Principle-Based Learning. Flexible Methodology for More Effective Learning

Adult learnersOver the years, there have been many changes in training philosophy. Some are positive and some not so much. Principle-based learning is a fundamental methodology which has profound effects on how officers are trained.

The theory behind the maxim, Keep it Simple, Stupid, is that too many choices will result in hesitation which may get you killed. Therefore, teach one way to do something and avoid confusion. Those who believe in K.I.S.S. 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 instructor defaults to recipes – one thing for all situations, regardless of context.

This type of training methodology is much easier for instructors to use. The attitude of, my way or the highway, makes it a simple task for the instructor to teach, monitor and assess the performance of students during training. But it doesn’t necessarily benefit the officer once they are out in the operational environment. The way the instructor told them to do it in training may not suit them in the real world, and this may result in the officer, or another person, being harmed in a violent confrontation.

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

Enter the adult learners who 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?

K.I.S.S. 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. K.I.S.S. 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, who have to do critical thinking and decision making on their own, K.I.S.S. tactical training can lead to performance errors.

A real-world training example with firearms is that of kneeling when doing a reload. Officers are taught to kneel when reloading to make them a smaller target. Officers often kneel, in plain view, at three metres from a target in live-fire mode, or from 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 in training. Kneeling is not wrong, but there is no purpose to executing an action that doesn’t make sense, given the context of the situation.

Teaching the principle of minimising yourself as a target, as opposed to teaching the actionof 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 anything else that makes more sense than kneeling before a subject at close range.

For the adult learner, the question, why, is crucial to the acceptance and absorption of the 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 which allows flexibility based on the needs of the training. If the instructor can show you how to increase your control of the firearm and you can meet the training goal of x-many shots in x-many seconds in an x-size target, then what does it matter if the stance is Isosceles or Weaver? The instructor can 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 instructor facilitating the training. Students are encouraged to ask questions and try different options to determine what works best for them. Each student can adapt the principles to fit their style and internalise it in a way that does work best for them and which 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.

Here is a useful training concept. Don’t have just one way of doing things. Teach techniques that have been tested and stood the test of time and performance to those who demonstrate they have the skills to master them. Then, teach alternate techniques to those who can’t execute them well and, for those who demonstrate poor motor ability and aptitude, teach a way that will work for them.

All students are not created equal. Don’t 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 skill levels, from the basic to the advanced student. During the training, encourage experimentation with feedback, when needed. Let them process it for a while without interfering with the learning. Then take questions, establish dialogue and do it some more. After accomplishing the task, move forward.

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. Teach tactical principles and show how to apply the technical skills within the situation. Here, situational awareness and critical thinking skills are emphasised to allow the student to make good choices when it comes to execution. Tactical or emergency reload? Stay here, or move? Take a knee, or not? 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 instructors structure the learning, the environment and the freedom to ask questions, including the all-important, what if?

All officers are not created equal, and one model does not fit everyone. The aim of professional instructors is to develop individuality and flexibility in students, and to encourage analysis and experimentation. A flexible, analytical mindset is crucial to survivability in the operational environment. Present options within established operational and lawful parameters, and let the officers decide for themselves what works best for them. After all, if you don’t trust them to make these choices, why would you trust them with operational duty?

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.