More than one way to skin a cat

Close up edge of colorful magazine stacking

Harvard Business School is a big enough kid in the playground not to need my help in defending itself against criticism (seemingly an annual event at this time of year) of itself and its committed use of the case method.

But what does concern me is the inextricable link that is often made by critics in conflating Harvard and the case method.

In fact, this is no truer than the English having continuing ownership over the rules of any of the many sports they claim to have invented. Try telling the rest of the world they have to play the English way.

Red cricket ball and paddle laying in the grass

The case method may have been ‘invented’ at Harvard but is not owned by it. Try telling global educators they all have to teach the Harvard way. Neither is it monolithic. I am struck, in fact, by its diversity of scenarios, protagonists, writing and teaching styles, not to mention the backgrounds of case practitioners. This is just an example of the variety of schools who are actively advancing the case method. None of which conforms to the stereotypical criticism of the case method focusing only on solutions, on high level teams, on a very specific kind of protagonist.

We know as practitioners the value of the case approach and the impact it has on classroom experience and student development.  Impacts, by the way, that are increasingly valuable in a disruptive economy.

A recent article published by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with The Conversation, highlighted an “increasing demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, coordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem-solving.” Now those sound to me very much like the precise skills we as practitioners’ value in choosing the case method.

But intuition should not be enough. We should also be able to make a strong intellectual, analytical argument illustrating and justifying our claims for the strength of the case method.

What if we mapped the case method against an accepted pedagogic model like Bloom’s taxonomy? I recently asked one of our most experienced workshop tutors, Trevor Williamson (Former lecturer/Programme Leader Financial Services, Planning & Management) of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, to do this.

Bloom has a hierarchy of learning that looks like this:




With Trevor’s appearing like this:




Trevor played around with this and has proposed a taxonomy of his own based on Bloom’s but reflecting his thinking about learning theory and the case method. Trevor suggests there are some prerequisites before learning takes place, via the case method or otherwise. Deeper understanding develops as the student progresses upwards. Though several layers are the same as in Bloom’s taxonomy, Trevor has introduced ‘awareness’ followed by ‘synthesis’ as foundational layers. He has also included ‘reflection’ as he argues one can’t have deeper learning without it.

I think Trevor’s construct is pretty convincing and I find it a useful way into reaching a more considered, robust, and less instinctive response to critics.  But what do you think?

See Bloom’s taxonomy and Trevor’s version in full here.


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How the case method can help you in your lecturing career

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As Kermit sang so memorably on The Muppet Show ‘It’s not easy being green’.

At this time of year thousands of first year lecturers in business schools and universities will know how true that is.

For those not just fresh to lecturing but new to the academic environment as new entrants from business, the adjustment is doubly daunting.

What to say by way of encouragement and advice?

Lean on your experience

I’d say, in the midst of change trust in one’s own experience and knowledge. What do I know that my students need? For entrants from business, that surely means up to date and relevant experience of being tested in the workplace.

Getting the most out of the case method

Close up edge of colorful magazine stackingI’d say that adopting cases is a very effective way of sharing that business experience, taking it confidently into the classroom while still feeling one’s way into the more unfamiliar expectations and demands of academic life.

Start by choosing a case that reflects and is close to your own experience, take it into your own classroom and you’ll be amazed at how confidently you can guide students on a journey through the case and make it live for them.

Selecting the right case

How? Well, choose a case with a good, well written and detailed teaching note and you’ll get a pocket guide to how to teach it, how it links to management theory, and insights into previous student behaviours in classrooms like yours. It won’t just put you one step or more ahead of your students; if you’re smart you’ll also let it guide your own development and reading as you explore the theory behind the story.

An experienced Sports and Health Sciences lecturer, the University of Exeter’s Gavin Buckingham blogs about his own experience from when he was an early career academic, and has recently written an insightful piece for THE on tips for new lecturers.

Good luck, and remember you are the fresh perspective needed for student experience to remain relevant.

You can search over 60,000 cases on all areas of management and business at 

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