© 2005 Peter Burkhart


Literature Review

By Peter Burkhart

Although Sherlock Holmes’ adventures have been read by millions and analyzed critically by fans in thousands of articles since Arthur Conan Doyle’s first introduced him in 1887, my review of the literature found very little about using Holmes in a middle or high school setting.

My search for relevant material went back to about 1940, but the usable material was published from 1980 on. This indicated that Holmes has only recently begun to be considered a subject worthy of academia.

Andrews (2004) argues that using Holmes in the classroom is an effective way to introduce students to observation and logic. He believes that Holmes is a relevant character in school because he never theorizes without facts. Instead, he bases his findings on what he and already knows. The connection between observation and deduction has applications across the curriculum.

Skills that can be introduced by using Holmes, according to Andrews, are scanning information, selecting what is relevant AND discarding what is less so, before combining findings with prior knowledge. "Only then can {students} they form a valid opinion" (Andrews,14).

In his article, "Sherlock Holmes Meets the 21st Century" Flack suggested that teachers considering using a literary genre should consider mysteries and focus on Sherlock Holmes. Flack pointed out that there are similarities between the "behaviors of a good detective or sleuth and those of a critical thinker and problem solver" (Flack, 15). He says that the 21st Century will require individuals to be able to think critically and creatively.

Holmes demonstrates that possessing a near encyclopedic knowledge base and being a student of all disciplines are two characteristics of critical thinkers. "Holmes," Flack argues, "believed in learning as a lifelong pursuit (Flack, 15)" and "brought to problem solving the same sort of multidisciplinary, global and holistic point of view we want today’s problem solvers to adapt" (Flack, 16).

Use of Holmes in the classroom is supported by Alix. (1981.) She believed Holmes should be taught as a unit because it allows "students to see the character development and become involved in the solving of the mysteries" (Alix, 164). She also claims that Doyle’s stories encourage skills such as the powers of observation and remembering details. Readers "learn that no clue, however small, can be tossed aside" (Alix, 164). She also believed that because each story is independent of the others, it allows teachers to teach the stories their classes would be most interested in.

Use of Holmes in the curriculum need not be limited to a literature class. In "Syllabus," an article published in the "Chronicle of Higher Education," Bradley Jones, a chemistry professor at Wake Forest University, uses Holmes as a method of teaching analytical reasoning to freshmen. Bradley, using experiments, first focuses on the outcome and then concentrates on the steps leading to it. In one of the lessons each student places a personal item in a sack, which are then distributed. Students must try to deduce the owner of the item that is in the sack they are given This is similar to Holmes method of solving a mystery. He is always presented with the outcome of a client’s problem and then proceeds to work backward to the solution.

Mathematics is another discipline where Sherlock Holmes can be integrated into a curriculum. Holmes, while demonstrating great skills of observation and logic, relies on deduction that also plays a role in mathematics. Hunter Ballew makes this observation in his article "Sherlock Holmes, Master Problem Solver." He concluded that "Deduction, mathematical reasoning, and the development of cognitive strategies are necessary components of effective problem solving (Ballew, 1994.)" He describes how using Holmes’ methods in a mathematics classroom will "add zest" to its study.

Ballew described in depth Holmes’ use of insight and although Ballew believes insight cannot be taught, he claims it does favor the "experienced mind." "The duty of a mathematics teacher is to present students with the necessary experience." (Ballew, 597.)

Ballew says that when a teacher uses Holmes as an example of effective problem solving it should be explained that theories should not be formed too quickly. Instead, they should be formed after facts, observations and inferences have been gathered and made.

As Kellogg (1990) suggested a period of incubation, so does Ballew. He wants his students to "absorb a problem into their minds. If they don’t see a possible way to begin the solution after some time, I recommend that they leave the problem and do something else."

Ballew stresses the importance of gathering data and seeking patterns. He describes a situation where Holmes tests Watson’s skill of deduction by asking him about an old battered hat in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." Watson, observing nothing special, is told by Holmes, "Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences."

