Case discussions on teaching; in the Harvard School of Public Health
Once the group has formed (if it does), then the fun can begin. Forgiveness of imperfections and respect for a diversity of gift are indispensible.” This is how Diana Walsh, chair of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) (and president designate of Wellesley College) describes the central lesson about teaching she learned through a case discussion seminar. But she might well be describing the seminar itself.
Meeting once a week over a period of two months, Professor Walsh and 20 colleagues from HSPH experience the anxieties, pleasures, and frustrations of being students once again. As participants in a case discussion seminar led by C. Roland “Chris” Christensen, professor emeritus of the Harvard Business School, these faculty have the chance to observe and interact as collaborative learners with a master teacher. This kind of structured group learning is rare for busy researchers who have little time to sit and think; it is even rarer for them to spend this time reflecting on teaching.
But at 3:30 every Wednesday afternoon, everyone is seated quietly in a circle, name cards visibly displayed, ready to respond to an invitation from Chris to open the discussion. “What’s going on here?” he asks. “How did the professor in the case get into this situation?”
The group grapples with a different case every week, but all the cases are about real teachers, with real students. Only the names are fictional. In most cases, events crystallize around an unanticipated moment when the teacher is left wondering what is going on and what to do next. The cases provide a focus for discussions, yet from a safe distance: the predicament is someone else’s.
Discussions typically move through different layers of analysis and reflection. Looking first at the particulars of the case, the group often arrives later at more general questions, such as “How do you get to know your students?” “What strategies can you use to defuse tension in the classroom?” “Is it ever right to sacrifice an individual student for the group?” Through discussion, participants begin to acquire a common language and shared images; for example, the teacher as “host” who establishes a “contract” in the teaching/learning relationship, and who develops a “typology of questions” to manage discussions.
Sometimes the discussion itself becomes a prism through which participants view and comment on facets of the teaching/learning process: “I notice that no one picked up on a point that [a woman] in this group raised two times. Let’s bring the issue home to our group.” Other times, cases mirror participants’ own teaching experience: “I had a student like that once. . .” “In my own experience, it’s hard to get students to be active in a large, impersonal auditorium.”
As the group builds a common experience and a sense of collaboration develops, individuals dare to comment more personally on teaching, learning, and life: “How can you ask your students to go out on a limb if you’re not willing to?” “How much of your own personal experience should you reveal to your students?”
Many participants report that the experience of the case discussion seminar greatly changes their approach to teaching, that they see themselves less as conveyors of knowledge and more as facilitators of learning. While some complain that the seminar discussions do not explicitly spell out teaching tactics, most are able to translate this experience into their classrooms. One very experienced professor of international health, for example, enumerates the following changes in his teaching style brought about by the seminar: “easing up on my questions to students, providing more positive encouragement, supporting the important dissenting opinions and the minorities, giving active attention to speakers, and locating each class session in the course’s flow backward and forward.”
Others report that the group process, which brings forward astonishingly different points of view, helps them appreciate “the many layers of meaning in any human situation, and the importance of recognizing our own assumptions.” As the seminar progresses, however, the question of what to do in an unanticipated situation draws the same answer: talk over the situation with experienced colleagues. An all-important result of this development is to legitimize and encourage discussions around teaching. One seasoned faculty member comments, “Everyone was very gracious and accepting of the different and fascinating views and experiences related over the past several weeks.” A young professor of biostatistics also adds, “The seminar allowed me to become acquainted with other faculty members at HSPH. We actually chat about teaching and the seminar in the elevators and in the lunch line.”
Chris Christensen’s case seminar is now developing roots at HSPH. This past spring, three faculty members took turns leading their colleagues in discussions of cases about teaching in their own fields. “Leading a discussion with your colleagues can be daunting, especially if you’ve never taught that way before, but as a faculty, we’re building momentum to take the next steps on our own,” says James Ware, professor of biostatistics and academic dean. “It’s very exciting to discover the potential of maintaining a series of seminars on our own.”
As colleagues meet together week after week in a climate of open-mindedness and cooperative problem solving, the real outcome of the seminar is not cracking a case, but learning more about one’s own assumptions and the insights of one’s colleagues. With a critical mass of faculty from the same setting, and faculty members themselves assuming the role of discussion leader, the case seminar has provided a chance for HSPH faculty to build a community of their own around teaching.
ELLEN SARKISIAN is associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and educational consultant to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Programs in support of case teaching a HSPH are developed through the collaboration of the Office of Professional Education, Gareth Green, director, and the Masters in Public Health Program, Roberta Gianfortoni, director for professional training. The author retains the copyright for this article.
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