stanford University educational researcher.

"We, as a species," said Mr. Shulman, "are apparently wired to listen to, engage in, and remember stories much better than we do with non-narrative discourses."

The method was also the focus of a national conference last November organized by the American Association of Higher Education and the Institute for Case Development at the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. The Commonwealth Center for the Education of Teachers, an organization founded by two Virginia universities to improve teacher training in that state, will host a second national conference on the approach this June in cooperation with the AAHE.

'Messy and Ambiguous'

Ms. Silverman, however, came to the technique by a more independent route. She was exposed to the case method several years ago through a faculty-development seminar conducted by William M. Welty, a professor of management at Pace University's Lubin Graduate School of Business.

Trained in the Harvard Business School method of teaching cases, Mr. Welty uses the technique to help university faculty members improve their own teaching.

He and Ms. Silverman began working together to develop similar kinds of cases for training elementary and secondary teachers. With the support of a three-year, $150,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the two employed graduate students to gather "real life" stories from practicing teachers and write them up.

"We found that the cases had to be based on the real experiences of practicing teachers so that they're messy and ambiguous just as real teaching is," Ms. Silverman said. "And they end at a dilemma point."

The Pace instructors then edited the stories and put them to the test in teacher-education classes.

A collection of their cases will be published later this year by McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

'Ellen Norton'

The case discussed one recent Monday evening by Ms. Silverman's educational-psychology students came from a veteran teacher reflecting on experiences that took place early in her career.

The dilemma faced by that teacher, renamed "Ellen Norton" by Ms. Silverman and Mr. Welty, was, on the surface, straightforward. A high-school student, the captain of the cheerleading squad Ms. Norton coached, had approached the teacher and asked to stay at her house that night. The girl said her stepfather had been drinking and she feared he would beat her if she returned to her own home.

It becomes apparent upon reading the seven-page narrative, however, that the student's request did not come without some prior encouragement from Ms. Norton. After having seen a large bruise on the girl's stomach and having heard rumors that she was abused at home, the teacher had earlier encouraged the girl to open up to her with any problems at home. At the time, the student refused, saying the bruise had been the result of her falling off a bicycle.

Between this initial overture and the girl's subsequent acceptance of the offer of help, however, Ms. Norton's willingness to shoulder her students' problems had been eroded somewhat by a separate experience with another student.

Ms. Norton had provided extra help in mathematics and some friendly conversation to a shy student who was new to the school. The girl responded by becoming unusually attached to the teacher, following her around the school and even driving by her house at night. And Ms. Norton had not been able to find a way to discourage that dependence.

When the Pace students read this account, it took no prompting from Ms. Silverman for the class to jump into a lively discussion of the case.

"All Ellen had to do was report the case the first time she saw the bruises, and she could've walked away from it," argued one student, his voice rising in the debate over the young teacher's mistakes.

Other students offered an array of advice and suggested ways of resolving specific aspects of the complex situation.

The teacher should have introduced the shy student to classmates her own age, some said. As for the abused cheerleader, some class members recommended that Ms. Norton notify the principal of the girl's plight and allow her to stay at the teacher's house. Others said the teacher should send the girl home with a friend as a way of buying time to seek outside help for her.

As Ms. Silverman pointed out, there was no single right answer and there were consequences to every possible action.

"As prospective teachers, maybe what you all need to take away from this case is to think about knowing where to draw the line," Ms. Silverman told the class, summing up. "Do you see yourself as being a teacher or something more?"

'Unpacking an Onion'

That case typifies what Judith Kleinfeld, another pioneer in case-method teaching in education, calls a "problem-solving" case.

It is one of four types of cases that Ms. Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, says are currently being used in teacher education. Other types are "appraisal" cases, in which a teacher recounts how he or she handles a particular problem; "ethnographic" cases, traditional detailed analyses of situations by researchers; and a hybrid of the "problem-solving" and "appraisal" types. All draw on the experiences of actual teachers.

Ms. Kleinfeld said her own method for teaching cases is a "hybrid" approach. She said her cases typically begin with a dramatic event, such as a fight between an Eskimo child and a white child, then describe a teacher's efforts to work through the problem, and end with an ironic twist or another series of problems caused by the actions the teacher takes.

