Case Studies in Pre-service Teacher Education
Case studies in preservice education are emerging as the one of the
most effective ways to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
Many professors in teacher education institutions use them to improve students’
situational cognition, and to force teachers to “think on their feet” about
issues that arise in the class and the schools. Situational cognition
is defined by the choices made in situation as they arise in the classroom.
For example, after reading and discussing several cases about teachers
dealing with behavior management problems, preservice teachers will have
a better understanding of the situation, as well as the potential outcomes
(Shulman 1992). The previous discussion from the case studies will
benefit preservice teachers in their own future classroom management skills
Videoconferencing in education is expanding the walls of the classroom
in innovative and exciting ways. Using telecommunications software
and Netscape, preservice teacher education students at the University of
Virginia and the University of South Florida discussed many educational
issues. Distance education has many implications for both preservice
and in-service teachers. Throughout the seven-week discussion
over the Internet and on a synchronous newsgroup, the students read the
case study of “Julia:” the first year teacher who had planned a technology
project with the Bill of Rights. These students talked through Julia’s
frustrations at the same time that they were dealing with the advantages
and challenges that technology presented. For the purposes of this
paper, this project was divided into several different foci; the final
product is a collaboration of these parts. I focused on using case studies
in preservice teacher education. This growing trend has attracted
attention for its effectiveness, and there are several professors in the
Curry School of Education who focus their class entirely on the discussion
of case studies. I was most interested in the effects of case
studies on preservice teachers’ “situational cognition.” The case
study of “Julia” and the Bill of Rights gave us the issues to discuss,
but the entire experience was also a case study in itself.
In the literature on case studies in preservice teacher education,
Bliss and Mazur (1996) discuss how case studies allow teachers to reflect
on their own teaching, and on what they want to focus in their professional
development. Case studies encourage preservice and veteran teachers
to take more risks in their teaching, because they have thought through
the consequences of their actions and other educational issues. The
experiences of using case studies fosters more critical self-reflection
in classroom decisions. Cooper (1995) compiled a collection of case
studies for preservice educators because they are so effective for fostering
critical thinking skills and problem solving within the context of the
classroom. For example, a subject of one case study was a young white
female teacher, who was teaching her first year in a predominantly black
school. She was confronted with a challenge when her school organized
a pep rally so that the students could sing the black national anthem.
This young teacher felt ostracized and separated from her students, but
also understood the importance of identifying with other African-Americans
in celebration of their race. The case study allowed for discussion
about race, and making school relevant for everyone, not just the teachers.
More importantly, the case studies can bridge the gap between educational
theory and practice, making methodology classes more relevant. Shulman
(1992) hails case studies for their effectiveness is fine-tuning “situational
cognition.” Shulman defines situational cognition as the ability
to predict actions, and consequences that may arise in certain situations.
These case studies provide the context in which students can use their
theoretical pedagogy to solve a problem or issue in education.
Data was gathered through the lens of action research: actively
seeking out information about issues or problems and seeking a solution,
through personal interviews and observations (Becoming Critical, Falmer
Press, 1986). The purpose in collecting this data was to identify
the specific phenomenon of case-study use in preservice teacher education,
and how that translated into improving the ability of unseasoned teachers
to reflect when confronted with a pressing issue.
I interviewed four three students over email and one face-to-face,
and two professors directly, and one via email. I directly observed
the students who were evaluating cases on a regular basis, and can judge
the effectiveness of this approach objectively for my own research.
Through direct observation and interaction, I obtained a first-hand perspective
regarding how the case studies improve teachers’ ability to work through
the problems of education. There is a push to use case studies in teacher
education because they introduce scenarios where students of teaching can
apply the pedagogical knowledge they have learned in their methods classes
to real problems that arise, without sacrificing student time or teacher
In this study, I interviewed two Curry School of Education professors
who consistently use case studies in their courses (see appendix 1). Dr.
James Kauffman is a professor of Special Education, and used cases studies
in his Behavior Management course. These cases allow pre-service special
and general educators to work through situations with anti-social students.
