Observe Like Sherlock Holmes


Netflix is my friend.  I could stream an entire weekend away.  Could is the magic word here.  You know. Pre-fatherhood me could stream to his heart’s delight.

There is a very interesting PBS special on Sherlock Holmes called How Sherlock Changed the World, claiming how the fictional character laid the foundation for modern day CSI and forensics. Guess what? He kinda did.  Back in the day to solve cases, London police officers would look for eye witnesses then, if they couldn’t find a witness, they would make a guess (based on gut feeling and without evidence).  Pretty much, if someone said you did it, you were outta luck.

On the other hand, in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, he was using evidence, chemistry, ballistics, and studied the crime scene – and keep in mind these books were written pre 1900, before any of these techniques were even considered for real police work.  This kind of thinking was way before it’s time and pretty cool.

Okay.  You’re reading this post and maybe thinking, “Okay… neat.  What’s you’re point?”

Here’s the point: Preschool teachers could take a page from Sherlock.  Primarily, they could take away his two primary skills: observation and deductive reasoning.



Stay with me here.

Sherlock says, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.  It biases the judgement.”

Preschool observations are based on facts; based on what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.  From these senses, you document.  However, the skill here is to remain objective and not bias the evidence.  It’s hard to tell if you don’t know what to look for.

Here’s an example of a teacher note that has bias in it:

“Bobby happily walked into the block area.  He sat down next to his friend Ikira.  Ikira is building a castle.  Bobby wanted to build a castle too, and reached for a block in Ikira’s pile.  Ikira got mad and said ‘That’s mine’ in an angry voice.  Bobby was scared and realized that he was wrong. He gave the block back to Ikira.”

Sounds 0kay, right?  No, not really.  Here are the issues.  How do you know Bobby is happy?  How do you know he and Ikira are friends?  How do you know Bobby was going to build a castle?  How do you know that Ikira was mad or that he was using an angry voice?  How do you know Bobby was scared, which resulted in him giving the block back?

We are making a lot of assumptions.  Those assumptions are called theories.  Theories are based on observations.  See the conflict here?  You can’t have theories in observations.

Make sense?  Well, let’s keep going, shall we?

Let’s take the Holmes approach and document the same episode, using only your senses to collect the evidence:

“Bobby walked to the block area and sat next to Ikira.  Bobby grabs a square block from a pile that is next to Ikira.  Ikira says ‘That’s mine’ and reaches for block.  Bobby looks at Ikira, then puts the block in Ikira’s hand.  Ikira continues building with blocks.  Bobby watches Ikira.”

Can you picture this?  You probably could.  What can you draw from this observation?  Have any theories?  Well, this leads to our next Holmes attribute.

Deductive Reasoning


From Bobby’s observation, we can theorize that when Ikira said “That’s mine,” something in Bobby provoked him to give the block back. Perhaps there is a social-emotional note here?  Or maybe cognitive?  We’d need some observations to confirm this theory.

Additionally, if we want to answer the other questions – Bobby and Ikira are friends, Ikira’s angry voice, and Bobby scared – then we need to collect more observations.  You may be surprised where the evidence takes you.  You may find that they are friends, but documentation shows that Ikira anger looks different, and Bobby scared is shown differently.

Go where evidence leads you.

Moral of the Story: Preschool teachers need to observe, then analyze those observations to theorize about the child’s development and plan future learning.

It’s easy for teachers to say that a child is this or a child is that.  They may feel that they’ve been around the child so much and they know the child so well that teachers make general statements about the child’s language development, social-emotional development, cognitive development, and physical development.  And all of these statements are made without any documentation, with the teacher’s memory and “gut feeling” serving as the primary evidence.

Think about it.  Would you want your doctor to make “gut feelings” for you? 

That’s why it’s so important that teachers diligently and intentionally take detailed, fact-based observations on their children.  Once they have those observations, analyze those notes.

You know which shapes children can name because you documented the circle time routine.

You know how high they can count because you led a small group activity.

You know who the child’s best friends are because you can refer to the their drawings and meal-time conversations.

Yes, it takes time.  Yes, you don’t have time.  But that shouldn’t stop you from doing the best job you can do.  If those memories and “gut feelings” are true for you, then go in the classroom, get some evidence and back it up.  Observations and deductive reasoning are a preschool teacher’s best friends. It’s elementary.

P.S. If you want a book to learn more about Sherlock Holmes’ techniques, you can also check out these book:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s