Case Studies

Normative Case Studies

Students arranged in a circle, talking.
Jonathan Walton (clockwise from left) leads a lively and interactive lunchtime conversation in Memorial Church with Henry Li '16, Laura Gullett '16, Peter Hickman '16, and Kara Shen '16. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

What are normative case studies?

Normative case studies (NCS) are a research and teaching tool developed by Meira Levinson, the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and used by educators around the globe.

NCS are “richly described, realistic accounts of complex ethical dilemmas that arise within practice or policy contexts,” focused on a particular decision point in which the right course of action is unclear. They help diverse groups of people discuss challenging ethical questions in a nuanced and inclusive way. 

Written in clear and accessible prose, often narrative in form, normative case studies are designed to be read in about 10 minutes and then immediately discussed in an educational, professional, or community context.

What is their purpose?

Normative case studies enable users to explore the meaning, relevance, and applicability of multiple values as well as to discuss how to balance or realize those values in light of a range of practical challenges.

NCS are not written to lead participants to a single correct answer or one specific “aha!” Rather, they aim to help diverse participants engage with one another about real-world ethical challenges, understand others’ perspectives and appreciate their insights even if/as they continue to disagree, and deepen their own capacity and inclination for ethical reflection.

The Harvard shield, featuring the word Veritas, on an ornate iron gate.

Normative Case Study: A Forced Reckoning

A Forced Reckoning, by Orelia Jonathan, Caroline Tucker, and Meira Levinson, explores the challenges of engaging students in learning about Harvard’s ties to the institution of slavery. It is a tool for faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others interested in considering the questions: What responsibility does the University have to teach this history, and what are our personal responsibilities to learn? How might different approaches to teaching this history promote versus impeding equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging on campus?

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How are NCS supporting engagement with Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery?

In interviews conducted by the H&LS curriculum subcommittee, University stakeholders consistently requested materials that could convey accurate historical information while also helping participants discuss difficult topics in a supportive and inclusive way, regardless of their background knowledge. Normative case studies are designed to do exactly that.

Levinson and the HGSE PhD students Orelia Jonathan and Caroline Tucker have thus been researching and writing new normative case studies focused on issues raised by universities’ entanglement with and legacies of slavery.

Who can use these cases?

H&LS normative case study materials can be used by students, faculty, staff, alumni, other University affiliates, and members of the larger community to guide collective inquiry about Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. They are also designed to be of use to non-Harvard affiliates who are interested in exploring the impact and legacy of enslavement and colonialism in higher education more broadly.

Click here to access the case “A Forced Reckoning,” a facilitation guide, and additional resources.

How can cases be used?

NCS may be used in: high school, undergraduate, and graduate courses (particularly but not only in history, education, public policy, philosophy, and general education); orientation programming; cocurricular and extracurricular settings; professional development workshops for staff and/or faculty; alumni events; and other small group facilitation settings.

We recommend using the cases to initiate open conversations about ethical issues at stake in confronting the history and legacy of slavery in higher education. More important than providing answers to a limited number of scenarios, they are effective means of surfacing the right kinds of questions and of provoking searching, collaborative inquiry into the principles, values, and practices that do—and that should—guide institutions of higher education around the globe.

What resources are available for supporting NCS discussions?

Each case page includes a Facilitation Guide to support NCS teaching and learning. Case discussion facilitators may also find it helpful to use the NCS Discussion Protocol. If you plan to use the case in a self-facilitated conversation or one-off event, we also recommend that you take time to review “Leveraging Norms for Challenging Conversations” (2016).