Teaching American Democracy with Harvard Business School

The Case Method Institute

Harvard Business School might not seem the likeliest home to an institute designed to improve high school civic education or host a professional development for teachers. However, I was privileged to spend part of my spring break working with the faculty of the Case Method Project at Harvard Business School, and teachers from around the nation on the use of case method teaching. Timing couldn’t have been any better because I plan on introducing my Government & Politics students to their first case on Monday.

Prior to the Case Method Project I was not familiar with case method teaching, but it is a inquiry based pedagogical strategy that has been used for years at Harvard Business School. Focusing on the use of case studies and socratic questioning to unpack and uncover content, the discussion of real-life situations places students in the historical narratives(Hammond, 1980). By providing students with the same information available to those who lived the case, participants are forced to make their own decisions, and by extension make their own meaning of the world. In the hands of Dr. David Moss, the case method strategy was aimed at American Democracy first at Harvard, but over the past few years it has grown into the Case Method Institute which helps train and partner with teachers to deepen students civic understanding .

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic the teacher workshops were held on-campus during the summer months. While I would have enjoyed the trip to Cambridge, thankfully CMI has pivoted with the rest of the educational world to offering a virtual experience. It was in this context that I spent my break reading a case narrative titled Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Black Voting Rights (1965).

In case method teaching students are first asked to wrestle with the story, and then work with peers to clarify their understanding and share initial thoughts. However it is in the whole group discussion where the powerful and deep learning occurs. Through a shared experience of guided questioning, students drive the unpacking of the case as they share ideas, ask question, provide evidence and challenge each other. The power lies not in what is memorized, but instead on what can be uncovered.

A well known truth of constructivism is that learning needs to be anchored in the knowledge students bring to the classroom (Vygotsky, 1978). The case method builds on this by providing easy access for all students to connect their own experiences with the case, regardless of their skill set. By centering the learning on student voice and opinion, all students have an avenue to participate. It is through this mutual entry point that case method teaching allows students of various backgrounds, reading levels and public speaking skills the chance to place themselves in the shoes of historical figures facing uncertain paths. As the Case Method Institute emphasizes, it is through the planned improvisation with these unstructured problems that the learning occurs.

I can’t wait for Monday…

For those interested in learning more or participating in the training, more can be learned via the Case Method Project website.


Hammond, J. S. (1980). Learning by the case method. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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