Lt. Columbo: A Layperson’s Guide in Effective Teaching

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An abridged version of this post appears on the K2Twelve blog. For one reason or another I am unable to post the complete version there, so I’m doing it here:

I caught the tail end of the Crime Dramas episode of the PBS series, Pioneers of Television. Of the detective show I have the fondest memories of,  Columbo , they said it was the first crime drama to show you “whodunnit” at the beginning – In fact they (the show) went a step further to even show you how it was done! They (Pioneers of Television) said people kept watching because the detective was so likeable, they wanted to see how he would solve the crime.

But Columbo is more than just a good television crime drama with a pioneering approach. It is a guide to effective teaching. The hypocrisy of Obama’s Educate to Innovate program is that inevitably in its implementation it will test the  teaching right out of the classroom (along with any possibility to educate or innovate). School districts will interpret “educating and innovating” as a new battery of high stakes tests. Teachers will be punished for not teaching to the test as the notion of merit will be based solely on test scores and not innovative or – more importantly – inspiring teaching. Students will suffer as they seek only to be told the right answers, ignoring the benefits and thrills of experimentation and unexpected outcomes.

In the Season 7 episode, “Try and Catch Me,” the Lieutenant asks famous mystery writer and suspect, Abigail Mitchell, to help him unravel the puzzle of a drawn message left by the murder victim on a stack of metal safety deposit boxes. Like a good teacher, Columbo models the task by demonstrating the steps to solving the problem. He then asks the student (Abigail) to try – and most importantly – he allows her to fail, each time dropping a bread crumb here and there to assist her in eventually arriving at the correct solution.

In Season 2’s episode, “Double Shock,” Columbo has Mrs. Peck at her wits end, as he turns her well kept world upside down with his investigative antics. This culminates in the final scenes where Columbo characteristically tests a hypothesis himself. Here he demonstrates effective teaching methods by engaging in a proof of a hypothesis and upon failing engages in developing new hypotheses. This is what effective teachers might do to encourage creative problem solving skills among their students (Innovation).

The Ultimate Columbo Site has a complete episode guide in addition to trivia about the the Columbo series. In each episode, Columbo demonstrates the qualities of sound teaching (that is as it should be, not as it is made to be by politicians and data pornographers). Every time test scores become newsworthy, a big hullabaloo is made over how US students lag behind students in other countries, especially in math and science. Instead of nurturing habits of inquiry and study, the solution has been more rote memorization and testing. But no one ever thinks to test “the Test”!

No one questions the validity or appropriateness of the tests given. If the goal is to measure US student math performance against Chinese math performance using the same test, then it is not unreasonable to expect both parties to be using the same – or at least similar — curriculum (set of lessons and topics). However, it has been pointed out that this is not the case!

While I do not agree with the draconian drill system of teaching mathematics favored by Chinese teachers, I do agree that students need a firm grasp of core concepts in order to engage in creative math activities. Columbo models this in his catchphrase: “Oh just one more thing…” He takes the time to understand the situation fully before engaging in creative experiments to prove his hypothesis. Students need to be given time to do the same in math and science education.

2 responses

  1. Lt. Columbo: A Layperson’s Guide in Effective Teaching | K2Twelve

    […] For one reason or another, I’m having difficulty loading the entire contents of this post, the full version appears at Cranial Gunk. […]

  2. Lt. Columbo: A Layperson’s Guide in Effective Teaching « K2Twelve

    […] For one reason or another, I’m having difficulty loading the entire contents of this post, the full version appears at Cranial Gunk. […]

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