Q&A: Unconventional case-study method incites historical thinking (additional online material)

History teacher Damany Fisher traveled to Harvard University, Sept. 17-20, to attend a seminar about the case-study method – a way of teaching history through discussions of real-life situations. David A. Moss, a professor at the Harvard Business School, adapted the case-study method of the Harvard Business School to be used in history, and is currently bringing it and his class, The History of American Democracy, to high schools as part of the High School Case Method Project.


Shimin Zhang
History teacher Damany Fisher

Q: What is the case-study method?

A: (David A. Moss has identified) 20 key moments that highlight some of the problems of democracy, along with what he considers some of the turning points in American democracy. Each of the cases (from the method) are based on these moments in history.


Q: What is the goal of the method?

A: (The goal of the case method is to) force students to consider the context around a particular moment in history, and then to look at the different sides of an issue. It really forces students to engage with the past and to understand why certain individuals made a particular decision.

Students must take a position (or stance on an event) and defend it based on the circumstances that they’ve learned. (For example), based on the context and circumstances, what position or action should James Madison or Martin Luther King have taken – what should they have done? (Should Martin Luther King have led the protesters onto Pettus Bridge instead of turning around? Should James Madison have pushed for a federal veto of state laws?)

Q: Are there any problems with it?

A: One of the major flaws is that the (current) cases are not necessarily representative of everyone in society.

I think that there is a need for a more diverse range of cases that would take into consideration other important events and aspects of history, and also take into consideration other groups of people who lack voice and representation.


Q: Can you give an example?

A: (I feel that) WWII, the civil rights movement, slavery and abolitionism could be covered more. I also feel that more could be done to represent women along with working people. These are some of the areas of weakness that I feel should be addressed in the future.

I believe that (the lack of coverage of certain topics) is one of the flaws that the people who are administering the (case-study method) are aware of and are trying to address – they want to develop a wider array of cases that would address some of the holes in its current iteration.

(Although that is a flaw of the method), I appreciate the fact that it emphasizes depth over breadth. Each case really allows you to go deep and explore all of an issue’s complexities in a manner that you could not do in a regular history class or by taking a more conventional approach.


Q: When will you introduce this method to your classes?

A: This semester, I definitely want to cover James Madison and the federal negative (the ability to veto a state’s legislation) and the fight over a national bank.

I’m going to be looking at the first case (with my U.S. history class) in a couple weeks; the class will focus on James Madison and the U.S. Constitution – specifically the inclusion of a federal negate.

I plan to give a hard copy of the case to each student and then I’ll assign a certain number of pages (for them to read each day), then we’ll discuss that part of the case in class. The whole case method is really driven by student participation and engagement – so it’s critical that students really take the time to study each particular section.

I’ll be inviting teachers and administrators to observe me in early November teaching through the case-study method so that they can see the value of this teaching style.


Q: What was your schedule like while you were at the seminar?

A: (The program) was all day – it was actually really intense. We started (with breakfast) at 7 a.m., and after breakfast we usually had small group discussions with other educators attending the program, (followed by) two lectures each day going over different cases.


Q: Who spoke at the seminar?

A: There were multiple speakers, though most of the cases and lectures were taught by Moss. (For instance), there was another professor from the Harvard Business School who spoke about a case.


Q: Whose idea was it for you to attend this program?

A: When I was teaching (history) at Phillips Academy (outside of Boston, Massachusetts), one of my colleagues emailed the history (department) to see if anyone was interested in learning about the case-study method of teaching (through an upcoming) seminar.


Q: Have you attended similar programs before?

A: In the past, at least twice a year, I (would try) to do something related to professional development. That usually meant traveling during summer, studying under a professor or an expert in a particular field.

I’m a strong believer in professional development, and as an educator, it’s important to never get too comfortable in your teaching style. (One should) always be open to new ideas and approaches to teaching and learning.

I try to attend as many professional development opportunities as possible. (However), it’s difficult now that I have two kids.

—By David Situ

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