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The Teaching Case

Monica Higgins
Photo: Bryce Vickmark

Can you teach someone to lead change? And what conditions are necessary for change to succeed — especially in school systems where resources are scarce, priorities conflict, and multiple constituents must be satisfied? As a professor, consultant, researcher, and leader who specializes in organizational change, Monica Higgins has helped current and future school and district leaders embark on their own change journeys by learning the skills of collaboration and entrepreneurial thinking.

Monica Higgins helped to pioneer the case study method in education, believing that change comes through sharing stories of success, collaboration, and risk-taking from leaders in every sector.

Described by former students in course evaluations as a “master facilitator,” Higgins has pioneered the case study method in education, adapting a pedagogical technique often used in business schools. With the case method, students read about real-life scenarios showing how leaders of different organizations translate ideas into action, and they come to class prepared to discuss them. “We want ideas to stick when we are trying to teach or make change,” Higgins told The Learning Professional. “Cases are even more likely to be sticky than other kinds of stories because they contain a puzzle and an action that needs to be taken.”

But it isn’t just the story or puzzle embedded in the cases that make the lessons resonate with students — it’s the tremendous amount of care that Higgins puts into her lesson preparations. Not only does she anticipate which students she will call on at which juncture in the conversation, but she factors in the ways in which she and her teaching team can create a safe learning environment to help push students to take risks with their thinking. Though carefully “choreographed,” class sessions feel fresh and stimulating, because students always raise new thoughts and ideas that shift the discussion.

“As a student, the experience of Monica Higgins' masterful use of case-teaching pedagogy greatly contributed to my learning and development,” said Uche Amaechi, Ed.D.'16, now a lecturer at HGSE. “Now, as a teacher using this pedagogy in my own practice, I am more in awe of her ability to balance the case discussion — ensuring the exploration of essential concepts even as the students’ discussions naturally shift toward additional insights.”

It’s precisely this attention to bringing in new voices, fostering collaboration, and willingness to experiment with new ideas that has guided Higgins as she’s worked outside of the walls of the lecture hall. Higgins has nurtured educational entrepreneurs across the country through her Scaling for Impact initiative, and she has partnered with school and district leadership the Public Education Leadership Project, for which she has served as a longtime faculty member and former director. Her work in these areas has underscored an urgent need to find creative solutions to entrenched problems in the education sector.

“The ideal is that you want an environment where people can put forth new ideas, ask for help, and question the status quo — while still being accountable for reaching challenging goals,” Higgins said of what she and other leaders in education strive to create, both in the lecture hall at HGSE and beyond.  – Emily Boudreau

Learn More and Connect

Explore the Professional Education at HGSE offering Scaling for Impact.

Watch Monica Higgins teach a master class on the use of the case method in education.

Learn more about the Public Education Leadership Group.

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