Experts Teaching from Cases

Real experts reason from entire libraries of cases. Sometimes these cases are in actual libraries. Doctors and lawyers regularly consult archives of important or prototypical cases in order to make a medical diagnosis or construct a legal argument. But people in general are very good at recalling prior cases without having to consult a library. Most experts not only remember the cases of their experiences, they love to tell their favorite ones as "war stories." The educational value of war stories has been grossly underestimated.

One company for which I consult owns elaborate training facilities, manned by experts who dutifully teach the course material each day. At night these experts gather in the bar at the training facility and swap "war stories." When trainees happen upon these stories in the bar, they always make the same report: They learned more from the war stories told at night in the bar than from the classes held during the day. They found the classes dull and tedious, of no obvious relevance for the their actual jobs. In contrast, the war stories were alive and vivid, describing situations the trainees were constantly experiencing at work.

It might seem obvious that this company should change its teaching method. Both faculty and students would agree that the students could learn significantly more if they could just listen to war stories. Change, though, is often difficult to achieve.

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