Curriculum Transformation: How Harvard Kennedy School Created A Planet of Case Teaching

May 9, 2013

How did a Vietnam veteran with a BA in English from Harvard College transform teaching at public policy and management graduate schools around the world?

It started at the Harvard Kennedy School. The initial transformative insight came, not surprisingly (since he was responsible for so many), from economist, Nobel laureate, and member of the founding faculty at the Kennedy School Thomas Schelling. While he was not a case teacher himself, Schelling realized that the primary way to prepare people well for careers in public policy and management was to more closely simulate the reasoning and pressures of the world of practice by using cases about real problems confronting senior managers or policymakers.

Largely because of what started at the Kennedy School, the case method approach, previously reserved to business schools and law schools, has become the central pedagogy of the public policy and management classroom, and has enabled the Kennedy School and a number of other schools here and abroad successfully to offer degree programs and executive education to senior and mid-career public servants, whose experience is a central resource for their learning and whose learning styles tend to respond better to discussion-based learning than to lectures.

The case method allows students to apply theory, their own stories, and parallel input from their classmates, to the problem. In a good case, a solution is far from evident and the students are challenged to bring their best analysis, experience, and practical skills to the conversation.

Leading a case discussion requires teaching skills greatly different from those of even the best lecturers. Success at this method thus required training traditional faculty and creating a faculty culture of teaching and continuous learning that would set the Kennedy School apart from other public policy schools in the early 1980’s.

Schelling needed someone to carry the case teaching flag and nurture interested faculty. He sought help from the Harvard Danforth Center on Teaching and Learning (now the Derek Bok Center), where he discovered John Boehrer, a young Harvard graduate and Vietnam veteran who had recently begun work at the center and who soon became its associate director. After graduating from Harvard College, Boehrer had attended Officer Candidate School and had become an Army Intelligence officer in Vietnam, and was now working with Harvard instructors, primarily at the undergraduate College, who volunteered to be tutored on how to run interactive discussions in the classroom. Schelling soon discovered that among the volunteers getting coached by the Danforth Center at the graduate instructional level was the Kennedy School’s first research associate and, later, first practitioner faculty member Jon Brock. After working with Boehrer, Brock received the Kennedy School’s teaching award (now the Carballo Award), about which he said: “I really should have just handed the prize over to John. John is as skilled as the Jeffrey Rush character in ‘The King’s Speech’, but with a far lighter touch. He could transform anyone from an ugly duckling into a teaching swan.”

Schelling persuaded then-Dean Graham Allison to buy a hefty chunk of Boehrer’s time and he then led by example. Schelling, a revered faculty member, willingly and quite publicly submitted to being coached by Boehrer. In the independent and autonomous world of academia, particularly at the graduate level and particularly for tenured senior faculty, being watched and coached was virtually unheard of. But, as Marty Linsky, a highly regarded teacher in the Kennedy School’s Executive Education Program observed, “John has that rare, distinctive quality that enables him to be a master teacher of teachers. In an ego-driven culture, he takes all the pleasure he needs in the success of others whose lives he has touched and who have found some limelight because of him, without having to share that limelight himself.”

So, with Boehrer’s unique style and Schelling’s modeling, some faculty began to be regularly videotaped in the classroom and view hours of tape with him—and then later watch more tape as their teaching improved. Starting with a few of Schelling’s recruits, Boehrer soon had a wave of faculty requesting his assistance. Among them was Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School Professor Dutch Leonard, also a recipient of teaching awards, who recalls his experience: “I worked with John in my early years of trying to learn how to lead a discussion-based classroom. He was gentle, but firm. The ‘gentle’ part was that he was low-key and asked you what you thought instead of telling you what he saw. The ‘firm’ part was that he came to your class and shot video of you and the students, and then watched it (repeatedly!) with you … which could have been devastating, but he helped us not to be too frightened of what we were seeing. And he practiced what he was teaching me: he never tried to tell me what I should conclude or do, but instead found ways of allowing me to discover it myself … which is also what I was trying to learn how to do with my students. So he was simultaneously modeling the behavior I was trying to learn … and helping me develop my own way of doing it.

“I’m deeply grateful for the insights I got from the work John did with me … and my current students, as well as all the generations in between then and now, owe him a debt that they are not aware of … but I am.”

With these unique ways of approaching faculty and the nearly sacred classroom experience, Boehrer became a frequent visitor to classrooms and faculty offices, and soon became the Kennedy School’s Director of Teaching Development, sought out routinely for his teaching advice. Before long he was traveling the country and the world to help partners in other countries learn this method of teaching; among the many places he took his wisdom and mission were Washington State, South Carolina, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Japan, Singapore and, more recently, Australia. A case program, inspired in part by Boehrer’s work in Eastern Europe, now operates in Ukraine, under the Institute for Innovation and Development. The Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), a major effort of universities and governments there, has begun to adopt these methods and has started a case program.

John Alford, a distinguished scholar at Melbourne University School of Business and a principal driver of ANZSOG had this to say: “John Boehrer helped kick-start a process of developing more engaged, challenging teaching in the public policy and management field through his involvement early in the development of the ANZSOG. We brought together a diverse group of teachers in this field from a dozen universities across the two countries, and John's wisdom and warmth engaged young and old, enthusiast and cynic, extrovert and introvert alike. They are still putting effort into interactive and case teaching at ANZSOG. Public sector education is the better for John's contribution.” Reflecting its commitment, though Boehrer had retired, ANZSOG continues to run master teaching workshops for its most experienced executive program faculty, as well as workshops to prepare younger faculty. Australia has rapidly become a major center for educating rising public and private professionals from the growing economies and changing countries of Southeast Asia.

