A superb critique of the case-study method by Russell Ackoff

In an interview, Russell Ackoff was asked about the case-study method of teaching. I present the question & Ackoff’s response

Detrick – Business schools like to talk about the usefulness of cases as a teaching pedagogy. What do you think about using cases as a teaching vehicle?

Ackoff – “A case is a terrible distortion of reality. It is like learning how to box with one hand tied behind you, then you are suddenly thrown into the ring with somebody who has two hands free. You don’t know what to do. You couldn’t box against a two handed person with one hand, but that’s what cases do to/for you. A problem is an abstraction. It’s extracted out of reality by analysis. Reality consists of complex sets of interacting problems, not isolated problems. So when we deal with a problem we’re already dealing with an abstraction — and now somebody comes along and deprives you of the information needed to formulate the problem. This converts the problem into an exercise.

An exercise is a problem for which the person given the problem to solve is deprived of the information required to formulate it. It doesn’t happen this way in the real world. Case studies are exercises. The most important thing in the real world is being able to differentiate between what’s relevant and what isn’t. The case-study formulator already does that for you. The person who wrote the case study eliminates what they think was irrelevant. I have had cases written on studies that I have done, that I published. The distortion is absolutely unbelievable. It’s nothing like what it was like in the real world. So I don’t think teaching cases is an effective pedagogy. Get students out into the real world where they have to formulate the problems and sort through a myriad of relevant and irrelevant information to do so. They need to be thrown into a mess and asked to work their way out of it.”







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