"A good case is multilayered," she said. "It's like unpacking an onion."

She uses her cases, which can run for as many as 50 pages each, for a particularly specialized purpose. They deal exclusively with the complex political and cultural realities new teachers will face teaching in small Eskimo and Native American villages in rural Alaska, places where values and traditions vary from one village to the next.

"The world isn't fair, and young teachers who are trying their best can sometimes step into" trouble, Ms. Kleinfeld said.

'Layers of Commentary'

Under Ms. Kleinfeld's classification system, Judith Shulman's cases would probably fit under the "appraisal" category. Ms. Shulman, the wife of Lee Shulman and a respected researcher in her own right, has coauthored two books of cases for use in training mentor teachers and intern teachers. She is currently working on a third volume.

Ms. Shulman, director of the Institute for Case Development at the San Francisco-based Far West Laboratory, uses much shorter cases than those developed by Ms. Kleinfeld. She also supplements them with what she calls "layers of commentary"--comments from experts in the field and from other teachers on the way the teachers handled the situations described in the cases.

The teachers whose experiences are recounted are also paid small stipends to write the cases themselves.

"Teachers ought to be able to have an opportunity to tell their own stories," Ms. Shulman said.

And Ms. Shulman uses several cases involving the same educational theories as a way of getting students to challenge a concept that provided a successful resolution in a prior case.

Need for Definitions

Even proponents of the case-study method acknowledge that the wide variety of "cases" being talked about in the field may be a source of confusion--and a potential impediment to their efforts.

They said some teacher educators interested in the idea have been "turned off" by some of the kinds of anecdotes used as cases. In addition, lack of understanding of what case-method teaching really means has caused other teacher educators to look on the idea as nothing new.

Experts in the method also note that a number of textbooks published in recent years contain material labeled "case studies" that would be described more accurately as anecdotes fabricated to illustrate a particular idea in the book.

"Perhaps the teacher-education community has to decide what it means by cases," said Katherine K. Merseth, director of the Comprehensive Teacher Education Institute at the University of California at Riverside. She uses business-school-style cases with her own classes--a method she developed more than a decade ago to train teachers at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

Another drawback to the technique is the lack of cases available for widespread, inexpensive use. While those who train lawyers and business managers can choose from libraries full of cases, few such resources exist for teacher educators. And fresh cases, which require original research and significant writing and editing to develop, can be costly.

"At Harvard Business School, a good, complex case might take $10,000 or $20,000 to produce," Ms. Merseth said. "I think education could do it a little less expensively, but it's still a concern."

"Perhaps the logical next step," suggested Ms. Shulman, "is to develop some sort of a clearinghouse."

Affects Teaching Style

But selecting a good "case" is not enough to guarantee good learning, according to those who employ the technique. The case method, they say, also requires a style of teaching that may be unfamiliar to university instructors more used to lecturing.

"You can take a good case and have it used more poorly and more rigidly and more didactically than anything else," observed Mr. Welty, the Pace University management professor.

Instructors must probe, ask questions, direct students away from "red herrings," and keep the discussion from degenerating into a useless exchange of "war stories," experts on the approach agree.

"One of the hardest things is to not necessarily get your own answer on the table," Pace's Ms. Silverman said. "Those of us who have been doing this a long time usually think we have a pretty good clue to what we think are the better answers."

In addition, there is little research--even in business and law--to show whether the technique actually works.

According to Ms. Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska, only "a couple of" studies have looked at whether students learn more using the methodology--all of them showing favorable results. No one has explored whether teachers trained with "cases" make better teachers.

Ms. Shulman said she hopes to undertake research soon at the Far West Laboratory to examine that question more closely.

For now, the teacher educators who use the technique say their instincts tell them that teaching with cases is one especially effective way to train teachers.

"My own sense is that something's happening out there when this works that causes people to think about things they didn't think about before," said Ms. Silverman.

"Let's put it this way," added Mr. Welty, somewhat facetiously. "Did you ever meet somebody who was poor that graduated from Harvard Business School?"

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