Always interested in international education, Boehrer started and oversaw a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts; called the Pew Faculty Fellows in International Affairs, this initiative created yet another cadre of more than 100 believers around the United States and elsewhere, this one consisting of senior academics interested in economic development and other international topics. As a result, a case collection specializing in these topics was established at Georgetown University and many of the fellows have produced cases on their own.

As a further example of international impact, Professor Anatoly Oleksienko, then a young Ukrainian in Kiev, met Boehrer in a series of Soros-sponsored workshops in Central and Eastern Europe in the mid-1990’s. Oleksienko recalled: “In the Soviet system, we relied primarily on a ‘sage on the stage’ mode of teaching. Students followed their teachers unquestionably. Indoctrination thus thrived abundantly. John was such an important soul-healer for those of us who wanted to change the old top-down instruction. From him I learned that the case-study work is more than professional guidance - it is a life-long collegial relation built through trust that is achievable only when people share, express ideas, test their assumptions, get insights from others, and improve their comprehension of their environment and of each other. That approach has worked for me as an academic researcher and teacher crossing boundaries of knowledge and cultures in diverse professional contexts of Ukraine, Canada, Hong Kong, China and others.” Oleksienko is now on the Education faculty of Hong Kong University.

During his time at the Kennedy School, his reputation had grown to such an extent that Boehrer became a principal player with a group of the best of Harvard’s instructors from all over the University, as this method of interactive teaching was explored more deeply for business, public policy and management, education, and other fields. From that effort emerged many well-read publications on teaching and learning.

Running a case discussion draws the instructor far from the security of the podium. In the normal course of their work, faculty learn to prepare and practice lectures, but they rarely learn to prepare and practice for the unpredictable interaction engendered in a case study classroom. Most thought that one couldn’t practice for this. But Boehrer, in the understated style that was his trademark, proved this wrong. He developed the psychological equivalent of the podium: a template for preparing and conducting an unpredictable interactive discussion. By doing so, he has made it possible to show thousands of instructors that good discussion leadership wasn’t reserved for only the most charismatic, but was available to any instructor who was willing to risk, prepare, and engage in this way. He took the art of discussion leadership from the realm of magic and mystery to something that a conscientious young (or old) faculty member could learn to do, and thereby benefit students.

“John showed me that teaching is part art, part craft, part science,” Linsky said. “He made the complex relationships among those three clear enough to be accessible, even to stubborn acolytes like me. He taught me how to be purposeful and present just by watching him, because that is what he brought to the party, every day, every moment. What I remember most about working with him is that he brought out the best in people, their best selves and their best potential, because he believed in them, he loved them, and loved the work.”

Later in his career, Boehrer was recruited to the Evans School of Public Affairs in Seattle by two former Kennedy School colleagues, Evans faculty member Jon Brock and Evans School Dean (1998-2002) Marc Lindenberg. Lindenberg, also a former dean at INCAE, the Harvard Business School-inspired management institute in Central America, targeted Boehrer to assist him in building what the late Dean Lindenberg called a “teaching culture” at the then-expanding Evans School, which had also started a popular public sector executive education and case study program. Seeking to be closer to family on the West Coast, Boehrer went to Seattle and nurtured a transformation there, which has helped the Evans School rise in the ratings from the 20’s to being among the top-rated public policy and management programs in the country. To the delight of his many friends and colleagues, not long after his arrival in Seattle, Boehrer met the woman who would become his partner, Lynn Elmore. They have shared their time immersed in culture, literature and travel, particularly since his retirement.

Recalling Boehrer’s departure from the Kennedy School, Professor Jose Gomez-Ibanez said of him: “John Boehrer was the mentor to a generation of Kennedy School faculty on teaching in general and case teaching in particular. His gentle coaching made case teaching less intimidating to all of us, and we were very sorry to lose him to the West Coast.”

Working with Boehrer had substantial impact even on seasoned case teachers. Dan H. Fenn, Jr., a Kennedy White House staffer and the founding director of the John F. Kennedy library, and now a renowned instructor in Kennedy School executive programs observes, “I first walked into a classroom at the Harvard Business School in the late l950's. But it was not until John sat down with me and reviewed a tape he had made of a class at the Kennedy School perhaps 40 years later that I felt really comfortable and confident conducting a session. His comments and guidance were so helpful. Subsequently we combined forces in a case teaching program for a group in South Carolina, which spawned a whole new group of fine instructors in the Southeast. As an analyst, as an inspiring person, and as a friend and colleague, John has made an incalculable contribution to effective teaching and thus to thousands of students. I bless him for it.”

Boehrer’s legacy at Harvard Kennedy School is, as he is, quiet and understated, but unmistakable in the all-important classroom experience and the substantial reliance on cases and interactive teaching at policy and management schools in the US and around the world. His methods have been passed on by the practitioners of the art such as Linsky, Leonard, Fenn and Gomez-Ibanez--and many others--to new generations of teachers not only at the Kennedy School, but also across the United States and in places as distant and different from each other as Singapore, Ukraine, and Australia and New Zealand. Though the early pioneers at the Harvard Kennedy School, including Schelling, Allison, Don Price and others are well known icons of the field, this engaging and unassuming Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College graduate from Hennepin, Minnesota, came back from Vietnam and blazed a path that perhaps only he could have envisioned – and the world of teaching and learning in public policy and management will never be the same.

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John Boehrer

John Boehrer, the Kennedy School's first director of teaching development, helped bring case method teaching to the public policy world

During his time at the Kennedy School, his reputation had grown to such an extent that Boehrer became a principal player with a group of the best of Harvard’s instructors from all over the University, as this method of interactive teaching was explored more deeply for business, public policy and management, education, and other fields.

John Boehrer in the classroom, circa 1988

John Boehrer, circa 1988, leading a workshop at the Cascade Center, at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs