A new way of teaching
The Harvard Business School is perhaps best known for its distinctive pedagogy: a student-centered approach to learning that is captured in two words: —case method. Behind those words, however, lies a complex theory of learning on multiple levels, and also a rich history.
Where did this odd new way of teaching and learning come from? Its origins predate the School itself. President Charles Eliot and Government Professor A. Lawrence Lowell understood that the proposed "Graduate School of Business Administration" would require new approaches to teaching. The real-world focus of the new business school—and the practically minded students whom the school hoped to attract—called for something other than straightforward lecturing. But what would that alternative teaching model look like?
One of the models whom Eliot and Lowell must have had in mind was economics professor Frank Taussig. Ironically, it was Taussig who argued unsuccessfully for a school of diplomacy, rather than a school of business—an argument he lost to Lowell. But Taussig, who had joined the Harvard Economics Department in 1886 at the age of 27, was a skilled teacher who saw economic theory as a means to an end—that is, as a tool for helping students understand and act in the real world. A strong advocate of the Socratic method, Taussig exerted a powerful influence on his younger colleague Edwin Gay, as Gay set about to establish the new Graduate School of Business Administration.
Another model that Lowell had in mind was the Harvard Law School, which Lowell considered to be the most successful of Harvard's professional schools. That school's "case method," pioneered by Professor and Dean Christopher Columbus Langdell, had been evolving for almost 40 years, and had become a dominant pedagogy in U.S. law schools. In his first course catalog, produced in the summer of 1908, Dean Gay wrote that his new school would employ "an analogous method [to the case method used in the Law School], emphasizing classroom discussion, supplemented by lectures and frequent reports, which may be called the problem method."
But the Business School had nothing that corresponded to the Law School's body of cases. What were the "problems" that Gay's problem method would center on? What would the students actually discuss? Gay recommended that his faculty "reserve certain points with which to initiate the discussion." When one puzzled faculty member asked what this meant, Gay elaborated: "I suggested the holding in reserve of one or two topics merely that you might thus find it easier to open the discussion. This, however, is of course left entirely to your own discretion. The only thing I am desirous of effecting by this arrangement is the development of active discussions between lecturers and students. It is unadvisable, in my opinion, to have a course made up only of lectures read from manuscript."
Arch Shaw, the Chicago-based publisher who in 1912 introduced the long-lived second-year Business Policy course, decided to tackle the case challenge in a different way. After observing Frank Taussig and the Law School's Samuel Williston in action, Shaw secured the cooperation of fifteen senior managers, each of whom agreed to present a real problem to the class over the course of a week. In the first of three sessions, the businessman would explain his problem, and answer students' questions regarding it. In the second class meeting, two days later, students would hand in a "written analysis," with recommended solutions. In the third session, at the end of the week, the businessman would discuss the reports. These "walking cases," Gay later observed, presented other kinds of challenges. "Suppose these eminent practitioners from who you asked a talk on Revelations," he asked rhetorically, "insisted on filling their allotted time with a discourse on Genesis?"
In a similar vein, Gay sought to inject business reality into the classroom through another device, the "composite lecture course." This involved bringing a series of real-world practitioners to the School to deliver lectures on topics in which they possessed special expertise. But this approach required not only careful planning and coordination by the faculty, but also intensive follow-up by the Dean's Office to make sure that the volunteer lecturers from the business community kept their commitments.
Some faculty members simply declined to participate in any of these experiments, and stuck with lecturing. The case method, in particular, struck certain professors as cumbersome, ill-suited to some subjects, and perhaps even counterproductive. "Exclusive absorption in case study, in my opinion," Finance professor O. M. W. Sprague, wrote to Gay, "commonly breeds a very narrow type of mind." For these reasons and others, the Business School's case method remained “more a wish than a reality" for the first decade or so of the School's existence.
The arrival of Dean Wallace Donham in 1919 signaled the beginning of a full-scale effort to turn that wish into a reality. In his first week on the job, Donham—who had experienced the case method first-hand as a Law School student—asked Marketing professor and economist Melvin T. Copeland to write a "problem book" for use in the first-year Marketing course. Meanwhile, Donham wrote and delivered to the faculty a memo in which he made two major proposals: a shift to a functionally oriented curriculum, and a widespread adoption of the case method. "Cannot a systematic effort be made to enrich the problem content of the various courses," Donham asked rhetorically, "by getting regularly from industry problems which are current and illustrative?"
Wisely, Donham did not put the pedagogical question to a vote. There was, as yet, no model in hand to consider, and some faculty—including the influential Sprague and others—would certainly have balked. And it wasn't clear if all courses would lend themselves to case teaching. "Indeed," Donham wrote to Lowell in 1920, "at the present moment we fail to see how several courses may be so treated and we shall always have certain advantages from a diversity of methods at the School."
Copeland's book—Marketing Problems—was ready for use in the fall of 1920. At the first meeting of the Marketing class, Copeland provided his students with a suggested method for studying the "problems" in his book. Against odds that even Copeland thought were long, the course was considered a great success by the students.
Almost immediately, Donham began spending his scarce discretionary funds on case research and case writing. He encouraged willing faculty members to participate, hired graduating students to write cases, and even employed MBA students between their first and second years. He emphasized facts, to bring "the atmosphere and detail of reality" into the classroom. Paradoxically, though, he placed an even greater emphasis on the method of his new case method. "You know I have a perfect mania on the subject," he wrote to a friend who was planning the agenda for a conference of business professors, "but I should really like to see more of method and less of content on the program. To me, method is so much more important than content that there is no comparison."
