Making Police Training Stick...and Learning How to Learn

Learning how to learnA Mind for numbersMake it stick

The last month I have read several books on experiential learning that i feel would be of great value to police trainers.  Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning , by Peter C. Brown (Author), Henry L. Roediger III (Author), Mark A. McDaniel and A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens both by Barbara Oakley PhD. 

Don't let the titles fool you they books are about methodologies of learning. How to develop people. All three reference numerous sources to include Robert and Elizabeth Bjork of UCLA, Learning and Forgetting Lab whose mission is in Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice. The primary goal of this research, which is funded by the James S. McDonnell foundation, is to promote learning and memory performance within educational contexts through the investigation of principles in cognitive psychology. Studies address issues of transfer-appropriate and material-appropriate processing between encoding and retrieval. Applying tests in order to enhance learning and determining the desirable amount and timing of feedback regarding an individual’s memory performance are methods that are currently under investigation.

In a recent piece I wrote about police training shifting from a training mind-set to a learning mind-set I talk about how there are no magic bullets, no panaceas, no school solutions to even teaching. If we want to improve the decision-making, adaptability and other core skills, (sense-making, problem solving, meta-cognition and attention control) then we must change the way police learn from the current approach which is inward thinking process-focused, primarily based on “competency theory” of learning, first adapted by public schools back at the turn of the 20th century to a new approach, which is outward, effect/outcome-focused) more aligned with the outcomes we are seeking.

Making the training more difficult helps cops build confidence in their abilities to frame and solve problems and they retain the knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge to real world conditions longer than traditional industrial aged teaching methods provide.

"Improving Versatility The retrieval difficulties posed by spacing, interleaving, and variation are overcome by invoking the same mental processes that will be needed later in applying the learning in everyday settings. By mimicking the challenges of practical experience, these learning strategies conform to the admonition to “practice like you play, and you’ll play like you practice,” improving what scientists call transfer of learning, which is the ability to apply what you’ve learned in new settings." from "Make It Stick" by Peter C. Brown

Facilitated learning allows us to expand our learning methodologies and improves versatility and adaptability by learning through experimentation and mistakes.

"Yet in our Western culture, where achievement is seen as an indicator of ability, many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them. The aversion to failure may be reinforced by instructors who labor under the belief that when learners are allowed to make errors it’s the errors that they will learn. This is a misguided impulse. When learners commit errors and are given corrective feedback, the errors are not learned. Even strategies that are highly likely to result in errors, like asking someone to try to solve a problem before being shown how to do it, produce stronger learning and retention of the correct information than more passive learning strategies, provided there is corrective feedback. Moreover, people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery." from "Make It Stick" by Peter C. Brown

Academic research has shown that units lower the risk of mistakes through unit cohesion.  Units that drill, practice decision making using scenario-based training, and critique one another develop a shared way of thinking –not group think –and an environment of trust that spawns lower level decision making and innovation.

Learning emphasizes the “Why”. Traditional police training emphasizes the “what” and “how” but too often neglects the why. For instance, every cop knows what cover and concealment is, but surprisingly few know when it might make sense to use it. They therefore avoid doing it at all or they tend to do it inappropriate circumstances. Learning philosophy builds in the “why” from the beginning and reinforces it at every step requiring the student to solve problems and newly acquired knowledge and skills.

The best way to speed your learning is to avoid lazy learning. If you spend to much time on material you already know, you won't have time to learn new material.

"This idea of focusing on the harder stuff is called deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is how you become and expert more quickly." ~Barbara Oakley 

Its important not just to practice a given technique or skill. It is also important to practice choosing between techniques and skills. this is true  in learning all sorts of topics. Practicing different aspects of the skill you are trying to learn is called interleaving. Simply put i call it blending our training as it unfolds in the real world.

Don Vandergriff often says we need move from the Industrial age learning model to better and proven learning models. They exist, why do we refuse to evolve despite the evidence in both learning science and military history over the last 10 years? In a recent five day Mission Command workshop Don Vandergriff just ran with the USMC Officer Candidate School where these ideas centered on facilitation and experiential learning took place came up with this illustration of the shift from the status quo and current approach to USMC training (also prevalent in police training) to Outcomes based learning.

This figure was created by the recent students from the Tactics Instruction Section at USMC OCS. They compared what they currently do with learning (referred to as training) and what they learned during the week of 5-9 November 2018. To the left as you view the chart is the current approach to learning, born out of the competency theory of education adapted by all public schools in 1905.

Training to learning

If policing wants to improve the decision-making, adaptability and other core policing skills, then we must change the way cops learn from the current approach (which is internal process-focused, primarily based on the “Competency theory”) to a new approach (which is externally, effect/outcome-focused) more aligned with the outcomes we are seeking.

A conversation with don Vandergriff he stated that "a well tried and proven Learning Philosophy policing could evolve to is called Outcomes Based Training and Education (OBT&E), now called Outcomes-Based Learning (OBL). The doctrine of OBL stresses the development of intangible attributes such as initiative, critical thinking, judgement, and responsibility. The Learning philosophy uses observable outcomes to measure the self-development and effectiveness of Learning. More importantly, it uses those outcomes to develop more adaptive police officers who are better prepared for the rigors of 21st Century policing."  

Don has a new article coming out soon on this whole experience at Marine Corps OSC, which i will share here once its published.

Stay Oriented!

Fred