5 keys to active learning for cops

What’s important now is to stop treating learning as a passive activity

Although there are many things that I wish I had known at the start of my career, one of the key issues is the importance of a commitment to active learning. In law enforcement we talk about active shooters, active patrol, and active life styles. Too often however, we seem to treat learning as a passive activity, something that simply happens over time and too often only when we are assigned to attend training.

Active learning takes many forms, ranging from formalized “traditional” venues like attending classes, all the way to reading in your off time.

We often talk about learning from our experiences. Debriefings are the greatest real-time learning opportunities available to us. The question is what are we learning? Are we truly learning a better way to do things or just learning that “Boy we really screwed that up. Better not do that again?” Or maybe we are learning “Well none of us got hurt so we must have done a good job.”

The true purpose of a debriefing is to learn from the experience so that the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation we will perform at a higher level. The keys then are to stay positive and view it as a learning opportunity. Determine what went well and what needs to be done better in the future. When addressing what we want to improve in the future focus on what to do, as opposed to what not to do ...again.

If you spend just one hour a day reading, that equals 364 hours a year. Measured over a 25-year career, that’s 9,100 hours of learning — the equivalent of nine 40-hour weeks of learning a year. Again, given a 25-year career, this one simple habit equates to more than 227 weeks of learning. Here’s a little more math:

• One book a week is 52 books a year — over a 25 year career that equals 1,300 books
• If you read a book every two weeks that is still 650 books over your career
• Even a book a month equates to 300 books over 25 years

Obtain a library card. Find others who are interested in learning and create a network to share periodicals and books. If you can get a group of four people together and each of you invest $25.00 or $30.00 a year to subscribe to a different periodical, then for less than ten cents a day you have access to four magazine subscriptions a year. And while you should definitely access online resources like PoliceOne, don’t forget to look outside of law enforcement as well, and subscribe to magazines publications like Success or similar publications.

Enroll in Automobile University by turning your daily commutes and travels into mobile educational sessions. The average North American spends one hour per day in their vehicle. Using that time listening to educational and motivational material instead of music equates to a lot of learning. All the numbers related to one hour of reading per day also stand true with listening to educational materials in your car. Combine that with the hour a day of reading and you have 455 forty-hour weeks (18,200 hours) worth of learning in just 25 years.

...Courses: Take advantage of as many in-service courses offered by your agency as possible. The list of law enforcement specific training courses offered by quality trainers around North America is endless. Do your research first and look toward those that are of interest to you.

...Classes: Take one or two University or College classes every year. Over a 25-year career you can earn a degree, a second degree, or an advanced degree. And don’t discount the value of seeking out adult learning programs through your city’s Parks and Recreation Department or your local library.

...Conferences: Every year there are a number of great conferences and courses offered around North America. These include the Legacy of Excellence Conference, Street Survival Seminars, ILEETA, Force Science Institute workshops, IALEFI, and the High Liability Conference — to name a few.

Here are some thoughts with regard to being able to attend the courses, classes, and conferences that interest you but might at first glance appear out of reach.

• Start budgeting early by putting money aside from every paycheck and begin attending conferences early in your career — if you save just $2.50 per day you could save $910.00 in one year, which would easily allow you to attend a conference at least every two years
• Most organizations offer scholarships to help deserving officers attend so seek out and apply for those — once you are in a financial position to do so, then donate to the scholarship funds to help other deserving officers who follow you
• Ask the conference organizers if they offer any price incentives for officers attending at their own expense
• Make a pitch to your supervisor that if you pay your own way and they allow you to attend on company time then you will make a presentation upon your return and share some of the key elements you learned
• Share any handouts or other materials you acquire at the conference — if you show a willingness to attend at your own expense and then share the information, the agency may be more willing to pay you to attend future courses and conferences

Finally, seek others who have been there and done that. Find mentors and role models who have already accomplished what you hope to achieve and ask their guidance and advice. Too often we shy away from this powerful learning tool thinking that people will think we are sucking up. The reality is that the majority of those people would be happy to share their experiences, their failures and mistakes, and their lessons learned. If they are not willing to share then they were not a good choice for a role model and we can learn from that and move on.

One Example
During more than four decades as a pilot with the Air Force and commercial airlines, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger had to weather his share of storms and mechanical glitches. When questioned by Katie Couric about his heroic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, Sullenberger credited his past experiences for giving him the maturity to steer the plane. He replied:

“One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15, 2009 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

We all need to learn from Captain Sullenberger and start making deposits at the start of our career.

About the author

Brian Willis is an internationally-recognized thought leader, speaker, trainer, and writer. Brian serves as the Deputy Executive Director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and is President of the training company Winning Mind Training. Brian was a full time police officer with the Calgary Police Service from 1979 to 2004. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution and commitment to Officer Safety in Canada and was named Law Officer Trainer of the Year for 2011.

Brian can be reached via e-mail at brian.willis@policeone.com.

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