My journey of learning about education, training, and human development has been one of casual, self-navigated exploration. I have zero formal education on the topic. So how did it start?
When I was 21 years old, I dropped out of college to accept an earlier-than-expected offer to become a police officer. Within a handful of years, I found myself in the training unit as a firearms instructor - chosen because I was good shooter, not because of any educational or learning background. This is still a fairly typical practice in policing - take those who know the content & assume they can teach it to others. I found most all of the coursework to become a trainer in policing to essentially be “speech class” and woefully missing vital concepts of instructional design, curriculum development, integration of content, delivery methods, and testing/evaluating
As such, I’ve been forced to seek out ideas, theories, and research on my own...and experiment with them like a tinkerer at a workbench. I read blogs and research summaries... and watched college lectures and TED Talks online. But it wasn’t until I started learning about complexity, complex adaptive systems, and adaptability that all the pieces began falling in place.
Much of police training had been industrialized, technical, and mechanical in format. It was highly structured, standardized, and repeatable. There were objective, observable expectations in how teams moved in formations. Shooting scores were tabulated against arbitrarily-chosen time and accuracy standards. Laws, statutes, and policies needed to be memorized. Every attempt was made to develop an if-then checklist response.
Police training was also extremely fragmented into subject matter. The attorneys teaching Constitutional law were not the ones moderating use of force scenarios. The firearms instructors were not the ones teaching report writing or traffic stop tactics. The defensive tactics (physical fighting) trainers weren’t delivering a consistent message with the mental health clinicians or the attorneys.
Training was very much rooted in demonstration, compliance, regurgitation, rehearsal, choreography, and reproduction. Very little actual sense-making or decision-making was demanded of the student officer. As long as student officers did what the instructor wanted, the student was deemed certified or qualified.
But despite the high volume of training, we continued to see failure after failure in the field. Not often failures in technical, physical performance...but rather in situational awareness, in making sense of confusion, and in decision-making where a black-or-white answer did not exist. When real life added or shifted a variable, it was as if the officers were ill-equipped to handle the fresh twist in the situation.
My evaluation of overall training environment: magnificent at preparing officers to handle the predictable, consistent, similar, technical challenges that had uniform responses or solutions...but terrible at operating in uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty, and chaos where no such established protocol or intervention existed.
So what was it we, as training staff, do to more effectively develop thinkers, rather than doers?
That’s where the complexity and systems thinking came in.
Complexity can be loosely and briefly defined as a system or environment where the variables are unknown, unknowable, emergent, interdependent, or antagonistic. Acting within complex systems requires the actor fall back upon mental models, values, and priorities to find an appropriate balance in unanticipated changes, tradeoffs, and side effects. This is hardly a place for static, industrial functions and processes.
We rely more heavily on case study method, where we analyze, debrief, and critique real-life situations. The feedback methods we use provoke students into giving their perceptions of the situation, challenges, opportunities, and available intervention or resolution options. Because there are no clear answers to these complex challenges, many of these studies result in healthy, critical debate between students. Students likewise become more familiar with their teammates and co-workers which helps in team expectations and communication in the field. This exploits the power of storytelling, imagery, and pattern development or recognition. Some applications also include student-led formats.
We now integrate different disciplines, topics, and specialty curriculum together. This builds not only links and consistency between them, but opens the door for more robust decision-making opportunities in simulations and scenario exercises. Student officers no longer know the “solution” to the problems based on the mere title or topic of the course. This adheres to learning theories of spacing, frequency, and interleaving, as opposed to (isolated) blocking.
This weaves into reality-based scenarios where student officers are given opportunities to engage in realistic situations with interactive role players and actors. The planning and debriefing components rely on a non-linear, cyclical, double-loop “what did you know/believe/think at the time” style. This blends in theories of problem-based learning and other experiential models.
In cases of technical proficiency, memorization, or other “info dump” situations, we transitioned to blended learning strategies. We design and distribute e-learning modules where student officers watch videos, review policies and laws, are familiarized with new technical procedures, become (re-)acquainted with forms, and take electronic tests on objective content. This multi-media approach again uses theories of visual design, spacing and is respectful of scheduling and reduces time spent in lecture. We include our student officers into the development of these e-learning modules and test creation, to develop them into our next generation of trainers.
What have we seen, as far as result in the field?