According to Marine Corps Colonel Matthew Lopez, “To teach young Marines and your soldiers how to act, it’s even more important to teach them how to think” (Macleod, 2009). This applies to the training of police recruits as well. In order to teach them how to think, instructors must develop the recruit’s problem-solving skills early in their academy training. Nowhere is this more applicable than in defense and arrest tactics training (DAAT).
When querying field-training officers and supervisors about the most common problems experienced by new recruits we often hear things like “failure to perceive danger,” “failure to make a decision,” and “inability to problem-solve.” This may in part be a result of technique-based tactics training. At the San Jose, California Police Academy, we have adopted solution-based defense and arrest tactics training. We are less concerned with the exact technique and place more emphasis on pattern recognition, schema development, decision making, and problem-solving tactics. This is not unlike contemporary firearms instructors who, while they may have a preferred shooting platform, are more concerned with accurate fire than they are with any particular posture a student may take. In order to accelerate the recruit’s skill development, once he or she understands the “fundamental concepts” of a tactic, technique, or procedure we quickly depart the sterile mat room and move to more realistic environments to train and practice.
This training approach was reinforced when we had a research project somewhat forced upon us several years ago. Our academy class was so large that we were required to split DAAT training into two separate teaching days. One student group performed numerous blocked and constant practice repetitions of techniques strictly in a mat-room environment. The second group had far fewer repetitions of those same techniques, but they occurred in a random and variable manner while interspersed with combative skills in novel environments. This second group spent considerable time practicing their skills in scenario-based vignettes.
While not a scientifically controlled experiment, the outcome of this split-day training was interesting. During skills-testing at both the mid-term and final exams, both groups performed similarly. However, during scenario testing where the recruit was required to perform in a “situational environment” with role-players under circumstances that were “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,” the group that had been exposed to less rigid, open-skill, novel, and solution-oriented training generally fared better. Cognitive and sports psychologists will not be surprised by these results.
Adults want to know the “why” of what they are being taught, and how that applies to what they will be doing with that information on the job. Adults bring mature reasoning skills to the learning environment. Trainers must stimulate the recruit to use those reasoning skills as soon as possible in the training cycle. Telling an adult how to perform a task without establishing the relevancy of the task to job application is simply indoctrination without setting context.
Relevancy means understanding context. Yes, we need to teach content: how to perform a search, how to apply a pair of handcuffs to a suspect’s wrists, etc. However, there are hundreds of ways to accomplish this and we refuse to be dogmatic about technique. If a recruit finds it necessary to modify a technique (or we find it necessary to modify it for him) and he gets the job done in a safe, efficient, and effective manner, then he has succeeded.
One method to demonstrate relevancy (not to mention it is simply fun for the student) is to incorporate “problem-based” learning exercises when possible. For instance, we direct them to perform a task without instruction (such as handcuffing or searching a fellow recruit), and ask them to develop a solution. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, the recruit is required to actively problem-solve and think of possible solutions. Next, the motivation factor is kicked up a notch as the student quickly realizes that even seemingly simple tasks aren’t. Additionally, you will find interesting results and observe the “training via Hollywood” effect in action. Once they see that applying a pair of handcuffs is not an effortless task, or finding a hidden weapon on a suspect is actually quite difficult, they will understand “what’s in it for me?” In other words- the why of the training.
Simultaneous to developing their attention, interest, and motivation, we instruct the recruits in the strategies, concepts, and tactics, universal to subject-control and officer survival. A training cycle familiar to many is Gary Klugiewicz’s emphasis on demonstration, explanation, repetition, and simulation. As documented in a 2005 Force Science transmission, mirror neurons will influence how the student performs a skill. The recruit’s mirror neurons are activated when they observe a physical skill or problem-solving strategy being demonstrated.
According to Dr. Bill Lewinski, the study of mirror neurons suggests "profound implications about how police officers need to be trained.”
Modeling "ideal" behavior (in the demonstration phase) is an important component of teaching. Through the impact of activated mirror neurons on the brain, watching in detail how an instructor performs… improves the student’s ability to reproduce those skills.
Kenneth Murray, author of the popular reality-based training textbook Training at the Speed of Life points out that the power of "excellence modeling" has been understood for several decades, "provided you are paying attention and are interested in what's being demonstrated," Lewinski says (Force Science Institute).
Without belaboring the point, a close reading of the last several paragraphs discloses a recurring theme: Attention and interest. We need to get the student’s attention by making them understand the life-saving value of the skills they will be learning. Then, we need to keep their interest by providing scientifically-validated and challenging training.
Coming Soon, Part Two
In part two of this two-part series, I will examine how skills can be practiced in blocked, variable, constant or random patterns or some combination thereof. Watch for that two short weeks from today.
Force Science Institute. (2005). Hot new area of brain research offers hope for better training, sharper street smarts. Force Science News, #25.
Macleod, M. (2009). An interview with the lion of Al Qaim. Marine Corps News Room, 09.20.2009.
Plass, J. L., Moreno, R., Brunken, R. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Schmidt, Richard A., Wrisberg, Craig A. (2000). Motor learning and performance: a problem-based learning approach (2nd ed.). Champaing, IL: Human Kientics.