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Teaching with Case Studies

One of my students suggested that in his view the use of case studies in teaching is merely an extension of the discussion method and not a method in itself. I believe he was at least partially right, especially if we are thinking about written case studies.

Actually the use of the case study approach can proceed at either the written or field levels. We can bring case studies into class in printed form and use them as the content of a discussion, or we can actually send our students out to do the field work of observation, analysis, and reporting on the thoughts and behavior of real, live people. Even though the second may be more difficult to activate, it seems to me that it is a very valid approach to learning.

Thinking about the use of printed cases, we should have no difficulty at all in securing the raw material. Information on the lives of people appears in newspapers, biographies, autobiographies, and frequently in fiction stories. A common prompter line in such a discussion might begin: “Say, did you read that story in this morning’s newspaper about . . . ?”

Cases can also be taken out of personal experiences of either the teacher or student. Students do not have to take the role merely of analyzing cases presented to them, but may actually prepare cases individually or collectively as a group project.

The case study approach can be used to analyze a Bible character. A good example of this would be a class session devoted to an analysis of the character of Philemon and an inductive study of the book which bears his name. Obviously the provocative questions emerging from such a case study would center on the issue of slavery as well as on the role Philemon had in the Early Church.

Values of the Case Study Approach

The basic objective of the case study method is to confront the student with a real life situation. This can be achieved more easily if the subject of the study is a person confronted by the student in his own setting, but to a lesser degree it also works in the written case study. The intent is to force the application of biblical truth to a life problem. Too often we spend our time teaching propositional truth but fail to make clear-cut applications of that truth to the lives of our students.

Case study work is also usually of great interest to students. Medical schools and schools of education have popularized the approach, and management science has used it widely in the training of executive leadership. Most teachers who have experimented with it in the church have reported a high degree of enthusiasm among the students, because it provides them a reality situation against which they can measure the truth of God’s Word which they are learning.

Study work is geared to teach problem-solving methods. Some Christian teachers spend classtime solving problems for their students rather than showing those students how they can solve their own problems by utilizing information in the Word of God and the creative power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The teacher thus becomes a sort of “answering service” which the student can dial every time he has another problem or question. Such teaching fails to build initiative and independent investigation of God’s truth on the part of maturing students.

When we use live case studies instead of printed ones, we take a big step forward in the development of maturity on the part of our students. Later, this chapter will illustrate one way in which live case study teaching can be used in the context of the Sunday School. When it is used, it requires the students to involve themselves in a responsibility that will of necessity help them to mature more rapidly in a number of ways, and that is good.

Problems with Case Study Teaching

The validity of the case study approach is directly related to the reality which the cases have demonstrated. If we fail to present meaningful contemporary cases for our students to deal with, we have diminished the value of the approach. Not only that, but our students will be quick to detect the “plastic” figures we are using and will lose interest in any serious discussion of the issues.

Sometimes the discussion of a case study can degenerate into nothing more than a pooling of ignorance. That is why the group leader must be plugged in to the Word of God so that he can identify a biblical explanation and interpretation of the issues in the case.

In the use of field study cases, we might run into a problem if students are too immature. Juniors might well handle written cases in class discussion, but the use of field observation might be restricted to teens and above, or at least, to an advanced class of Junior High students.

The teacher’s inability to write satisfactory cases, or even choose adequate field cases for study might also be listed as a pitfall in this method. The discussion leader is an important component part of the case study approach, but the writer of the case study is even more strategic.

Principles for Effective Case Study Teaching

Sometimes it takes a while to come to grips with the crucial issues in the analysis of a case study. This can be true of written cases, but it is certainly true of field study cases. We might say that the first principle is do not rush the study. Martha Leypoldt suggests that in the process of analysis and problem solving, so essential in case study work, there are nine “relevant facts” which must be gathered by students (40 Ways to Teach in Groups, mentioned earlier):

1. The people involved

2. The historical background of the situation

3. The relationships among persons or groups involved

4. The religious background and perspective of the situation

4. The sociological factors involved

5. The economic factors involved

6. The educational backgrounds of persons involved

7. The ethnic origins of the persons involved

8. The tensions causing the problem

Another principle is to encourage our classes to concentrate on learning to share their points of view. To put it another way, students ought to be learning from each other’s cases as well as from cases they are studying directly. In the discussion of each case there will doubtless be insights and ideas offered by other class members which will help the person who is handling it to deal with it more effectively and thoroughly.

A third principle in the use of case studies is the necessity for trying to formulate specific solutions and analysis once the real problems have been identified. Stay away from muddy thinking or rash commitments and avoid criticism of the person in the case, particularly in field research and the study of living personalities. A constant question to be asked in the analysis and discussion of case studies begins with the word why?

How can field study analysis be used in the context of a Sunday School class? Meet Jack Thorpe, a teen student (a high school junior) in a Sunday School class at an evangelical church. His class has been discussing the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans, and he has learned something of the historical background—how these people were forced to live together after the postexilic return of the Jews.

This discussion gave birth to a comparison of Samaritan problems with the relationship of majority and minority groups in Jack’s own city. Obviously there are some features of Jewish-Samaritan relations which did not fit, but Jack’s teacher urges each student to select a young member of a minority group in the city and try to learn everything about that person that can be learned within a month. One month after the original assignment, the class will begin analyzing their findings, taking the next month or two to discuss the kind of ministry their church can have to members of minority groups.

Jack selects Manuel Lopez, a young Chicano boy, who lives down the block from the church. Though Jack’s church is adjacent to the Mexican-American community, Manuel knows very little about the church except that it is a building on a certain corner in his neighborhood. Within the next month Jack will spend as much time as he can with Manuel. He will go to his home. He will visit his school. He will spend time with him discussing how he feels about life, his family, his school, and what the future might hold for him. Jack will interview his parents and perhaps some of his friends. He may even ask Manuel to write a brief biography describing how he sees himself as a resident of the Mexican community in the city.

Along the way Jack will attempt to share the Gospel without being “pushy” or impolite. He realizes that Manuel is graciously allowing him to study something very private, his own life, and wants to win his confidence and friendship during this period of the study.

Other students in Jack’s class will be doing the same thing with members of the Negro community, the Chinese community, and other minority groups in the city. Their purpose, besides sharing their faith with these other young people, is to put together a report on how their church can minister to minority groups within the city while still keeping its theological and denominational distinctions. To put it another way, what can the church do and what can Jack’s Sunday School class do to win boys and girls like Manuel to Christ and help them grow to be disciples of the Lord Jesus?

Difficult? Yes, to be sure. But also practical and very interesting for students. Now the class is theirs! Now they are involved in the teaching-learning process! How much better this is than just having an imaginary case study prepared by the teacher for purposes of discussion in the class. It will take creativity, and perhaps in your church, a healthy measure of courage. But it can be done. And it certainly is worthy of your consideration as a creative and progressive teacher of the Word of God.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible