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Improving training through Bloom's Taxonomy

Why police instructors should avoid a cookie-cutter approach to training new officers

By Robert C. Willis

The law enforcement community demands a lot of its members – as it should, given the level of risk associated with the duties we’re sworn to perform. Despite their training, there are a lot of new officers that still fail to meet the standards of knowledge, precision, and confidence expected of most LEOs.

So what is going wrong? Well, one major issue worth considering is that law enforcement’s collective memory is too short. Historical incidents that continue to be helpful to us today are quickly forgotten with each new generation of officers. For instance, how many officers fresh from the academy would remember the FBI shootout of the 80s, or the Newhall incident of the 70s? This collective memory loss creates a system where we are constantly starting from scratch, with each generation of officers learning everything anew.

The revolving door of today’s training academy is full of new instructors who replace older trainers being promoted. Usually, the cycle is so short that the newbie has little or no time to apprentice with a veteran trainer. Therefore, many new trainers simply adopt a cookie-cutter approach.

Unaware of the principles of adult learning and athletic training, the well-meaning novice instructor forges ahead and eventually, despite the hurdles, becomes a fine trainer. However, right around that time they are subsequently promoted out of training.

We can’t eliminate this generational amnesia, but we can learn to minimize it. This is achieved not by changing the way we train new officers (at least not directly), but by changing the way we train new trainers. And that is what this article is all about.

Bloom's taxonomy introduced
This is one of the reasons why Bloom's Taxonomy — a classification of learning objectives within an education — is such a critical tool in law enforcement training. In a nutshell, Bloom's Taxonomy says that there is more than one type of learning. In fact, there are many, each of which can all be grouped into one of three domains:

• Cognitive: mental skills (knowledge)
• Affective: growth in feelings or emotional areas (attitude)
• Psychomotor: manual or physical skills (skills)

Today, many training academies are teaching knowledge and comprehension skills with limited application drills and wondering why they cannot perform the techniques and tactics effectively, efficiently, and appropriately under stress. Well, the fact is that you can’t train someone to 50% efficiency and expect 100% accountability.

The problem is that police trainers (in fact, all psychomotor skills instructors) spend too much time on the first three levels in Bloom's Taxonomy of knowledge, comprehension, and application, i.e., cognitive learning and simple psychomotor skill building. This means trainers are not spending enough time on the real world issues of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation to work towards improving future performance.

By focusing on full range of Bloom's Taxonomy, we can begin to eradicate this problem. We can begin to develop well-rounded trainers who are not just good students but also good teachers, and history can be encoded into the DNA of the future officer.

Scenario-based training and its limitations
With the advent of scenario-based training, police instructors took a big step in the right direction. However, perhaps it was too large a step, as if students were asked to take a final exam in the middle of the semester.

Scenarios require not only a proficient skill set (created by using the first three steps of the "cognitive" domain in Bloom's Taxonomy) but also use of good decision-making while performing primary skills under stress. However, training scenarios often require debriefing or reflection, which is almost impossible in the aftermath of the stress induction that real-life situations produce. No wonder this giant step toward scenario-based training often created pandemonium and an untrained panic response. We now understand that scenario-based training is the test of good training. However, if we approach it too quickly and without proper preparation, we are doomed to failure.

The solution
Isolation exercises that help trainees build simple decision-making skills, bridge the gaps between training modules, and become aware of unconscious competence will lead to good performance in scenario training and finally street proficiency.  (Notice I did not say drills, as isolation exercises have context and blend several sub-skills.)

We could use the "tactical communications to sudden assault" exercises with active countermeasures for example. Or, when faced with a weapon, we could try firearm utilization exercises as solutions to the problem.

I recently assisted the "Doc", i.e. George Thompson, the founder of Verbal Judo, in an instructor development program. Senior trainers were amongst the attendees. Police, corrections, security, and military trainers were present. This was a classroom representing the best of the best as far as trainers go. Yet it was a new revelation to most, if not all, that Bloom's Taxonomy existed and that it provided a success-oriented format that could revolutionize training and produce results that would translate to the street.

All attendees were familiar with the normal classroom mode of training and the "range style" drill format, and most had a degree of familiarity with scenario-based training. Therefore, it was one of those light bulb moments when it was suggested that there was a way to morph skills into appropriate behavior, not only in scenario but on the street.

As trainers, we are in the behavior modification business. We fail if our skills do not make it to the real world. Students do not need us if all we do is give them skills and expect them to figure out when and how to deploy them, how to blend them with other skills, and how to relate to others why they did the right thing.

About the author
Robert C. Willis has been a patrol officer, SWAT team member, field training officer, departmental training officer, defensive tactics coordinator, a recruit academy and in-service academy instructor, a professional officer survival instructor, and a litigation consultant. He has worked with RedMan for more than twenty years and one of the developers of the RedMan Simulation Instructor Development training program. Bob also works at Northeast Wi Technical College in Green Bay. His continued relationship in active law enforcement and "hands-on" instruction keeps Bob contemporary with the needs of current law enforcement agencies and their officers. His life-long commitment to officer safety continues to improve defensive tactics training. For information about the application of Bloom's Taxonomy, please contact Bob Willis at robert.willis@nwtc.edu

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