In the July Issue of Connect, Ted Ladd at Hult International Business School, talks about theory being applied to cases, the importance of students leading the classroom discussion, plus much more.
Ted, what is it you like about writing case studies and teaching with the case method?
Many theories have expired. They might have been valid – perhaps even brilliant – when they were first envisioned, tested and published. However, the world has changed, rendering many theories irrelevant or – even worse – wrong. And yet these theories, especially if they have racked up thousands of citations in top journals, still hold sway over professors and thus their students. One way to sniff out a theory that is past its ‘sell-by’ date is to apply it to a specific, detailed contemporary example through discussion and debate. Hash it out. This is the first benefit of a case: as a litmus test for theories that are relevant in today’s business environment.
Even relevant, and valid powerful theories cannot explain or predict all conditions or nuances. They are not supposed to; they are intentionally generalisations that provide overarching guidance. The map is not the territory. (In case that is too oblique an analogy, here’s a quick explaination. Any map that is complete would contain all of the data that exists in the actual terrain, which would make the map the same size as the geography it is attempting to summarise. That’s not feasible or helpful.) This is the second benefit of a case: a way to learn to adapt theories to diverse instances.
The third benefit of the case method is perhaps its most important. Accurate adapted theories are only useful if they lead to a solution for a serious problem. Theory for theory’s sake is irrelevant. The world – and each company and person on it – face enormous challenges that only seem to be expanding. Our students need to stand on the shoulders of giants (i.e. those people who created and tested contemporary, valid theories) to address and hopefully fix these challenges. By using cases, students are learning theory, application, adaption, and extension, all in the pursuit of a pragmatic solution to an actual problem.
How does the case method come alive in the classroom?
Let me declare my objectives when I teach. First, it is to ensure that the students depart each course with useful skills that will make them more effective professionals and global citizens. Second, and less clichéd, is my goal to empower, not profess. The signal that I have designed and launched a truly effective class session is when the students forget that I’m in the room. They are busy talking in small groups or in plenary with each other, where my only task is to ask a few probing questions to deepen the discussion. We still cover the same ground than if I were to lecture for a few hours. But students do not learn best by hearing. They learn by speaking. If only one student is speaking at a time, then only one student is optimally learning. By breaking classes into 20 minute sprints, many of which require that randomised pairs address a specific question, almost everyone is speaking and therefore learning.
My cadence around teaching a case is consistent:
- Students read – or better yet, watch – a chapter of the case before class. They also read about theory, and read a contemporary article from a newspaper that misapplies the theory to a real-life issue.
- Every class starts immediately with a negotiation, where students in pairs or trios are given different roles in hypothetical circumstance and must transact. This gets everyone engaged and talking immediately. It also highlights the problem that our theory and case intend to address – the subject of the negotiation is the subject of the class.
- Back in plenary, as we unpack the negotiation, I review the theory.
- I then pose a series of questions that ask students to apply the case to the theory in small groups. We jump back and forth between plenary to answer a question and small groups to contemplate the next question.
- A previously assembled randomised list of students informs my cold calls to ensure that all voices enter the discussion.
- About halfway through a session, I confess that the theory is incomplete, at least for this case. I point out where the theory does not fit.
- We just get back into small groups to explore the problems with the theory in order to arrive together at a version of the theory – and more often a combination of theories – that fits the case to help the protagonist arrive at a solution.
- I end the class with a recap of the solution, and an introduction to the next session.
Students invest time learning the eccentricities of a case. For this reason, I endeavour to use the same case for multiple different class sessions or, even better, multiple chapters of the same case for an entire course.
What’s your favourite case, and why?
I’m an entrepreneur, so my favourite case is the next one that I have not yet discovered. Let’s see what emerges…
If you could be transported into another profession for one week, which would you choose, and why?
I spent much of my early life outdoors in the mountains. Recently, I discovered e-foiling, which is surfing on flat water with a board that has an electric propeller. I would love to be an e-foil instructor for a week.
How do you relax?
When I’m not teaching, I live in rural Wyoming. I relax by immersing myself into a project around the house: chopping and splitting firewood, clearing trails into the forest, constructing small boxes for my wife’s tea collection from American cherry hardwood or crafting leather attachments to my saddle.
Do you have a favourite quote or guiding principle?
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” attributed (probably falsely) to Edmund Burke.
I define “evil” from this quotation broadly. It ranges from massive injustice to daily complacency. This quotation drives me to innovate with new theories, new teaching methods, new products, new skills, and new perspectives.