The Case Method at HBS
To create leaders, Harvard Business School creates the context in which leaders are formed: real-life challenges, wrapped in complicated and sometimes insufficient information. Each challenge confronts our students with a rich web of consequences-and a demand for a prompt, responsible plan of action.
These challenges are our cases. Through the case method, every Harvard Business School classroom becomes a crucible for participant-centered learning. A crucible in which students not only assume responsibility for their education, but exercise the fundamentals of leadership that they will practice the rest of their lives.
The case method is rooted in Harvard Business School's original vision. Edwin Gay, first Dean of HBS, called it the "problem method" and foresaw its value in creating leaders able to adjust as necessary to ever-changing business climates. From its inception a century ago, the School established two important pedagogical principles. First, it would use cases as teaching vehicles and not rely on lectures and readings. Second, it would engage the students in the learning process by getting them to teach themselves and each other. Today, although we also make use of lectures, simulations, fieldwork, and other forms of teaching as appropriate, more than 80 percent of HBS classes are built on the case method.
It's one thing to teach students how to perform a specific technique, such as a breakeven analysis. It's another to teach them why one should be executed, how it should be interpreted—or even when it must be ignored. As decision makers, managers must exercise judgment, not mere skills.
Judgment, based on sound analysis rooted in facts, is what our students need to absorb from their education. But, as the late HBS professor Charles I. Gragg sagely noted, "We cannot effectively use the insight of others; it must be our knowledge and insight that we use." By applying the case method to business education, we break the boundaries of passive learning to encourage students to become active participants in their own progress. With each case, students empathize with a decision maker ("the protagonist"), analyze varied and frequently ambiguous data, and assume responsibility for an action plan that effectively resolves the case's business challenge.
A different kind of teaching requires a different type of teacher
By necessity, your role as teacher changes as well. Rather than serve as a conduit for knowledge, you become the choreographer of a dynamic and multi-faceted discussion. Instead of lecturing, you probe, encourage, and sometimes cajole. Often you deliberately step aside to let the students assume the lead roles—and openly challenge each other with contrary opinions and analyses. You don't provide answers; you offer a pathway to greater experience and understanding.