Using a case study approach

There are dozens of "mini-cases" embedded in each chapter of World History, and each mini-case can function, on its own, in a case study format. The mini-cases, the big ideas to be examined, and higher-order discussion questions are identified below. If you are interested in using a case study approach, it is suggested that you first read the Introduction to Case Method Teaching below. Then, choose the case, have students view the section of World History that addresses the issue, and finally, use the discussion questions to promote thoughtful reflection about the big ideas. As a follow up study to the case discussion, it is suggested that students be directed to gathering supporting data from the websites, or from text and library sources.

Introduction to Case Method Teaching

Scenes from the Classroom

The teacher stands at the front of the classroom as the students prepare to join their small study groups. She reminds them about the rules for group discussion: that all students have the right to express their own ideas; that all students' ideas are to be heard and treated respectfully. She calls out names of people and indicates their group assignments. In preparation for this case study, the students have viewed the section on Fear of the Unknown, in Chapter 4: Ancient Egypt. This case highlights issues about the deep fears people have felt throughout history, of life's uncertainties, and the ways in which they have dealt with those fears.

  • Study groups form, and each group addresses the higher order questions that the teacher has distributed:
  • What, in your view, made the people of Ancient Egypt so fearful of natural forces, like storms, drought, flooding?
  • What makes people turn to religious rituals? What are your thoughts on it?
  • How did the religious rituals of the Ancient Egyptians seem to protect them from events in nature?
  • How do you connect people's fears of natural forces with the use of mummification?
  • What, in your view, explains the Egyptians' use of mummification?
  • To what events in modern culture do such practices relate? What are your ideas about it?

These questions are open-ended and designed to promote discussion of the big ideas, rather than lead students to single, correct answers. On the first question, about the need for a system of written down numbers, the students are immediately engaged. Differences of opinion activate the discussions and the 20 minutes allocated to small group discussion passes quickly. At the end of this portion of the period, the teacher brings the whole class together to debrief the case. While, during the study groups the teacher's role is that of non-participant observer, debriefing requires the teacher to play an active role in leading the discussion. In debriefing, artful questioning and responding skills allow the teacher to work with students' ideas, helping them to examine assumptions, calling for data to support their ideas, elevating inconsistencies in thinking and differences in points of view. All of this is done respectfully, without judgment in word or tone, and the climate is safe for any student to venture an opinion.

Important goals of debriefing are for students to examine issues critically, to learn to reason from data and to assume responsibility for their ideas. In this way, the students learn to think more intelligently about the issues and their understanding grows. More and more students volunteer their ideas, and the amount of class participation is high. No one notices that the class time is up; no one wants to leave. The teacher reminds the students that they may obtain more detailed information from the data links and gives the CD-ROM to those who wish to pursue those inquiries. The discussion will continue at the next class session, where ideas will have been further informed by data gathering, from the websites or from text sources.

In this brief scenario are found the key ingredients of case study teaching: a case with a compelling narrative, that raises provocative questions; students' active engagement in small group discussion to examine issues and air their views; teachers' active leadership in debriefing the case, during which time big ideas are examined and students learn to reason from the data; follow-up studies that involve gathering information from text and Internet sources; more discussion. Each stage of this case study process requires students to reach for deeper and more extensive examination and analysis of the issues. Since working through a case demands their active, cognitive involvement, students come to greater understanding of the issues.


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