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Socrates’ Muse: Reflections on Effective Case Discussion Leadership

Robert F. Bruner

The title of this book, Socrates’ Muse, suggests my aims. First, the reference to Socrates highlights the book’s focus: teaching by means of dialogue. He is one of the godparents of discussion-based teaching, and is interesting to teachers as an example of how to teach. This is a “how-to” book. Second, the reference to a muse, or creative alter ego, hypothesizes that the teacher might reflect on the discussion enterprise, as a basis for the teacher’s own learning, and for improving the learning of one’s students. Self-reflection to reason through the challenges of discussion leadership is an important attribute of the teaching professional.

The mission of this work is to help university-level instructors promote more effective professional learning by students through discussions. Consider some of the elements of this mission:

  • Explore what it means to teach by discussion leadership. I will emphasize how effective discussion leadership entails asking rather than telling. To an instructor, steeped in knowledge of a field, this will seem counterintuitive. In large part, this book is oriented toward the transformation of the instructor.
  • Focus on higher education with a professional orientation. While the tips here are easily extended to primary and secondary education, the book assumes a high level of student maturity, motivation, and cognitive development. The challenges of higher education warrant a focused discussion.
  • Consider a range of possible teaching materials, but emphasize case studies. One can lead a discussion about virtually anything, including a textbook chapter, a website, a poem, newspaper clippings, or lab bench results. I focus somewhat on case studies because they represent professional life better than most other kinds of teaching materials. Cases convey the messiness and ambiguities of professional dilemmas, the blind alleys of analysis, and the need to extract an insight or make a decision. Teachers in fields such as law, medicine, and business use case studies as the unit of study. The insights relevant to teaching with case studies are readily applicable to other kinds of teaching materials.
  • Focus on learning, not teaching. Teaching is but a means to an end. I believe that the point of the classroom enterprise should be deep learning, i.e., growth in knowledge and wisdom, not merely acquisition of information. To achieve this, the instructor needs a student-centered point of view: a perspective on who the learner is, and how he or she makes meaning of the subject of the course.

Origins of this book

I wrote this to serve as a source to which the discussion leader could turn for practical ideas. I believed that such a work could help colleagues in at least five ways:

  • Frame the task. Simply knowing how to get started as a discussion leader is a major hurdle. I argue that “getting started” begins well before the first class meeting and entails careful reflection on the students’ learning opportunities and challenges. Several of the chapters in this book stimulate the reflection process necessary to framing the task of discussion leadership.
  • Link the task to some deeper issues. For every “how” there must be a “why.” Readers of my case studies and the teaching-oriented journal that I co-edit send queries seeking advice on a range of teaching issues. I try to respond, but within the limits of email can offer only limited suggestions. More effective response to teaching challenges must reach deeper into why one teaches by the case method, how one organizes, how one creates a learning culture, and so on—all plainly beyond the scope of a short note but vitally important to effective discussion leadership. I sought to link techniques of discussion leadership to these deeper issues.
  • Make sense of the quest for effectiveness. I argue that good teaching arises from more than luck or gimmicks, and that however difficult your discussion leadership experience has been, you can learn to teach well. I have made a number of the mistakes mentioned in this book, and profited from reflection upon them. What gave meaning to the errors and frustrations was the sense that I was engaged in a search for good teaching techniques that would ultimately promote better learning among students. Perhaps this outlook will serve you as well.
  • Capture the oral tradition. I remember faculty lunches at the Darden School years ago, where colleagues would gather to chat about their work. Inevitably, the talk turned to teaching. As a novice instructor, I found these informal discussions to be enormously helpful. They were friendly, brief, and loaded with practical tips. In today’s 24/7 economy, we have less time for this kind of exchange. I wanted to capture the intellectual capital of those conversations and perhaps rekindle a spirit of collegial dialogue about the classroom craft.
  • Extend the literature. The discussion leader has a relatively small literature on which to draw for counsel. My intent was to complement the sound recent literature1 on case discussion leadership and to bring into focus some practical issues.

Embedded here among the details about what successful discussion leaders do is a philosophy of discussion leadership. This book is offers an intellectual mosaic. To see it, one must study the particles, and then step back to absorb the whole. Be an empiricist. Consider this book as an exercise in inductive research devoted to forming your own philosophy about discussion leadership. Read each chapter here as a discussion at two levels: (a) the details about what to do in the classroom and (b) the larger point of view.

This book offers three short case studies to stimulate the reader’s learning by the very process of student-centered discovery that I advocate. These cases give a taste of the classroom but, ultimately, one learns teaching by doing. The teacher’s laboratory is the classroom, not the armchair. Most of this book is written in a directive style, rather like a collection of technical notes2 that outline tools and concepts for practical use. The directive style is offered to help accelerate the instructor’s transition from the armchair to the classroom, from lecture to discussion leadership, from reflection to action.

It might be objected that teaching is a craft, not even an art, and certainly not a science. Crafts are dominated by tacit knowledge, the kind developed either by personal trial-and-error, or by observing a Master and repeating the Master’s actions. According to this view, one cannot become a good teacher through book learning. I believe that case teaching is knowable and that one can learn it and teach others how to teach better. This book can help prepare one for observation, practice, experimentation, and teaching others.

In short, I invite the reader to engage the book as a guided exploration for the reader, as an introduction (rather than conclusion), and as an exercise in the acquisition of a craft.

This volume assembles a blend of completely new work (about one-third of the book), and previous writings. The earlier material is drawn from memos and technical notes for use at Darden, and from my columns in the electronic journal Educator: Cases, Courses, & Teaching3, which I co-edit with Peter Tufano and Kent Womack. I have revised and expanded this earlier material to reflect numerous conversations, written exchanges, and my current thinking. All of the material reflects the criticisms of several colleagues who read one or more draft.

The book was published on August 9, 2002 with ISBN 0072485663.

1I recommend two contemporary books to the reader who is interested in discussion leadership. See Louis B. Barnes, C. Roland Christensen, and Abby J. Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method, 3rd ed., Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994; and C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet (eds.) Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.

2Case studies are occasionally augmented by technical notes that present tools or concepts for possible use by the student in defining or resolving the problems in the case. 

3This journal is published by Social Science Research Network, found at www.ssrn.com.