First there was Case Method

by Maureen Mason

I did not study Community Development or Organization Design. I did not study systems thinking then apply my new knowledge and skill to a practice. My interest in systems change and cultural inclusion was so much more organic and emergent than that.

It started in grade seven. As a beginning teacher I assumed my students would be curious and involved in their learning if even at a most basic level. Ultimately, I hoped they would have confidence and the competence to initiate meaningful change in the world as they experienced it. I wanted my classroom to be alive with exploration fuelled by natural curiosity.

What I found was chronic apathy and systemic powerlessness: a culture of diminishment. It was not the kind of disengagement that is defiant or purposeful. It was more insidious than that. The fight had been replaced by resignation.

In the following years I studied, experienced, practiced and probed everything I could to better understand human engagement. I wanted to know what contributes to personal development and how this influences health and well being in a learning community. What is the difference between knowing and understanding, between production and active involvement?

I learned that children engage if the materials are relevant, if they are free to explore and follow their curiosity, when they can work with others, and when what they learn really matters. I came to see the power in self-directed and inclusive learning and the transformative potential in this way of thinking. This insight led me to Harvard Case Method. The Case process is built on relevancy, inclusion, and collaboration and has been the backbone of tenure at the Harvard Business School for almost 100 years. As odd as it seemed it was a natural fit to my purpose.

Case Method is experiential, it’s collaborative and in it’s purest sense built around a narrative that is compelling, complex and authentic.

It was like hitting the sweet spot on a bat. The discussions were lively and students were fully engaged. The room buzzed. How ironic that the model of instruction mandated at one of the most prestigious schools in the world would lead to success with the hard to engage students in my suburban classroom.

Over time I saw layers of simultaneous change. Students were engaged which reduced the need for structured classroom management which immediately changed the tone in the space which then influenced my role. The buzz became a hum.

I no longer circulated throughout the class reminding students to ‘stay focused’, ‘get to work’ ‘stop bothering your neighbour’. Instead I was being authentically drawn into the conversation as a participant/observer where I could carefully insert exploratory questions if needed. Other than that I had to learn to just get out of the way.

I later used Case Method in my work with marginalized student groups and with Aboriginal youth. A dialogue based process was the great leveler. The model offered all students a legitimate way into the curriculum. Typically, content knowledge is disseminated through text and students show what they have learned through writing. This reliance on print marginalizes many of our most vulnerable: the illiterate, the marginally literate, second language students and those who come from an oral culture. Case Method changes all that. It gives the marginalized a place to belonging and their ideas a position of legitimacy.

I immediately wanted to poke my nose over the fence and see what the limits of the case model might be. Specifically, I was curious to know how it might influence relationships of power and governance elsewhere. The world of business and government are under increasing pressure to be more transparent and inclusive but are struggling with how to initiate this change. Through case dialogue students became less defensive, more willing to consider other views and perspectives and built habits of listening and collaboration. This is exactly the skill set that organizations are asking for.

Then Along Came Appreciative Inquiry

To understand my love affair with Appreciative Inquiry I must go back to the dusty streets of Kathmandu.

For over a decade I had been travelling to Nepal regularly doing business in Indigenous silver and textiles. My business supported a women’s skill development initiative based out of the city so I travelled overland frequently. I was used to seeing armed military bunkers, check points manned by angry Maoists and a general sense of malaise in the streets. Nepal was a multiethnic, multiracial , multicultural, multi-religious, and multilingual country with competing interests and needs for power and control. There had been civil unrest for eighteen years.

Then everything changed. No bunkers, no check points and a sense of life and promise in the street. What was going on? I asked at my hotel and I chatted people up in the shops. Everyone spoke with such enthusiasm about “Imagine Nepal” a country wide conversation that brought together the minority ethnic voices and the power elite to imagine a different Nepal. A Nepal focused on the assets and strengths of the country and its people rather than on the differences that divide them. I met with the coordinator of the project in Kathmandu and was fascinated by what I learned.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a strength based philosophy which has participants examination the high points in their history and experience. The premise is that factors that contributed to exceptionality in the past can help guide a process that will do the same in the future. There is a reactivation of old learning in support of new thinking.

I was thunderstruck and curious to know more. I read, practiced and studied with David Cooperrider, the father of Appreciative Methods. I came to realize that the process which brought power to AI is built on the same principles of engagement that gave strength to Case Method and that liberated students in my classroom.

Suddenly a whole new playground of possibility opened up. Two processes woven together to harvest the best of both approaches. Meaningful discussions on issues of importance built into a collaborative plan of actions that leveraged assets and strengths. Kapow!

Special Acknowledgements
Selma Wasserman, Professor Emeritus, SFU, Burnaby, Canada

It was my good fortune to meet a wonderful mentor and teacher early in my professional life. Selma encouraged me to broaden my lens to include the social, political, ethical, cultural and social justice implications of my work. From my first days teaching to my most recent work in community engagement Selma’s wise words have guided my thinking and informed my actions. I am profoundly grateful.

Chris Christenson, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School, Cambridge Mass.

My graduate work was part of a larger engagement and involved work with the HBS faculty and Chris Christenson, who is considered the father of Case Teaching. His interest and respect for my research on Case Method in public education was professionally affirming and encouraging. As a teacher his quality of character and genuine commitment to issues of humanity is the exemplar of leadership teaching I so aspire.

David Cooperrider, Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, Ohio.

As a frequent visitor to Nepal I witness the transformational power of Appreciative Inquiry and on my return to North America registered for a 4 day AI immersion with David Cooperrider and Frank Barrett in Carmel California. The experience deepened my awareness that Appreciative Inquiry is less about what you do and more about who you are when you are doing it. The absolute integrity between David’s firmly held beliefs and his practice and has been my reference point in times of indecision and change.