When reality beats theory: why we learn so much from real-life events

When reality beats theory: why we learn so much from real-life events

At the end of the last post, I commented that my decision to use the case method – where students learn primarily by studying real-life events – so extensively was met with skepticism on the part of higher-ups at the school of management in Grenoble. Fortunately, I already had a reputation as an effective teacher, with several years of consistently high scores on student evaluations. As such, the dean and other key administrators were willing to let me “experiment”, at least for a while.

Why was my moving to this sort of classroom dynamic so controversial? At the time, graduate school education in France, as in much of Europe, was characterized by traditional lecturing, with little interaction between professors and students. Scholars dispensed their knowledge, and attendees were basically expected to assimilate and reproduce it under exam conditions.

When I started using cases almost exclusively, many of my colleagues and superiors commented that they did not understand what I was doing, that it was too unstructured, and difficult to evaluate. They even used the word “chaotic” when they imagined how this sort of classroom would look, and feel.

Given that my advocacy of case-based learning was so controversial with the school administration, why was I convinced that I should attempt it nonetheless? First and foremost, and as I wrote last time, my research and reading were demonstrating without any doubt that narrative is a powerful vehicle for getting students to retain information. As opposed to lectures or slide decks, cases are stories about real events. To me, this approach was more likely to hold the participants’ attention during class. Above all, I was convinced that the cases and their lessons would stay far longer in peoples’ minds.

Furthermore, I had worked with business school cases enough in other contexts to know that I would enjoy the challenges this method presents for instructors. For readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with the concept, I should explain that a business case is based not in theory but in real life. It portrays events that actually happened, usually at a time of uncertainty in an organization’s history.

The overarching objective is that students learn to analyze, and make judgements, about real world situations. First, they read about a company that was faced with a problem, dilemma or choice. They then define the relevant issues, outline the options they see, and propose solutions. Students put themselves in the situation of the decision-makers, and a well-written case provides information similar to what the company knew when they had to choose the path forward.

Unlike lectures, cases unfold without a specific script. While the instructor must master the material and develop a general discussion plan, he or she can never predict precisely what directions classroom exchanges will take. As such, the professor manages simultaneously both content and process. Such preparation is far more rigorous and demanding than that of writing a lesson plan or lecture.

One of the interesting skills that case method teachers must develop is a feel for balancing planning and spontaneity. As the class dialogue unfolds, one must learn to allow for free expression of ideas, while at the same time gently guiding the participants’ process of learning and discovery.

If my colleagues and the school’s administrators had been quite reticent about my approach, student reactions were overwhelmingly favorable, right from the outset. In the next post, I will enumerate some of the reasons that my classes enjoyed this form of learning. Then, I will also discuss some of the changes I made to get more storytelling into the classroom experience.



Image: Flickr user j van cise photos