I also observed in Dr. Kauffman’s class when pre-service teachers work
through cases and create possible solutions involving problem students.
Dr. Robert McNergney used case studies in an elementary teacher education
class where students worked through the range of educational issues that
Finally, I interviewed elementary pre-service teachers (Michelle Hebert,
Cortney Kvancz, Michael Dombrow, and Chris Kim) who participated in CaseNet
and also videoconferencing where they collaboratively solved hypothetical
problems in the elementary classroom (see appendix 2). These cases were
posted on the Internet; several colleges and school districts participated
in this program. The students worked in teams to analyze a variety
of cases, which, again, addressed issues pertinent to teaching as a profession.
I was interested in discovering their rationale for using case studies,
how cases were created to be most effective, and also how students responded
to the cases. In keeping with action research and qualitative analysis
of data, I identified the issue facing them as bridging the gap between
formal pedagogy and practical implementation. These interviews and
observations gave me the opportunity to gauge the students’ and professors’
understanding about the effectiveness of using case studies in pre-service
I also interviewed professors outside of the Curry School that also
used case studies to understand the perspective from a pre-professional
standpoint. Professor Rich DeMong, used case studies in the McIntyre School
of Commerce to allow students the opportunity to handle finances and to
affect their professional development and their “situational cognition.”
I then complied a list of responses that detail why case studies
are used in methods and pre-professional courses, as well as the methodology
of creating an effective case study. I collected responses from pre-service
teachers that outline how the case studies were effective or ineffective
in their own professional development.
There are several objectives that all three of the professor
laid out in similar terms; these rationales for using case studies in their
instruction. Through more formal research, I found that case studies have
been quite effective in improving teachers’ “situational cognition” and
allowed the students to be involved in the “hands-on” problem solving (Shulman
1992). Although the students examined the case studies in methods
classes, they were able to generalize the outcomes and solutions over a
range of situations. Consequently, the students who had been exposed
to case studies echoed those same four strands when they pointed to the
effectiveness of discussing case studies in their own preservice education.
The four objectives for including case studies are: the introduction of
issues or dilemmas, introduction of different perspectives, bridging the
gap between theory and practice, and collaboration between preservice teachers
and classroom teachers.
Both students and professors alike stressed the importance of case
studies to merely expose preservice professionals to the problems that
they might encounter in the classroom, or the working world. The
case studies in CaseNET and other methods classes presented such issues
as behavior management, technology inequity, grading issues, ethical dilemmas,
and copyright laws. These issues are often overlooked in the pedagogy of
teaching, but cases allow them to be introduced and discussed.
In addition, solutions were offered for dealing with these educational
issues. "Student teaching is good, but you don't get confronted with
the range of issues so it's nice to have a little bit of experience with
what could happen. So when you get into the classroom, you're not
shocked." Most of all, the case studies sought to raise awareness
of the wealth of issues that all teachers confront. As one student
said, "I think the benefit of case studies is that they make me think about
issues before they even happen."
Another benefit in reading and discussing case studies is the
insight students gained from looking at situations from different perspectives.
"Most cases contain more than one issue, and as they are analyzed, they
often present more than one perspective, appropriate action and consequence."
Students asserted that examining cases collaboratively with their peers,
and with the facilitation of the professors, helped them devise solutions
they may not have thought of on their own. "Gaining the experience
of considering different individual's perspectives and who might be affected
by my classroom actions, will broaden my insight. Similarly, pre-professional
students were more able to think "outside of the box" as they looked at
all the possible solutions instead of the most obvious. In the CaseNET
example, students were connected to other educators around the country.
This also helped them gain perspective regarding the issues that were presented
in the case.
