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5 ways to invigorate instruction through connection

How to move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side

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My wife and I decided to try the new burger at a national fast-food chain. Based on the advertisement and posters we had high expectations. When we unwrapped the order we looked at each other with the same thought: “This is it?” As a manager was perusing the dining area I flagged him down and politely observed that what we ordered didn’t look like what was pictured in the poster. “It’s meat and cheese, ain’t it?”

Every day across this great land police officers are seated in rows glancing up from their phones in a darkened room at a big screen with tiny print also being stared at by a narrator and we call the thing “training.” The narrator will be wearing an action polo with the emblem of their agency or company, they will be wearing tactical pants, and they will most likely be white males between the ages of 40 and 50. There will be 10-minute breaks every hour and a pen and paper test at the end of the day. Color certificates will be handed out or emailed at the end, and please complete your course evaluations. It’s meat and cheese, ain’t it?

The typical presentation that we call classroom training is designed to satisfy the record-keepers at the state P.O.S.T. board. The sage on the stage method of conveying information from one brain into another hasn’t changed much since powder-wigged professors pontificated from pulpits to pupils scratching their quill pens on parchment. Changes in training from then to now have not necessarily improved the learning process but have further disengaged students from it.

Connection is key

Instructors can break through the barriers to learning by emphasizing connection in the classroom. Connection is the key to harnessing the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain information. An unfortunate assumption from the belief that people have a single best learning style – visual, auditory, kinetic, etc. – is that memory gets placed in some shelf space in the brain. The brain must network with its various parts in order to construct a relevant, retrievable memory.

Connecting with the instructor

This doesn’t mean making the instructor the focus of the class. We all know that there are dynamic personalities who are engaging and entertaining, and we all know the instructor that tries too hard to be liked. Instructors who join with the learner in focusing on the learning objectives can avoid the highs and lows of instructor charisma. We move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. The instructor will be validating the inherent value of the material rather than assigning value based on their personal appeal, as compelling as that might be.

Connection to the senses

Anytime an instructor can incorporate multiple senses into their lesson planning, the impact can be significant. Asking students to breathe, clap, make a specially written notation, stand up, or move in some way when there is an especially salient point to be made can engage the brain more powerfully than just hearing or seeing the information.

One of the dangers of presentation software is the lack of multi-sensory engagement. While slides can be helpful, it can also be helpful to turn the infernal thing off. It might be wise for an instructor to completely disregard the availability of slides when planning a course, and rely on them later only at points where it would be a valuable part of a multi-sensory lesson plan.

Connecting to emotion and experience

There is an old story of a philosopher who watched a spectacular sunset with his son. He gave his son a sound thrashing. The boy asked his father why he had been beaten and the father explained that he wanted his son to remember the sunset, and now he always would. Obviously, that’s not a recommended strategy, but it does point out that memory attaches to significant feelings.

Because subject matter can often be abstract in the absence of a connecting experience, bringing meaning to the material depends on the learner’s ability to connect the ideas to some past or present reality. Here is where case studies, “war stories” and asking learners to relate their own experiences can bring the material to life.

Questions and discussion are important to making connections. Experienced teachers won’t necessarily tell you that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but any question or “what if” tells the instructor that the student’s brain has determined that the matter is enough of a priority to struggle with it. A question that seems far afield tells the instructor that a new approach is needed to get that student (and most likely others) on to the right train of thought because the learner who seems really off-base is associating the material with something unhelpful to understanding, but significant to the learner.

Connecting to others

Learning takes place more effectively when there is social engagement. In some classes, this is attempted by artificial group discussion assignments which can cause resentment but can yield useful debate and engagement. Verbally expressing commentary on material adds both a sensory and social component to memory, since the brain must now process latent information into language that can be shared and subject to review by others.

Another sometimes uncomfortable demand on students can be the “tell us about yourself” exercise as an ice-breaker. Since this can often devolve into a competitive resume recitation, other creative conversational opportunities should be considered to draw students together.

Connecting with larger truths

Critical thinking is seldom required in classes that are primarily an information dump followed up by a written test. Adding that skill to a class can help create meaning and memory. Consider exploring the ethical aspects of a topic, or questioning why alternatives should be considered, or even whether the information presented is true and absolute. Is there an ethical component to field sobriety tests? Should mandatory domestic violence arrests be reconsidered? Is establishing probable cause inevitably profiling? Is officer wellness a survival skill or a sign of a weak generation?

The old adage in brain science is that what fires together wires together, referring to the neural connections that make up memory. The more places in the brain that instructors can provoke to light up, the more the learner will recall. Escaping from the routine practice of clicking from slide and slide while narrating what is on the big screen can move learners into a fresh understanding of what they must know.

NEXT: 5 steps to improving your demonstrations

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.
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