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Principle-based learning in firearms training

By Ron Avery
PoliceOne Firearms Columnist

Over the years, I have seen many changes in firearms training philosophy. Some are good and some are not so good. I would like to address a fundamental one which has profound effects on how you will train both yourself as well as others.

The theory behind the maxim “Keep it Simple, Stupid” is that too many choices will result in hesitation and hesitation may get you killed. Therefore, teach one way to do something and avoid confusion.

Those who believe in “keep it simple, stupid” typically work from the “lowest common denominator” theory of training. If it is something that the most basic person can’t do well then they will default to the lowest level of competency. This type of trainer will default to “recipes”; one thing for all situations, regardless of context.

Keep it Simple, Stupid training goes something like this:

“Today, we are going to cover the technique of shooting grip and stance. We are going to teach the Weaver Stance because it is the ‘best’ stance for gunfighting.”

Trainer then goes into the explanation and demonstration and has students perform the technique. At some point, a student asks about Modern Isosceles or some other stance.

The trainer replies: “We don’t teach that here. We only do the Weaver Stance because it is the ‘best’ stance available. You will shoot Weaver. Time is short, so let’s move on.”

There are many examples of this type of teaching. Some deal with responses to situations, others with teaching a speed load vs. a tactical load. One way, avoid confusion, keep it simple.

Now, fast forward two years later; same trainer, but he has attended a recent training seminar where he learned new methodology. We have mostly the same group of students with some new students thrown into the mix.

“Today we are going to teach you a new technique. We are going to be teaching Modern Isosceles because it is the ‘best’ stance for gunfighting.”

Now the question is from a student who had been trained in the Weaver Stance two years ago by the same trainer. “I thought Weaver was the best. How come when I asked about Modern Isosceles before you blew me off?”

Do you ever wonder why many people are resistant to learning something new?

The trouble with Keep it Simple, Stupid, is that training isn’t simple and people are not stupid! While many lack formal firearms training and some may have some problems with motor coordination, that doesn’t imply that they are dumb. In fact, with the advent of the internet and a proliferation of various magazines, they are more informed than ever. Now they have questions.

Enter the adult learner:

Adult learners relate what they are learning to their life experiences. They measure what has been said with what they have experienced or learned from other sources.

They want to know “why”, “what”, “how” and “what if.”

Why are we doing this? Why is it important to me? Why should I change? Why should I take time from other pressing matters and pay attention?

What are we going to be doing?

How are we going to be doing it?

What if I like what I was doing before? What if I found something that works better for me? What if I heard something that contradicts what the instructor is saying? What if I did it this way, would it be better for me?

Keep it simple, stupid generally addresses what and how. This is what we are going to be doing and this is how we are doing it. “Why” is usually addressed in a cursory fashion. For what if, there is no real discussion or time given to work with anything else.

Keep it simple, stupid is generally used in mass learning environments where time is short and techniques must be implanted quickly. Not a lot of critical thinking needs to be done in this type of teaching methodology. However, in environments where this type of teaching is commonly done, such as the military, there is usually extensive training of officers who will lead these troops and do much of the critical decision making.

For officers on the street, they have to do critical thinking and decision making on their own. Keep it simple, stupid tactical training can lead to performance errors.

A real world training example that I have seen is taking a knee when doing a reload.

Officers are taught to take a knee when reloading to make them a smaller target. Several times I have had officers take a knee, in plain view, at 3 yards from a target in live fire mode or a subject in a force on force exercise. Negative results were incurred in the force on force episodes.

They had been trained to do that for the above cited reason. Clearly it was detrimental to their health in the training we did. I am not opposed to taking a knee. I am opposed to executing a “recipe” that just doesn’t make sense, given the context of the situation.

Teaching the principle of minimizing yourself as a target as opposed to teaching the recipe of “taking a knee” would mean rapidly assessing the situation and determining the best course of action to accomplish this principle. This could mean moving rapidly to cover or if cover was not available, continuous lateral movement while reloading or transitioning to a second gun or anything else that makes more sense than kneeling for a “coup de grace” with a bad guy at close range.

This is only one example of many so please don’t get fixated on it.

For the adult learner, “why” is crucial to acceptance and absorption of material being taught. The “why” establishes the importance and validity of the material — if the “why” makes sense, there is no resistance. “Why” must be tested in situations, not just addressed in lectures.

“What If” is where training often goes awry. Adult learners need time to process and try things. They want to take the information and check it out for themselves. It is not that they don’t believe you; they just want to judge it for themselves based on their life experience. “If I did it this way, would it be better or not?”

After they have shown that they can handle the firearm safely and have been shown a drill, they don’t need someone talking to them while they are shooting. They need time to work with the material, think things through and establish what works and what doesn’t based on their experiences with the material.

Now we come to principle-based learning. Principle-based learning allows flexibility of technique or tactic based on the needs of the training. If I can show you how to increase your control of the handgun and you can meet the training goal of x many shots in x many seconds in x size target then what does it matter if you shoot Isosceles or Weaver? I will teach you about active footwork, weapon/holster position in relation to your opponent and pertinent information you need to have to understand the why of things.

In principle-based learning, the focus is on presenting the principles involved with the trainer facilitating the training. Students are encouraged to ask questions and try different options to determine what works best for them.

In teaching control of the firearm while shooting at gunfight speeds, there are scientific principles involved that will contribute to superior control. Each student can adapt the principle to fit their style and internalize it in a way that works best for them — it then becomes part of their style. Later experiences will allow them to refine their style over time while still following the original principles. When new information becomes available, it is presented to them and they can make use of this information to further improve their skills.

In reality based training scenarios, situational awareness and critical thinking skills are used to assess the situation and then make the correct choice based on tactical and critical thinking principles, not situation specific techniques and “recipes.”

Here is a training concept that I use in my Academy.

I don’t have just one way of doing things. I will teach what I consider to be the best techniques that I have extensively tested and that have stood the test of time and performance to those who demonstrate they have the skills to master them.

I will then teach alternate techniques to those that can’t execute the above well that will be slightly slower to those who can’t do the first one.

For those who demonstrate poor motor ability and aptitude, I will teach a way that will work for them.

All students are not created equal. I will not handicap a superior performer with inferior technique for the sake of “dumbing down” to the lowest common denominator.

This works for students of all abilities and skills levels from the basic to the advanced student. I have used it successfully in large and small classes for over 29 years now.

During the training period, I encourage experimentation while providing feedback when needed. I let them process it for a while without interfering with the learning. Then I take questions, establish dialogue and do it some more. After we have accomplished the mission of controlling the gun under gunfight speeds with requisite accuracy we move forward.

In the tactical courses I do, I teach tactical principles and show how to apply the technical skills within the situation. Here situational awareness and critical thinking skills are emphasized to allow the participant to make good choices when it comes to execution.

Tactical load or speed load? Stay here or move? Take a knee or not? Should I shoot or not? Critical thinking under duress is the key. Make the mistakes here, do it again, make a better choice. Stay flexible, stay engaged, solve the problem and survive/win the encounter.

The interesting part is that it generally doesn’t take very much longer to do it this way. It is how you structure the learning, the environment and the freedom to ask questions including the all important “what if?”


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