Why you should give your police trainees problems, not solutions

While tradition may be the glue that holds values in place, it can prevent innovative thinking — it can stifle progress and ultimately lead to poor organizational performance


As police instructors and coaches, do we deliver the training necessary to prepare cops for every battle they may face? Are we creating a culture of training that will last a lifetime? How do we ensure that the training we provide is timeless?

Does the traditional style of delivery ensure that the intended product of our training — officers with improved human performance — can problem solve effectively in any given situation? 

These are questions I often ask in the Instructional Leadership classes we teach, and I pose them to you here as I ask you to consider implementing Problem Based Learning (PBL) in policing.

A Teaching Style with Two Goals
The two leading experts in the field — Gerard Cleveland and Greg Saville — characterize PBL by as a “different teaching style that has two goals.” The first goal is to increase the odds that a skill will be retained — the second goal is to transfer knowledge.

In traditional content-driven training, trainees acquire information from instructors — trainees learn mounds of instructor-provided information in a short time. If the instructors don’t provide the information, trainees will lack that knowledge.

In contrast, in problem-based learning (PBL), trainees apply knowledge as they acquire it. PBL includes the opportunity to solve problems according to an individual’s learning style (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) as well as their own multiple intelligences.

The seven most common intelligences — as defined by Howard Gardner — are linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, and spatial. Trainees who know their learning styles can compensate for weaknesses and capitalize on strengths, for themselves and for others. 

PBL also develops critical thinking skills. Trainees must employ a process — PBL stages — to work through a problem. This process can be used to address any problem. PBL emphasizes skill development in multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution — all of which are necessary for any career. 

Using Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning offers a return to traditional training and education and moves away from lecturing, which has produced dangerously passive learners who will not progress to higher-order thinking skills unless trainers change their ways.

PBL employs many learning techniques, particularly the use of problems that mimic real-life situations. These problems are not easily solved and have many possible answers. 

For example, a class of recruits may deal with a traffic stop that involves uncooperative occupants, drugs, and an unsafe environment. Because every call may require a different response, PBL problems require learners to consider a variety of solutions.

Because the problems are not easily solved, they challenge the student and promote critical thinking skills. Because students work in collaborative groups and follow a five-step process, they develop organizational skills. The students will need these primary skills — critical thinking, organization, collaboration — throughout their careers.

PBL’s Five Sequential Steps
Step 1 — Ideas: Create a cohort group from the class members (if in an academy setting) and generate a list of ideas about how the problem may be solved. If on the street, use community members, other members of the department, and government and social agencies to act as resources. The training officer should act as facilitator.

Step 2 — Known Facts: Discuss and record all known facts related to the problem. This helps clarify the issues.

Step 3 — Learning Issues: Generate a refined second list of learning issues so the trainee is essentially answering the question, “What do I need to know to solve this problem?” 

Once this list is created, the learners find appropriate resources, some of which are provided by the facilitators, and learn the material they have listed. How they learn it is up to the group and the individual learner. 

Facilitators guide and support the group during this phase and suggest ideas that the group may have overlooked. The members then review all the material they have just collected and revisit their original ideas. The group decides whether they have any more known facts or further learning issues to deal with concerning the problem. If not, they move on to the next stage.

Step 4 — Action Plan: The group determines how to respond to the original problem using the material members learned during Step 3.

In effect, they apply their own current research to a contemporary problem and develop an action plan.

Step 5 — Evaluation: The group has a rubric — or evaluation — to use to stay on task and achieve their objectives. Evaluation is ongoing, with input from peers as well as the facilitators.

Self-evaluation plays a large role in the entire learning experience. Instructors should remember that good teaching starts with evaluation. Too many instructors give the test — or evaluation — only at the end. By offering the evaluation (rubric) at the beginning, instructors give their learners a roadmap to success. 

So, What’s the Problem with Implementing PBL in LE?
Some people are simply resistant to change. This is especially true when they do not fully understand the program, system or group and when they themselves were not consulted about the decision to change. Police officers and administrators have developed a keen skill set of suspicion and are oftentimes untrusting of things they do not fully understand.

Though some do not like change, everyone likes improvements. If an agency fails to see a need for improvement in their organizational performance (people, processes, and environment) then they simply cannot be reached and will live and die with status quo.

Further, PBL does not adequately serve the needs of the egocentric instructor — using a participant-centered approach is extremely challenging.

These are just a few of the challenges that we as a culture have to overcome in order to move forward. The pondering thoughts remain. Are we keeping up with the demands of the learners? Does it matter to us as instructors? If there were a more effective way, would it not be worth at least an exploration?

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About the author

Lou Ann Hamblin is a twenty-one year law enforcement veteran and trainer. She co-owns LouKa Tactical Training located in Michigan. As a privately owned company LouKa has the largest female cadre of instructors in the United States, proudly serving the public safety community since 1999. Visit her site or Contact Lou Ann.

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