Why use case studies and how to use case studies to develop yourself.

Case studies are descriptions of situations. They usually include a brief history of how the current position developed and outline a problem which a key personality is facing. Although originally associated with the MBA and Law programmes at Harvard, case studies are applicable across a wide range of disciplines. Case studies have been used effectively in teacher education for several years (see e.g. Greenwood and Parkay, 1989; Harrington et al., 1996; and the papers in Sudzina, 1999), and more recently ELT authorities such as Richards (1998) have argued for the benefits of using case studies in ELT teacher education. The aim of this website is to provide a selection of case studies in ELT which can be used either on teacher education programmes or independently by teachers who want to develop themselves.

Several authors have pointed out potential benefits of using case studies, and especially of using dilemma-based case studies. The three main benefits are applying theory to practice, encouraging critical reflection, and developing the problem-solving and decision-making skills crucial for effective teaching.

Applying theory to practice

Many teachers are suspicious of theory, finding it abstruse and irrelevant. It is indeed difficult to see the relevance of the nativisation denativisation distinction to my one-to-one business English lesson this evening. While it's easy to dismiss theory by using examples like this, we must also consider the purpose of a theory. The purpose of the nativisation model is not to inform classroom teaching, but there is a lot of theory which is directly applicable to the classroom.

Some teachers believe that teaching is an intuitive art that can only be learnt through practice, and thus that theories are of no concern to the practising teacher. However, all teaching is based on theories (Stubbs, 1986) whether these theories are personally created or are derived from general principles. The problem with reliance on personally created theories is that, without an understanding of general principles of education and language, teachers run the risk of mechanically copying how they themselves were taught and their potential for development is restricted. With a grasp of general principles, however, teachers can evaluate their own theories and practice and can gain an understanding of others' theories.

A major problem in teacher education, then, is how to present principles and theories in ways which show their relevance to practice. In many teaching programmes, applying theory to practice is one of the foci of the teaching practicum. case studies are another way of linking theory and practice as their purpose is "to present students with some aspect of a real-life scenario, through which they can apply and integrate knowledge, skills, theory and any experience" (Dudley-Evans and St. John, 1998). Although case studies do not allow the in-depth personalised experience of a teaching practicum, there are several areas in which case studies are more useful than a practicum. The teaching practicum is usually an intensive experience with one group of learners. In such a situation, the range of problems that a teacher faces is restricted. Since the only restriction on case studies is the imagination, a far wider range of potential problems can be presented to teachers through case studies than through the practicum. Furthermore, while the teaching practicum focuses on planning and classroom teaching, case studies allow teachers to vicariously experience the full range of other potential challenges facing teachers such as materials design and cooperating with colleagues. Case studies, then, enable teachers to apply general theoretical principles to a wide range of practical situations.

Critical reflection

The reflective approach advocated by Sch?n (1983, 1987) is the preeminent model of teacher development. Teachers, it is argued, develop through reflecting on their own practice. In other words, a teaching experience is recalled and considered to reach an evaluation and to provide input into future planning and action (Bartlett, 1990). In spite of this emphasis on the importance of reflection, Wallace (1996) argues that there is still a need to devise new techniques to help teachers develop reflective skills.

Several authors have suggested that case studies can be used to promote critical reflection (e.g. Richards, 1998; Sparks-Langer and Colton, 1993), and research by Harrington et al. (1996) supports this. This may seem strange in that the focus in the reflective approach is on one's own experience rather than on another's experience as in case studies. However, focusing on another's teaching can "stimulate the kind of productive thinking which forms the basis of reflective practice" (Borg, 1998: 273). This is particularly true of dilemma-based case studies, such as the ones on this website, which present a problem requiring the generation and evaluation of possible solutions and which provide a focusing point to stimulate reflection (Stanley, 1999).

Problem solving and decision making

Two crucial skills for teachers emphasised in case studies are problem solving and decision making. Problem solving involves specifying a problem, analysing it, formulating and evaluating possible solutions, and choosing a solution (McWhorter, 1988). Teachers are constantly faced with problems requiring immediate solutions, and dilemma-based case studies can provide input into the problem-solving process to enable teachers to hone their problem-solving skills.

