Improving police training: Should we change subject matter or teaching methods?

Learning involves more than exposure to the material on a lesson plan

More training. More hours. More PowerPoints. More time away from the streets and numbing the seats. More consultant fees. More unproven curricula. More public relations theatre for press releases. How should police trainers and policymakers respond to the police reform movement? Stick to the basic principles of learning.

Be data-informed when choosing curricula

Not every good or appealing idea is based on well-tested facts. Some of the current demands for changes in police training are based on ideology, not data.

Photo/City Colleges of Chicago

Police leaders and trainers should ask:

  • Does a particular de-escalation strategy work?
  • Does empathy training slow response time to lethal attacks?
  • Is implicit bias training founded on research or assumptions?
  • Does the problem being addressed exist in statistical outcomes or only in perception?
  • Is the training intended to develop skills or to indoctrinate an ideology?

The questions of whether a type of training is needed and if it will be effective in resolving a performance deficit should be resolved by research and not transient political demands. Show me the facts.

Use sound educational principles

Take one podium and add several rows of chairs. Mix in one whiteboard and projection screen and 10,000 PowerPoint slides. Add a 10-minute break every hour, with one multiple-choice test at the end. These are the classic ingredients of police academy training. It may be the perfect assembly line for factory-produced instruction, but not so great for actual learning.

Some subjects lend themselves to lecture, but a goal to replace the "sage on the stage" with the "guide on the side" will enhance student engagement and retention. Learning is more than exposure to the material on a lesson plan. Learners must be able to apply the information provided to them in real-world conditions.

We know that learning that leads to application is enhanced when the material has meaning to the learner based on context and the learner's pre-existing knowledge, social engagement, the use of multiple senses, repetition and emotional connection. Effective trainers make use of visual aids, case studies and war stories, meaningful group discussions and embedded review.

Define learning objectives

One definition of learning is a change in behavior. The knowledge and skills transmitted in a course affect how the learner performs. If there is no performance result, learning did not happen. A frequent flaw in written lesson plans is that the learning objectives fail to prescribe a behavior change. Outcomes are often phrased as “the learner will know, or recognize, or recite” without defining how that would be meaningful in their career. Learning objectives are often keyed to the multiple-choice tests over the material, rather than to meaningful evaluations that allow a learner to demonstrate a skill as a result of the course.

Establishing realistic measures of learning based on the course objectives can replace two outmoded common practices: paper and pencil testing and measuring learning by hours. Our factory-based methods have embedded the notion that a certain number of hours will tell us how much learning is to take place. That same mentality tells us that a score on a test predicts future performance in applying knowledge. Experienced trainers know that these relationships are theoretical and not actual.

Facilitate synthesis

Law enforcement training is usually a system of blocks of instruction over a subject. This silo approach is like having a class cut and paint puzzle pieces that they will put together at some future time when on the job. The ability to put independent knowledge together to form a useful whole is the very heart of policing. The graduate will be making car stops, but did their arrest control instructors talk to the driver instructors? Did the constitutional law instructors talk to the firearms instructors? Do field training officers talk to the academy classroom instructors? Full integration of knowledge and learning objectives across a curriculum can help learners understand the complex interconnections of theory and practice.

Active learning

Any time physical movement can be incorporated in the learning process, it should. Even old-fashioned note-taking with pen on paper will improve retention.

Trainers in the skills areas of “drivin,’ shootin’ and fightin’” are not the only educators with active learning opportunities. Active learning can also involve engaged discussions, questioning, analyzing case studies, developing mini lessons to share and relating how some teaching point might be relevant in a field situation. Asking learners why a particular point is being presented can prompt them to find meaning and connection to that material.

The use of scenarios is typically limited to use of force lessons, but can be used in many subjects. Thanks to the proliferation of videos on the internet, you can find an application of almost any topic during a real-world event.

Staged scenarios with students or trainers taking roles in the scene are frequently poorly constructed, poorly executed and focus on a win/lose outcome that can leave learners trained in failure. Scenario training should be constructed with care and focused on anticipatory decision-making, not quick drawing.

Simulation technology in training has become very advanced over the past few decades, but technology should meet a demonstrated need. From slide projectors to virtual reality, technology should be used because it suits the performance objectives of the training, not because the technology was searching for a purpose.

Unfortunately, there is little room for real innovation in police training, even with our current state of knowledge about learning and human performance. POST regulators still demand traditional hour counts, presentation materials and lesson plans. Without their permission, law enforcement training will remain stagnant.

NEXT: Why police academies are letting recruits down (and how to fix it)

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