Teach Like Columbo

How can you improve teaching and learning?

That’s easy – teach like Columbo.

LAPD’s Lieutenant Columbo was a fictional homicide detective played by Peter Falk and is probably one of the best loved TV cops ever.

His dogged determination to unravel a complicated case through clever questioning and mind chess always ensured he could wrong-foot a suspect and check-mate them.

Despite his shabby dress, ambling gait and confused demeanour, Columbo was always two or three steps ahead. He might have appeared incompetent, forgetful and harmless but he was subtle, canny, had an eye for detail and always got his suspects talking.

By asking what looked like trivial questions at erratic intervals, he lured the murderer into making a mistake or giving away a tiny but vital detail by slipping in a ‘killer’ question.

Columbo was a questioning machine and great problem solver. He never stopped asking people questions especially as part of his false exit routine and his most famous line, “Just one more thing…” – these actually turned out to be quite a few things more. In the end, suspects found Columbo was more like an annoying wasp who they couldn’t get rid of and his friendly and inoffensive demeanour made that especially hard.

Peter Falk was Columbo and he made the character but the clever writing behind this shambling sleuth came from Richard Levinson and William Link.

So what can we take from the iconic Columbo and apply to the classroom?

This is what we can learn: get them talking, never stop asking questions and teach children the Columbo way: never accept things at face value and ‘sleuth’.

Now I’m a fan of Columbo and think we can learn a lot from the great man but I have to turn to a real super fan for his insights.

@columbophile runs a dedicated blog to Columbo called the columbophile and wow, this is the place to go.

What I like about  @columbophile is that he has analysed what the Columbo character did so well and draws on these characteristics as sort of life lessons. ‘Being Columbo’ and adopting a particular mindset I think could be useful in class particularly the relentless pursuit of solving a problem through thinking, observing, questioning everything, persevering and being humble.

In their book, Igniting Student Potential, Gunn et al (2007) point out that Columbo can help us be better teachers. They say that when students are attempting to solve a puzzle or problem then we can be Columbo by pretending that we don’t know what’s going on, asking lots of questions by probing and poking, and pushing for responses and saying “Gee, I don’t know, what do you think?”. This strategy really does work too because you are edging children towards new thinking and understating all the time.

Never underestimate the power of Columbo!


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