III. Bridging the Gap
The most pervasive effect of the case studies in pre-professional
education was bridging the gap between the theoretical perspective of the
classroom, and the practice of the real world. These two aspects
of learning and implementation are often difficult to reconcile, but case
studies present the real world situations in a medium that allows for more
time and flexibility. However, the students were always expected to create
solutions for the problems, as if they were in a classroom, or a real world
setting. "Being able to read about these issues and to reflect on
them outside the context of a demanding classroom environment in which
the teacher must make split-second decisions, makes me feel prepared to
address such issues before they even happen." Many of the students
interviewed were preparing to enter the world of teaching within a few
months, and examining case studies added to their confidence in being able
to effectively deal with classroom issues. "We have the fortune to
see simulated cases and are given the flexibility to suggest adjustments
or define an entirely different course." The students hailed
the case studies as "real life applications" without the real life consequences.
Curry School Professor Robert McNergney, instructor in the CaseNET class,
explained that cases help students to work on their
"problem-solving skills in the context of a real problem instead of
hypothetically. The students are applying rather than acquiring knowledge
of how to react in certain situations. They learn to think more like
teachers because it's real life and not just like a task."
Case studies are "slices of life" between the often theoretical
pedagogy from methods courses and the practicality of the classroom,
and afforded students the opportunity to think through the choices made
in the cases.
The majority of classes that used case studies in pre-professional
curriculums also employed the group dynamic to encourage teamwork, and
foster the greatest possibility for a range of solutions. Commerce
Professor Rich DeMong highlighted teamwork as the “most realistic representation
of the working world, because people work together in teams to solve problems,
and this is what will prepare them for that." Similarly, preservice
teachers were encouraged by the collaboration that helped solve classroom
problems more effectively. "The strength of using a case study is
that a number of people can 'work' on it together to discuss what's going
on." Teachers are charged with the task of preparing students for
the "real world," and these preservice teachers showed that they could
model these skills of teamwork and collaboration. "There is a cooperative
setting because teachers get to work together [ in CaseNET]. We are
connected through technology, schools all over the world as well as local
ideas come out through the videoconferencing and discussions. We
get perspectives from all over the world, and from experienced teachers
in the classroom."
Case studies are an effective way to expose pre-service educators
to the issues that they will encounter in their own classrooms. They
afford the opportunity to learn from and reflect on classroom situations
without the stress or demands of the real classroom. The cases introduce
issues such as behavior management and dealing with parents, so that beginning
teachers will have some experience in those situations. By having this
experience and having an anticipated response, the teachers will improve
their “situational cognition” because they know what to expect. Examining
case studies allows students to see situations from different perspectives,
and the brainstorming process allows solutions to expand. Pre-service
teachers found themselves looking at a range of solutions instead of limiting
themselves to the more obvious ones. Preservice teachers were pleased
with the way that case studies helped them bridge the gap between the "art
of teaching" and the reality they would encounter in the classroom.
They were no longer learning in a vacuum, but applying the knowledge they
had accumulated through their methods courses.
Technology also represents an exciting trend in education today.
The students in the social studies methods classes and the CaseNET used
videoconferencing as a medium to share ideas and discussion. Most
of the students agreed that the interface of the Internet or the videoconferencing
screens made the discussion of case studies more interactive. In
fact, one class drew parallels from the technology case study they were
discussing, and the troubles they were experiencing with the technology
themselves; they felt as though they were living the case study.
Using technology with content is a powerful motivator for students, and
this could also be applied to preservice teacher education. Finally,
examining case studies through class discussions, and more broadly through
videoconferencing, allows pre-service teachers to collaborate to find effective
solutions to educational problems, and also to build communication.
This aspect of using case studies strengthens the profession and the teaching
Case studies should continue to be an integral part of teacher
education, because they build professional development, and strengthen
the profession. Additionally, they could be used in teacher in-services
to promote consistency across schools and school districts in dealing with
issues such as parents, and standards of learning. Case studies encourage
the participants to reflect on the implications and the consequences of
their choices, and this would also buttress the profession of teaching.
Finally, the growing trends in distance education afford exciting opportunities
for teacher collaboration, especially in the discussion of case studies
in education. Videoconferencing and newsgroups can open lines of
communication between teachers across the globe, and solutions and perspectives
can be shared in a whole new way. This would truly be making history!