The 2021-22 academic year marks the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of the case method at Harvard Business School. Today, the HBS case method is employed in the HBS MBA program, in Executive Education programs, and in dozens of other business schools around the world. As Dean Srikant Datar's says, the case method has withstood the test of time.

From Theory to Practical Reality

The case method story begins at Harvard Law School, which had for some time been using "case books"—compilations of actual court cases—in its law courses. Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, had introduced case-based learning around 1890. According to the Harvard Law School website:

"Langdell conceived of a way to systematize and simplify legal education by focusing on previous case law that furthered principles or doctrines. To that end, Langdell wrote the first casebook, entitled A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts, a collection of settled cases that would illuminate the current state of contract law. Students read the cases and came prepared to analyze them during Socratic question-and-answer sessions in class." With the case method, pedagogical emphasis shifted from facts and theories to practical situations and outcomes. This shift was part of a larger cultural movement toward instrumentalism and pragmatism that engaged philosophers such as John Dewey.

Law students could practice skills they would need in the courtroom, while also absorbing the outcomes-the settled case law-that they would have to draw on as practicing lawyers. Rather than just absorbing facts and ideas presented by a professor, students could analyze a real-life situation. And rather than listening passively to a lecture, they could discuss and debate the situation from different perspectives.

The transition was not easy; in fact, many students quit Langdell's class. But with support from his dean, he persisted and the method caught on. A decade later, one Harvard Law School student who took note of this new teaching approach was Wallace Brett Donham.

In the Shoes of Business Leaders

In 1919, Donham took over as dean at Harvard Business School. He strongly believed that the best way to teach business education would be by discussion and not by lecture. Having experienced case-based learning at Harvard Law School, he was sure the case approach could be adapted for teaching business management—with one main adjustment. Instead of using case law, business professors would employ real-life situations from the business world to analyze business dilemmas and principles of practice.

The first business case, written by Clinton Biddle and published in 1921, was a one-page narrative about a management challenge facing leaders at the General Shoe Company. The case proved to be a very successful teaching tool, and many more cases followed.

Today, the case method is just as relevant as it was 100 years ago—a practical approach in which MBA students and Executive Education participants learn to interpret and analyze information, drill into the root cause of issues, ask questions, listen to others' viewpoints, consider alternatives, and decide on a plan of action.

Celebrating the Case Method

To celebrate 100 years of the case method, we will be presenting reflections on this important teaching method on our website, Celebrating 100 years of Case Method Teaching & Learning. We invite you to:

Stay tuned for much more, including faculty videos about the case method, past, present, and future—many featuring HBS Executive Education faculty.

About the Author

Gregg Mastoras is the Managing Director of Marketing & Sales for Harvard Business School, Executive Education.