The growing popularity of the case method—as well as rising enrollments at HBS—led to another teaching-related innovation. In 1924, three sections of Marketing were needed, and Melvin Copeland could only teach two of them. A young instructor named Malcolm McNair took the third section, and Copeland and McNair met to figure out how this would be done. They decided to teach exactly the same course, using the same outline and case, and assigning the same reports and exams. Thus was born the teaching group—a device that not only improved instruction, but came to be a key faculty development tool in subsequent years. Thus also was born the notion of faculty “interchangeability," which eventually extended even to subject matter. One didn't have to be a marketing expert to teach Marketing, or a production expert to teach Production. In fact, not knowing much about the content of a course, at least as Dean Donham saw it, helped teachers learn to teach.
A rapidly expanding faculty helped Donham implement his sweeping pedagogical reform. The faculty grew from 15 in 1919 to 24 in 1923, and Donham chose carefully. By 1923, he was able to report to Lowell that fully two-thirds of the School's courses were being taught by the case method.
In subsequent years and decades, the proponents of the case method gradually grew more zealous about their favored pedagogy. No longer was it simply the best way to bring reality into the classroom; now it was a way of making students "tough-minded," of training them to act and make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and to test and develop their capacity for leadership. Faculty in the 1920s and 1930s grew more comfortable with case teaching, and developed their own distinctive styles in the classroom, which—when they all came together in a seemingly orchestrated package—lent the case method even more impact.
Of course, not all teachers signed on to the case method. Georges Doriot, the transplanted Frenchman who taught generations of HBS students, first offered his full-year Manufacturing course to second-year students in 1937. He used his classroom time to deliver finely-crafted lectures, telling his students brusquely that in his classes, he would be doing all the talking. But Doriot's course also included extensive field-based research, which students conducted in teams. A novel idea in those early years, field-based research was later widely adopted by the marketing faculty.
In the 1950s and '60s, a new generation of HBS teachers, many trained in the case method at HBS, took over the School's classrooms. Professors like Charlie Williams understood the pedagogy intimately, and in many cases, raised it to new levels. They combined their own research interests with case writing, and used their classrooms (particularly their second-year electives) as a laboratory for testing their evolving thinking.
Growing interest in the case method, both in the U.S. and abroad, encouraged the pedagogy's proponents to become more articulate about their ideas. The earliest HBS-originated book on the subject was Cecil E. Fraser's The Case Method of Instruction (1931), which included an essay by longtime finance professor Arthur Stone Dewing. Kenneth Andrews's 1951 book, The Case Method of Teaching Human Relations and Administration, looked at case research, writing, and teaching in two closely related subject areas. In 1954, marketing expert Malcolm McNair edited a book of essays entitled The Case Method at the Harvard Business School, which included (among many other contributions) a fourteen-year-old essay by Charles I. Gragg (" Because Wisdom Can't be Told"), and a speech that McNair gave to an early Advanced Management Program class ("Toughmindedness and the Case Method").
By the 1960s, the School's reputation was strong enough—and the case method famous enough—that it no longer needed these kinds of general introductions. What followed, instead, were more in-depth studies by HBS faculty members of the sociology and psychology of the case method, including Charles D. Orth's 1963 book, Social Structure and Learning Climate: The First Year at the Harvard Business School. (Some first-year students, including some future HBS faculty members, studied Orth's book hoping to get a jump on the MBA program.) Fritz Roethlisberger's memoir, The Elusive Phenomenon (1977)—alternately charming and infuriating to many at HBS—continued in this vein.
Fictional and autobiographical accounts of the HBS experience focused largely on the demands of the case method and first-year section dynamics began to appear in the 1970s. The first of these was Peter Cohen's The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School (1973), perhaps inspired by John Jay Osborne's 1971 surprise bestseller about the Harvard Law School and its case method (The Paper Chase). A second, published in the early 1980s, was Fran Worden Henry's Toughing It Out at Harvard : The Making of a Woman MBA. In these books and others—and in the recollection of many students of the day—the case method was depicted as a pedagogy that placed heavy demands on students.
Compared to lectures, this was certainly true. For students accustomed to "getting the answers" from professors, the case method could be intensely frustrating. For students accustomed to being the smartest kid in the room, the case method could be demoralizing (at least until they better understood their own relative strengths and weaknesses). The typical case class started with the dreaded cold call, with the teacher calling on a student to open the discussion—a trial by fire that has no equivalent in a lecture course. Passing—admitting to the professor that you are not prepared to kick off the classroom debate—was and is not a decision to be taken lightly.
By the same token, the case method also places heavy demands on faculty. They, too, have to prepare for class, both individually and in the teaching-group setting. They have to master the case facts, and also bring their own experiences and expertise to bear—and also show restraint. They have to become familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of a group with 100 members (plus or minus), all of whom have access to Google, and some of whom may have personal knowledge of the company or industry being discussed. They have to keep track of who is participating and who is not—grading is based in part on class participation. They may also have to draw certain individuals out, and help the class control those who are demanding too much air time. They may have to fend off challenges from aggressive students, without damaging the classroom "contract." Almost certainly, they will have to deal with the unexpected.
Except under extraordinary circumstances, teachers don't miss or cancel classes. They have to grade 100 exams (plus or minus). If they are away from the classroom for extended periods—for example, due to administrative responsibilities or leaves of absence—they are expected to get their teaching skills sharp again as quickly as possible.
The case method, in its purest form, is about student-centered, non-directed learning. Most of the specifics in a case are presumed to be transient, at best—not likely to be of much use years (or even months) in the future. Case method teaching is about a way of thinking, and doing, rather than the simple transference of facts. In theory, at least, the wisdom of the individual professor is far less important than the collective wisdom achieved through a case discussion.
Generations of students have taken away pearls of wisdom from favorite faculty members, which in many cases have guided them throughout their subsequent careers. For example: