Archived Information

Tried and True: September 1997--The information in this publication was current as of September 1997, and has not been updated since. Some services described in the publication may no longer be available.
[Teacher Professional Development]

Teaching Cases: New Approaches to Teacher Education and Staff Development

A Program That Supports the Development and Use of Cases in Education

Developed and tested by WestEd

What is the idea behind Teaching Cases?

Patterned after a method long used successfully to prepare lawyers and business professionals, case discussions in education focus on detailed scenarios written about the real life experiences of teachers or administrators. WestEd's use of cases is based on the recognition that the work of educators, also, is informed not only by research but by experience. Because cases reflect reality, they help teachers learn to connect theories and concepts to the complex, idiosyncratic world of practice. Discussion of cases enhances analytic thought, reflection, inquiry, and, with some cases, content knowledge.

Take the Mathematics Case Methods project, for example. Although it is WestEd's first effort to develop content-specific cases for educators, it grew out of and has paralleled their broader case work, which has developed casebooks that address such topics as diversity in the classroom, the middle school experience, teacher mentoring, and teacher interning. While it's been said that great teaching is the merging of masterful pedagogy--the process of teaching--and deep knowledge of the subject matter, WestEd's work with math cases is premised on the belief that great teaching is even more than that. Teaching skills are not generic to age levels and subject areas. Rather, successful teaching is distinctly different for different subjects, different learners, and different settings. To be successful, teachers need deep pedagogical content knowledge--the ability to see the particular subject through the eyes of the student and to know what instructional experiences can be used to capitalize on that child's thinking.

In the math cases project, teachers develop this capacity through the careful and exciting process of reflection and inquiry generated by facilitated discussions with other teachers about math cases that portray real-life teaching dilemmas. In one case, for example, a student asks the teacher: "How can 100 percent of something be just one thing?" The question, itself, can give a teacher pause. Although most of us would agree that 100 percent means the whole thing or "one," the concept can be confusing. If you poll 23 people and 100 percent respond that they like toothpaste, does 100 percent mean 23 or 1? What seems obvious on the surface is really quite complex when you're trying to promote understanding of a concept and not just memorization of a rule.

As illustrated in that case, many mathematics concepts are more complex than they might initially seem. Prone to being misunderstood in a variety of ways, they are not easily "taught" in the traditional sense of imparting knowledge. In fact, after participating in the Mathematics Case Methods project for several years, one sixth-grade teacher concluded that her job wasn't actually to teach math at all. Instead, she had come to see her role as that of a helpful guide for students in their own idiosyncratic journeys toward mathematical understanding. Her experience with cases, she said, had made her realize the importance of getting inside her students' minds, "listening to what kids are thinking and understanding" as they grapple with new mathematical concepts.

Whether cases are content specific or deal with broader teaching issues, case discussants examine different approaches to teaching and learning, considering the benefits and drawbacks of each. Individual teacher learning is amplified as the reflective and analytic skills honed in case discussions spill over as "strategic inquiry" in their own classrooms. Even more powerful for an individual teacher is developing his or her own case that communicates a pivotal teaching experience. Two additional results of this teacher-to-teacher professional development are

Now under development are a casebook on using group work as a teaching strategy and, in the Mathematics project, a collection of cases for use by primary teachers and another to be used for classroom discussion by students with teachers serving as facilitators. While some of the casebooks are written by researchers, the majority are developed by practitioners themselves, working with WestEd case development staff. WestEd also works with other labs and institutions as they develop and use cases.

What does research say about how this idea can help teaching and learning?

The last few years have seen growing consensus that cases--used for both preservice and in service education--hold great promise for helping teachers think and reason collaboratively about their practice. Interest in the methodology has grown steadily with several publications devoting entire editions to using case-based instruction in education. Also, recent chapters in the Review of Educational Research and the Handbook on Teacher Education highlight the development and use of case-based instruction in education.

How was program tested?

