Teaching Forward: Using Case-Based Instruction to Foster Critical Thinking

By Derriso, Anthony | The Science Teacher, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching Forward: Using Case-Based Instruction to Foster Critical Thinking


Derriso, Anthony, The Science Teacher


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Every day, we face challenges that require new and innovative solutions. At a time when the complexity of these challenges is growing exponentially, educators must prepare students to make sense of complicated facts, think critically, and come to informed conclusions. Put simply, education for the future must teach students how to think.

Educators and educational researchers alike are discovering that inductive methods--in which learners start with specific observations, problems, or cases and infer general laws from these instances--are more effective when higher-order thinking is the primary goal (Yadav et al. 2007). For decades, the case-study method has been widely used in law and business schools, but is less common in secondary education.

A common misconception is that cases should be used for reinforcement or as examples to demonstrate concepts. Although using cases in this manner can be effective for reflection and application, cases used in case-based teaching are the primary method of instruction--they draw students in with interactive stories or real-life situations and cover the content. Case studies are written more like novels than textbooks--often containing a plot, characters, and dialogue--and may even engage students in role-playing exercises.

In this article, I provide three examples of case-based teaching that can be effectively used in high school biology, environmental science, or astronomy classrooms.

Case study #1: The art of a deal

In today's interconnected world, solutions often require careful consideration of various borders, cultures, religions, and ideologies. Generally, there is no easy answer, and any

The Kyoto Protocol.

In December 1997, nations from around the world met in Kyoto, Japan, to discuss worldwide solutions to global warming. The summit resulted in an agreement known as the "Kyoto Protocol," a historic worldwide treaty to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases. When the treaty went into effect in 2005, 141 nations had ratified it. The United States was noticeably absent (CBC News 2007). favorable outcome will require compromise and artful negotiation. In the first case study, "The Art of a Deal: A Kyoto Protocol Simulation" (Cowlishaw et al. 2007), groups of three to four students represent various countries and negotiate agreements to limit global carbon dioxide emissions.

FIGURE 1

The "Art of a Deal: A Kyoto Protocol
Simulation" questions.

* What are two things that society can do to limit
greenhouse gas emissions?

* Describe the general relationship between per
capita carbon dioxide emissions and per capita income.
Briefly explain.

* When comparing Australia to China, which country
is more "efficient" at generating wealth if you
consider carbon dioxide a waste product?

Following an introductory discussion on greenhouse-gas emissions and the Kyoto Protocol (see "The Kyoto Protocol"), groups begin negotiations to reduce carbon dioxide "units." Those groups that represent industrialized countries start with a certain amount of money and carbon dioxide units; developing countries start with less money, but have carbon dioxide credits for sale. Countries must cooperate to reduce emissions, or carbon dioxide units, but compete to end up with the highest score--the key is to spend as little money as possible and avoid harming the country's economy by giving up too many units.

This case provides a meaningful platform for discussing global warming and a comprehensive global solution in an environmental science class, and sparks discussion about politics, public policy, international relations, and sociology. Figure 1 is a list of the critical-thinking questions students address in this case.

Case study #2: The peculiar case of Pluto

In the second case study, "A Rose by Any Other Name: The Peculiar Case of Pluto" (Schulz 2005), students are introduced to Maria, the fictional chair of the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature for the International Astronomical Union. …

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