Why I love Jonathan Creek

or What we can learn from Jonathan Creek & other detective TV shows about Thinking, Problem Solving and Working Together

I love Jonathan Creek, moreso when Caroline Quentin was Alan Davies’ original side-kick, but the joy of the show remains years after it hit our screens as I re-watch my box-set. The off-beat crimes, the gothic horror, the mansions, the people who deserve something utterly nasty to happen to them and most of all, the quirky lateral way Jonathan the nerdy-grumpy-rumpledly-sexy-hero solves them all. Yes, the episodes are somewhat formulaic and the dialogue is often repeated and some days one crime/mystery does seems to blur into the next but what’s pricked my interest this time around is the way Jonathan solves the puzzles. The way we know and experience his thinking through the problems. Oh and Maddy (Caroline and then Julia Swahala and most recently Sheridan Smith) who as the not-as-insightful-or-clever partner, who actually does quite a bit to help solve the mysteries.

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So Jonathan Creek is not a detective, nor is it a detective show, rather it is a problem solving show and to that end quite nicely relevant to good teaching. Quite often JC has to actually define the problem clearly before he can get started. He examines the scene intensely and often several times over, always seeing things that others, even the most seasoned police, do not. Maddy et al help him by making seemingly innocuous or sometimes dumb comments that manage to trigger something in Jonathan’s mind, somewhere in his sub consciousness that he can’t quite access just yet. He indulges in a bit of research, he worries the problem, making notes and calculations as need be but he also lets the problem drift away to somewhere in the back of his brain where the problem does what it needs to do and the solution pops up. Jonathan does not solve problems quickly but he solves them comprehensively and definitely leaving not one bit of the equation left out as he brings it all together, tying up all the loose threads at the end in a Tom Barnaby like summation at the conclusion of the episode.

A couple of things to note. He doesn’t do this alone. He asks for help, searches out clues, gets things a bit wrong, works closely with Maddy who has her own set of unique skills that contribute to the end result, just not perhaps as she might have intended. She asks stupid questions and isn’t afraid to indulge in outlandish speculations. They discuss their progress, review the situation, check their facts. Jonathan perseveres until the solution is found. He freely admits to being puzzled and tells us frequently that something has popped up, a light has gone on, there’s an echo of something. He tells us how he is thinking, how his brain is processing the problem. He is letting us into the elusive, intuitive part of his brain, the lateral part that supposedly is where he solves the mysteries of the world.

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So, as learners and teachers what did you notice about what JC does?

1. Defines the problem – he makes sure he understands what the issue//task is

2. He makes tentative explorations – he makes notes, doodles, a bit of research, perhaps a plan of attack (usually that’s Maddy’s domain)

3. He’s collaborative – he works with others, letting their skills enhance his skills, or building on what others know

4. Asks stupid questions – Okay JC doesn’t do that but Maddy does and it is essential in getting to the heart of the problem and someone has to ask…

5. He reviews his progress, checks his information, consults with Maddy – are we clear, are we going in the right direction, and makes adjustments accordingly

6a. He thinks – more importantly he isn’t afraid to take the time to think, to allow the problem to find its shape(s), to let the connections come of their own accord

6b. He is intuitive – goes with how he thinks, how he feels – sometimes he doesn’t know how he knows or when he will know it, just that it will come

7. He does not share his findings until he is sure, until everything checks out

8. He takes his time to get it right – he is no rush, he wants it to be correct before he presents a neatly tied up package to the bewildered and confused

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There’s much to be taken from this approach to problem solving or completing a task. To take it one step further into the darkened corners of Education, Jonathan knows his learning style – he knows how he solves problems and he feels no compunction to do other than he does.

Teachers planning lessons could look to JC and other detective shows, Midsomer Murders and New Tricks come to mind. Tom Barnaby is methodical but sharp: he sees things no-one else does and makes wonderful connections. Quite often his suspects under-estimate him in his plodding naïve way, but he is vastly experienced and always gets his killer. The New Tricks team is an odd assortment of ex-coppers but the secret is that they all have a set of unique skills that helps the team solve the crime. They are also committed to the job and justice.

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What sort of detective-teacher are you? What sort of detectives-students do you have? Do you allow them time to do all that Jonathan Creek does? Do you appreciate the different strengths in the class, as per the New Tricks team? Are you astute and observant like Tom Barnaby, knowing all that’s going on in your class so that you end up with killer units of work that intrigue your students?

If you take only one thing from this blog take the matter of thinking – that thinking takes time, that it occurs in many different ways – that you cannot always see it and you cannot sensibly allocate a set amount of time for it as it must occur through and because of what the students are doing. Learning comes in many shapes, like TV detective shows and thinking comes in more shapes than that. What can you learn about learning from other TV detectives?  (Images courtesy Google Images)

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