With his 1986 presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, Lee Shulman brought renewed national attention to the potential of case-based instruction for educating teachers. That same year, Far West Laboratory, now WestEd, began a partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District to develop cases on the experiences of mentor teachers. The mentor teacher position was new, and teachers themselves wrote cases as part of a course over the year. Through their first-person accounts, a published casebook helps others think about the complexity of this role.

The pattern of development in that first book has been repeated and strengthened in later projects on other topics. The Mathematics Case Methods project, for example, is part of an 8-year partnership between the Hayward Unified School District, in Hayward, California, and WestEd. Cases are crafted by practitioners, in collaboration with WestEd staff and other professional colleagues. The writing process is guided by information about case format, peer review and discussion, and sometimes external editing. Discussions are held to field test and fine-tune the cases and also to provide information for a facilitator's guide to help discussion leaders anticipate productive themes or issues in a case. Sometimes formal commentary on a case is included in a casebook.

Throughout its case development process, WestEd collects formative evaluations of case discussion groups and the related professional development activities for case writers and discussion facilitators. Not only do teachers report enjoying case discussions, they claim that case methods help them better understand mathematics, student misconceptions, and the power of collaborating with other teachers.

WestEd's summative studies among teachers who have participated in math case discussions document improvements in content knowledge, beliefs about teaching, and classroom practices. For example, data gathered in individual interviews with 20 teachers suggest that after participating in case discussions, their behaviors in the classroom and their beliefs about teaching had begun to conform more closely with those recommended in reform documents.

Examination of one of the discussion groups over time indicated that participants came to perceive the locus of professional authority as residing individually within themselves and collectively among members in their group, rather than flowing only from external sources of expertise or power. This same study provided evidence that participating teachers developed a more robust understanding of aspects of domain-specific content discussed during these meetings, as well as developing an increasingly critical stance toward teaching, learning, and curriculum issues that emerge in the course of these discussions. In addition, case discussion participants often report that specific features of the case method are adapted to classroom practices.

What communities and states are using Teaching Cases?

WestEd staff have conducted seminars and workshops nationwide and worldwide to help educators understand the power of cases and to begin their own case development and use. Case projects are under way in states such as Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, and Nevada. Other regional laboratories have developed case projects with assistance from WestEd, for example, work by Appalachia Educational Laboratory in Kentucky on science cases. Networks of teachers, educators, and staff developers meet nationally and regionally to help each other expand and improve their work.

Mathematics Case Methods are being used throughout California in school districts such as Hayward Unified, San Francisco Unified, and Los Angeles Unified. In-depth development of teacher leaders is occurring in the California Math Matters Project and the Phoenix (Arizona) Systemic Initiative. As the Mathematics project has been more finely developed, it, too, has spread to other states and countries including Australia, Malaysia, and Saipan.

What's involved in using this program in my school and community?

WestEd's casework focuses on training educators and staff developers to write and edit cases and to conduct systematic case discussions. WestEd sometimes works extensively with one group of educators to develop cases, around a particular topic, which are then published in a WestEd casebook. As time allows, staff work also, through a contract, with districts or schools to help them develop and use their own cases.

In the Mathematics Case Methods project, specifically, those participating typically engage in six to seven 2-hour case discussions over the course of a school year. Some are then ready to attend a 2-day seminar at which they learn to facilitate case discussions or write new cases. But to achieve the best results¨whatever their involvement with case methods--participants need sustained exposure, graduated experiences, and feedback. This means that the case method approach is a long-term commitment.

Costs associated with implementing this program vary, depending on the components of the program being used.


Judith Shulman, Institute for Case Development
Carne Barnett, Mathematics Case Methods
730 Harrison Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
Phone: Shulman (415) 565-3057; Barnett (415) 565-3021
Fax: (415) 512-2024
[Questioning and Understanding To Improve Learning and Thinking (QUILT)] [Table of Contents] [Onward to Excellence]