Reflections on teaching case teaching

On Friday and Saturday I had one of the most intense teaching experiences of my life – the Participant-Centered Learning seminar at the Harvard Business School. This two-day seminar, with about 50 students from more than 30 institutions, is an introduction into case teaching – but for the course leaders, it is an exercise in meta-thinking.

When you teach a case, you need monitor processes, in real time, on at least two levels: The case problem itself (and cases can be complicated, you need to know them well); and your own performance as a teacher – are you reaching your teaching objectives, and is the way you lead the discussion furthering them. Practice helps, but like with all things new, leading discussions takes a lot of thinking until it gradually becomes a habit and is done more by in central nervous system that the front cortex.

Teaching about case teaching, on the other hand, introduces many new levels. Not only do you have students who are watching your every step – i.e., how you teach, not to look for airtime opportunities – but the aim of the course it to use case teaching techniques to illustrate the teaching techniques that would deal with the problems outlined in the underlying case. (Adding to that, of course, as any good teacher should monitor him- or herself for ways you can make the teaching better the next time.)

At the end of the course, I felt as if I had just finished a long car drive in a car where the gears and pedals had been switched around, every direction decision and subsequent execution requiring copious amounts of conscious processing. Reputedly, the brain consumes 20-24% of the body’s energy, and I certainly felt that way when I got home, barely able to do anything more than sack out in front of the computer with a glass of good red wine and a few old Top Gear episodes.

That being said, however, the whole experience was also extremely invigorating. The students were interested, energetic, and from admirably diverse backgrounds, from US elite institutions through low-cost regional online educators to universities in China, Turkey and Denmark. It was also interesting to have the full resources of a Harvard case classroom at my disposal – in particular, having ample blackboards (9, as a matter of fact,) old-fashioned but so much better in every way, including sightlines. Having a great room changes how you teach – though I will have learn how to exploit the room better, especially the boards, should there be a next time.

But all in all, a most enjoyable experience. As I have previously written, I think good discussion teaching is a source of differentiation and competitive advantage for both teachers and institutions. I stand by that view, all the more so for my experience this weekend.