Ballew believes that students cannot be good problem solvers unless they can recognize extraneous information in a problem. He quoted Holmes who said in "The Adventure of the Reigate Squire," "It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated."

Kellogg (1980) indicated that Holmes’ "unexcelled abilities in observation and deduction, employed brilliantly in his criminal investigations, can be used as a model for directing students in their learning experiences" (Kellogg, 42). He identified and described seven factors related to learning that he felt institutions would be interested in: deduction, memory, perception, specialized knowledge, emotional control, incubation periods and divergent thinking.

Fictional material, according to Kellogg, can be a successful method for illustrating learning processes. He said that educators frequently encounter negative reactions when presenting students with standard curriculum material. However, more interest "can be created with exposure to the Master of Baker Street" (Kellogg, 44).

Linde (1996) wrote that each of the 56 short stories follow a similar pattern which can be used by educators as a model of teaching story structure. In each story a problem is presented to Holmes by a client. Holmes then demonstrates his intellectual superiority by drawing inferences about the client. Holmes often asks a client some unexpected questions that seem irrelevant but are proven important later. Holmes locates important clues and hypothesizes concerning the solution and often produces a demonstration at the conclusion when all loose ends are tied up (Linde, 155). During this process the other characters are unable to follow Holmes’ methods until he explained them at the end.

A study completed by Sugarman involving characters in young adult novels concluded that Holmes is a popular figure easily identified with by children. She believed this is so because Holmes is presented as a man with the ability to "think and think well" (Sugarman, 6). She also said, "For children and adolescents who are vulnerable to the economic and physical strength of adults, being smarter is as realistic and achievable goal. A vicarious but reasonable source of power may be the appeal of these mysteries to young readers" (Sugarman, 6).

Doyle’s stories, according to Sugarman, contain strong plotlines and this "enables readers to keep their attention focused and the characters of the detective, victim and suspects are recognizable in their various permutations" (Sugarman, 4).

Dilts, in his book, "Strategies of Genius" believed that although Holmes is a fictitious character, he was "the embodiment of a thinking process that is both authentic and remarkable" (Dilts,155). He said that through a study of the "strategies and patterns associated with this thought process we can identify and develop useful skills that have potentially important and powerful applications in real life" (Dilts, 155).

Holmes is clearly supported in the literature available. It demonstrates that use of Holmes has many possibilities. The stories can attract a wide variety of reading interests. There are opportunities for science and math teachers to use it along with the obvious choice of English. Overall Sherlock Holmes invites teachers to integrate this famous detective’s adventures into their teaching.


Alix, E.M. (1981). Why teach sherlock holmes? Journal of Reading, 25, (2). 164-165.

Atkinson, M. (1980). Sherlock Holmes and "The red-headed league": a symbolic paradigm for the teaching of plot. College Literature, 7, 153-157.

Ballew, H. (1994). Sherlock holmes, master problem solver. The Mathematics Teacher, 87, 596-601

Bishop, R.S. (2000). Why literature. The New Advocate, 13, 73-76.

Flack, J. (1991). Sherlock holmes meets the 21st century. Gifted Child Today, ??, 15-21.

Kellogg, R.L. (1980). Sherlock holmes and the educational process. Teaching of Psychology, 7,41-44.

Linde, G. V.D.(1996). Shaped in the image of reason :the world according to
sherlock. Diogenes, 44, 155-166.

Noronha, P. A, & Sheldon, S.H. (1990). Using classic mystery stories in teaching. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 65 (4), 234-235.

"Starter Holmes." Times Educational Supplement 16 January 2004, sec. T: 14.

Syllabus. ((2002, November 22). Chronicle of Higher Education, 49, p.A12

Sugarman, S. (1995). The Mysterious Case of the Detective as Child
Hero: Sherlock Homes, Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew as Role
Philadelphia, PA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 382935)

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