The Dialogic Case Method: Building a Microworld in the Classroom

Article excerpt


In order to instruct students in concepts of the learning organization, it would be useful to construct the OD classroom to have characteristics of a learning organization as well. Drawing on concepts from the learning organization and experiential learning, this article presents a highly student centered method of case discussion built on the concepts of dialog and learning by doing. A detailed description of the approach is provided along with appendices that could be used as handouts to help prepare students to use the technique. The article closes with some reflections on usage of the dialogic case method and comments from students who have used the technique.

The Need for Dialog

The dialogic case method is designed to address key issues in the training of reflective practitioners for learning organizations. "Learning organizations are spaces for generative conversation and concerted actions. In them, language functions as a device for connection, invention, and coordination (Kofman & Senge, 1994, p.18)." In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) argues for the importance of team learning and openness in building a learning organization. According to Senge, the discipline of team learning includes systems thinking and the practices of dialog and discussion. Dialog assists participants develop a fuller understanding of other's viewpoints. Effective discussion, presuming an understanding of other viewpoints, works toward uncovering the assumptions and viewpoints around which the group can come together. All of these elements are critical elements of the `generative conversation' that is characteristic of learning organizations. With the appropriate practices, classrooms too could take on characteristics of learning organizations (Mazen, Jones, & Sergenian, 2000). This article presents the dialogic case method as a means for incorporating such practices into the OD classroom, and thus provides the experience of a learning organization within the classroom context.

Dialog is especially important to organizational learning in that it allows organizational participants to move beyond their own limited understandings and personal mental models. Dialog requires collaboration and communication with others in order to reveal the subtleties of different mental models. Referencing Bohm (1965), Senge (1990, p. 243) notes that for dialog to occur all parties "must suspend- their assumptions", "must regard one another as colleagues", and "there must be a facilitator who `holds the context' of dialogue." The last point is especially important since existing habits generally move individuals towards discussion and argumentation rather than dialog. Although discussion, as opposed to dialog, is also necessary if participants are to move towards accepting or creating a new viewpoint, Senge advises that dialog should be given first priority.

Of all the concepts associated with the learning organization, dialog and discussion are some of the most difficult ideas to teach effectively. A definition and elaboration on these critical concepts is simply inadequate to build the needed understanding and even less adequate to develop the skills of dialog and discussion. Cognizant of the difficulty of learning such techniques, Senge (1990) proposes the use of 'microworlds' to assist managers in 'learning by doing'(p. 313), or learning experientially. Microworlds might best be described as behavioral simulations. We strongly concur and offer the dialogic case method as a means to build a microworld in the classroom. We suggest that experiential learning is a key for building the student skills needed to understand and develop learning organizations.

Experiential Learning

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, authors Postman and Weingartner (1969) identified "outdated canons" of education. Two of our favorites are:

Only one and always one right answer exists and that answer is absolutely right; one's own ideas are inconsequential

Every outcome is the result of a single, easily identified cause

These canons are not only outdated for education but for the organizational world as well. …