Welcome to the Case Method
This note was issued to students in a "course of cases" I taught at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College in the winter of 2017.
The course you have just begun makes use of a teaching technique called “the case method.” This is an approach to learning that is radically different from the ones used in most, if not all, of the other work that you have done (or will do) here at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. In particular, the case method differs from other methods with respect to the purposes that it pursues, the procedures that it employs, and perspectives that it asks participants to adopt.
The chief purpose of the case method is the fostering of the virtues needed to practice maneuver warfare. These include:
a bias for action
empathy (which is not to be confused with sympathy)
the ability to cooperate
the ability to communicate clearly and argue persuasively
a capacity for creativity, adaptability, and innovation
interest in professional reading and, in particular, enthusiasm for military history
the ability to quickly make sense of novel, dynamic, and fast-changing situations
the ability to rapidly compose, propose, explain, defend, and modify workable courses of action
In the course of cultivating these skills, attitudes, and habits, those who learn by means of the case method also acquire a great deal of knowledge. about geography, weaponry, politics, military organization, and culture. Indeed, because the knowledge in question is acquired in the course of solving problems, those who learn by means of the case method retain much more in the way of useful information than people taught by conventional academic methods.
Procedures and Perspective
Students prepare for, and participate in, class discussions in ways that are peculiar to the case method. Where preparation is concerned, students will engage, as individuals and as members of study groups, relatively short reading assignments (known as “case materials”) in a purposeful way, treating what is written in much the same way as a detective treats evidence. In class, students will take part in a Socratic discussion, one characterized by such techniques as role play, cold calling, paraphrasing, and redirection.
In examining the case materials , students will ask themselves a simple but powerful question: “what is going on here?” In engaging this central question, they may ask other questions. These include:
“Who is the protagonist?”
“What is the background of the protagonist?”
“What is the protagonist trying to accomplish?”
“What are the obstacles that stand between the protagonist and his purpose?”
“What resources can the protagonist employ?”
In discussing the case materials in their study groups, students will ask the same questions of each other. In doing this, they may arrive at different answers. Indeed, if the study group arrives at a consensus at an early point in the discussion, chances are that a form of “group think” has set in. When this happens, members of the study group should take on the role of “devil’s advocate,” looking for weaknesses in, and counter-arguments to, the agreed-upon consensus.
Once the study group has adjourned, each student should review the case materials. In doing this, he should take on the role of the protagonist. That is, rather than referring to the protagonist as “he” or “she,” the student should refer to the protagonist as “I.” This shift in perspective will help the student prepare himself for the first event of the Socratic discussion, the “cold call.”
The cold call begins when the case teacher picks a student and asks him to (1) describe the problem that he faces and (2) provide a workable solution to that problem. In doing this, the case teacher will address the student by the title and surname of the protagonist and ask him a question that resembles one of the following:
“What is the problem are you trying to solve?
“What is your plan?”
“What are your orders?”
“What are you going to do?”
Once the selected student has described his problem and proposed a solution, the case teacher will paraphrase what the student just said, providing a synopsis that describes the essential features of his response. This done, the case teacher may ask follow-up questions to the selected student, asking him to expand upon one point or another. Alternatively, the case teacher may ask another student to offer a critique of the first solution or offer a solution of his own.
This “cycle of cold call and critique” will repeat itself several times in the course of the Socratic discussion. At times, the formal, teacher-led portion of the discussion will give way to a more natural interchange, with students jumping into the discussion without waiting to be called. When this happens, the teacher will watch the class to make prevent a small proportion of the students from dominating the discussion and to ensure that the discussion remains focused on the problem at the heart of the case. (If the teacher thinks that the discussion is going off course, or is being dominated by a minority, he will jump in and restart the “cycle of cold call and critique.”)
The Socratic discussion may lead to a consensus concerning the best way to solve the problem faced by the protagonist. Alternatively, the class will end up with two or more reasonable courses of action, each of which has its champions. From the point of view of the benefit that the student derives from the experience, each of these outcomes is equally good. To put things another way, the point of the Socratic conversation is neither to achieve nor to prevent the achievement of a consensus. Rather, it is to give students the means of making the most of the last step in the engagement of a case, the revelation of the historical solution.
Also known as “the rest of the story” or “the reveal,” the historical solution is a description of how the real-world protagonist solved the problem at the heart of the case. This can take the form of a verbal brief at the end of the Socratic discussion, a short reading handed out at the end of the class meeting, or the case materials (readings) for the next case in a series.
The historical solution is neither “the right answer” nor the “school solution” to the case. Rather, it is simply a description of what happened in the real world. As such, it provides students with a means of comparison that helps them evaluate their own solutions and those of their classmates. It also provides background to subsequent cases in the course.