In solving problems, making a reasoned decision between several possible solutions is vital. In fact, some authors see problem solving and decision making as so central to teaching that they argue that the best way to understand teaching is to view teachers as decision makers (e.g. Good and Brophy, 1986). Case studies may help teachers to develop the decision-making skills crucial for effective teaching. They may also help to raise awareness of teachers' underlying beliefs and values that affect their decisions.

The case studies on this site

The case studies on this site range from language awareness to lesson planning to cooperating with colleagues. The contexts of the case studies include such diverse situations as EFL in Greece and ESP in Taiwan. While the case studies have been created for this site, most are based on my own experiences or on conversations I have had with other teachers (special thanks are due to George McCarten). The contents are arranged to help you choose the case studies which are most relevant to you, but I hope that you will find all of them interesting and thought-provoking.

Each case study starts with a description of a problem situation followed by some questions to highlight specific problems and suggestions for further reading. These suggestions are linked to the questions and often provide directions for solutions.

To any teachers

Case studies are, I hope, intrinsically interesting and easy to read. They also act as prompts for reflection and decision making. Considering the problems facing the teachers in the case studies can help you reach a deeper understanding of the problems and can raise your awareness of different aspects of the problems. Since the problems are open-ended and unresolved, there are a large number of possible solutions for each case study. The texts cited in the further reading section of each case study provide guidelines towards a solution, but ultimately decisions about resolving the situations are yours.

To any trainers

Most training programmes are severely limited by time. This often means that larger-scale aspects of teaching, though clearly desirable, have to be skimmed briefly or even omitted. Case studies provide an accessible way of addressing these larger-scale aspects. In addition, because of their intrinsic interest, case studies provide a motivating and enjoyable way for trainees to tackle teaching problems of any size.

There are three main ways in which case studies can be integrated into a unit of a training programme:

Case studies can be used at the beginning of a unit to contextualise the topic, to act as input in a deep-end approach, or to establish a practical rationale for theoretical material provided in the unit.

Case studies can act as the main vehicle for discussion in a unit by providing a framework for organising the content and a reference point to which material can be related.

At the end of a unit, case studies provide a practical application of the material covered, and can act as a means for checking trainees' understanding and bringing the material in a unit together.

Case studies are equally amenable to individual, pair and group reflection. They can be used very flexibly, and are ideal for both group discussion in class and individual assignments. More creative ways of exploiting case studies include role-play and case creation.

Given their flexibility of use and the multiplicity of purposes that they can serve, case studies are an excellent vehicle for reflection, decision making, and more general learning for individual teachers, for groups of teachers, and for teacher trainees. Happy reading and fruitful reflection.


Bartlett, L. (1990) Teacher development through reflective teaching. In Richards, J. C. and Nunan, D. (eds.) Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 202-214.
Borg, S. (1998) Data-based teacher development. ELT Journal vol. 52 no. 4 pp. 273-281.
Dudley-Evans, T. and St. John, M. J. (1998) Developments in English for Specific Purposes: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Good, T. L. and Brophy, J. E. (1986) Educational Psychology: A Realistic Approach, 3rd edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Greenwood, G. E. and Parkay, F. W. (1989) Case Studies for teacher Decision Making. New York: Random House.
Harrington, H. L., Quinn-Leering, K. and Hodson, L. (1996) Written case analyses and critical reflection. Teaching and Teacher Education vol. 12 no. 1 pp. 25-38.
McWhorter, K. T. (1988) Study and Thinking Skills in College. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Richards, J. C. (1998) Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sch?n, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.
Sch?n, D. A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Towards a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Fransisco: Jossey Bass.
Sparks-Langer, G. M. and Colton, A. B. (1993) Synthesis of research on teachers' reflective thinking. In Woolfolk, A. E. (ed.) Readings & Cases in Educational Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. pp. 16-24.
Stanley, C. (1999) Learning to think, feel and teach reflectively. In Arnold, J. (ed.) Affect in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 109-124.
Stubbs, M. (1986) Educational Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sudzina, M. R. (ed.) (1999) Case Study Applications for Teacher Education: Cases of Teaching and Learning in the Content Areas. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Wallace, M. J. (1996) The reflective model revisited. Plenary paper given at the Fourth IALS Symposium for Language Teacher Educators: Theory in Language Teacher Education. Edinburgh, 13-15 November, 1996