The operational environment can be a dangerous place, with interpersonal conflict and violence being very real potential risks to officers as well as the public. Officers require practical solutions to resolve situations and confrontations, and that requires the ability to act from the basis of a planned approach involving strategic thinking. To teach officers how to act, it is important to teach them how to think and, to do that, instructors must develop officers’ problem-solving skills early in the training process. Nowhere is this more relevant than in operational safety training.
Common issues experienced by new officers often include aspects like a failure to perceive danger, failure to make decisions and the inability to problem solve, which may be a result of technique-based training. Solution-based operational safety training is less concerned with an exact technique and places more emphasis on pattern recognition, decision making and problem-solving tactics. This is similar to contemporary firearms instruction which is more concerned with accurate fire than with any particular posture officers may take. To accelerate officer skill development, once they understand the fundamental concepts of a tactic, technique or procedure, they quickly depart the sterile training room and move to more realistic environments to practise.
This training approach is reinforced via results from an agency research project. Due to an overly large group size, operational safety training was split into two separate days. One group of officers performed numerous blocked and constant practice repetitions of techniques strictly in a gym environment. The second group had far fewer repetitions of the same techniques, but they occurred in a random and variable manner while interspersed with combative skills in operational environments. The second group spent considerable time practising their skills in scenario-based experiences.
Whilst the split-approach training was not a scientifically controlled experiment, the outcome was interesting and showed results that would not surprise cognitive and sports psychologists. During skills testing in the mid and final assessment periods, both groups performed similarly. However, during scenario testing where officers were required to perform in a situational environment with role players under circumstances that were tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving, officers that had been exposed to less rigid, open-skill, novel and solution-oriented training generally fared better.
Officers want to know the why of what they are being taught and how that applies to what they will be doing with that information on the job. They bring mature reasoning skills to the learning environment, so instructors must stimulate officers to use those reasoning skills as soon as possible in training. Telling an officer how to perform a task without establishing the relevancy of the task to job application is indoctrination without context.
Relevancy means understanding context. Content still needs to be taught – how to perform a search, how to apply a pair of handcuffs and so on – but there are numerous ways to accomplish this and instructors should avoid being overly rigid about technique. If officers modify a technique and get the job done in a safe and effective manner, then they have succeeded in that task.
One method to demonstrate relevancy is to incorporate problem-based learning exercises when possible. For instance, direct them to perform a task without instruction (for example, handcuffing or searching) and ask them to develop a solution. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, officers are required to actively problem solve and think of possible solutions. Next, the motivation factor is included as officers quickly realise that even simple tasks often are not. Once they see that applying handcuffs is not an effortless task, or finding a hidden weapon on subjects can be quite difficult, they will understand the personal relevance.
Simultaneous to developing their attention, interest and motivation, instruct officers in the strategies, concepts and tactics that are universal to subject control and officer safety. A training cycle familiar to many is the emphasis on demonstration, explanation, repetition and simulation. Mirror neurons will influence how officers perform a skill. Their mirror neurons are activated when they observe a physical skill or problem-solving strategy being demonstrated.
The study of mirror neurons suggests profound implications about how officers need to be trained. Modelling ideal behaviour in the demonstration phase is an important component of teaching. Through the impact of activated mirror neurons on the brain, watching in detail how an instructor performs improves an officer’s ability to reproduce those skills.
The power of excellence modelling has been understood for several decades, provided officers are paying attention and are interested in what is being demonstrated. Instructors need to get the officers’ attention by making them understand the life-saving value of the skills they will be learning. Then, their interest must be maintained by providing scientifically validated and challenging training.
To develop long-term memory, motor programs and problem-solution schematics, the science of cognition and motor skill development should be incorporated into training. The learning experience should be structured in accordance with contemporary principles of motor learning and performance. Skills can be practised in blocked, variable, constant or random patterns, or some combination thereof. Studies have demonstrated that for both cognitive and motor skill training, a schedule of variable and random practice proves more effective for long-term skill retention.
Blocked practice is a sequence in which officers work on a single skill for multiple repetitions before moving on to the next. In random training, officers minimise consecutive repetitions of a task and intersperse it with the practice of multiple tasks during the same practice period; skills are practised in no particular order. While it may seem intuitive to master a skill before moving to another, experiments have established that practising in a random manner more effectively develops long-term retention of the material.
Officers learning new skills most likely need some blocked practice before moving to random practice. The extent to which officers remain in the blocked schedule depends upon innate individual traits, prior knowledge, motivation, attention and, most importantly, the simplicity or difficulty of the task. Instructors can influence most of these variables by structuring training in an efficient and effective manner, utilising motivating coaching skills and minimising the cognitive load of the material by simplifying the tactics, techniques and procedures taught to officers. As soon as officers have a fundamental understanding of how to perform a technique, random practice should be incorporated.
Officers may feel more comfortable practising a single skill for multiple repetitions believing that they are beginning to get it, and may become frustrated when just at that point instructors move on to another task. Since officers have a need to understand why they are doing what they are doing, instructors should explain the science of motor skill development to mitigate that frustration.
To improve officers’ problem-solving and adaptability skills, tasks should be practised in a variable manner. Variability refers to practice sequences that introduce a number of variations of a particular skill during a training session. Variation refers to both surface features (context) as well as structural features (content) of tasks. Since the ultimate goal of instruction is the transfer of skills from the learning environment to the real world, content and context of a task should be practised in reality-based surroundings.
An example is teaching handcuffing. In a constant practice regimen, officers perform their instructed handcuffing technique in isolation. They learn a single method for applying handcuffs with no problem-solving or environmental challenges. In fact, they may be required only to apply the handcuffs from a single approach angle.
Sterile practice in a gym environment is not realistic training. Problem-solving scenarios in real-world environments (specificity of learning principle) must be incorporated into practice sessions in order to prepare officers for the real world. Instructors can promote this realistic training by varying task requirements. First, ensure that officers are forced to practise their handcuffing technique from various approach angles and know how to apply the technique to either hand. This would be an example of context variability, since the underlying procedures to accomplish the task remain the same. Then vary the content by changing the environmental considerations.
Using 3-dimensional training environments such as hallways and Sim-houses, officers discover that techniques they learned in a sterile gym area do not translate to confined spaces, operating from behind cover, or in cluttered rooms where backup officers cannot attain a perfect cover position. Incorporating a problem-based learning precept, officers are encouraged to develop options to adapt their initial training to solve the current problem in the more realistic environment.
Some officers can discover practical answers to handcuffing in a more realistic environment. Instructors should be looking for solutions that are reasonable and satisfactory, not operationally perfect. Other officers discover that the cognitive load of developing problem solutions is too great and interferes with learning. At any stall point in learning and problem solving, instructors should use one of several coaching strategies to further the instruction, such as worked examples, part problem solving, prompts, hints, inquiries or direct instruction.
Public safety work involves open skills, or skills that are performed in an environment that is unpredictable or in motion and that requires officers to adapt their actions in response to dynamic properties of the environment. Many instructors train officers in a manner that is consistent with closed skills, or skills performed in predictable and stationary environments that allow officers to plan their actions in advance, and far from the real-world environment of operations. A by-product of a random and variable training model in an open-skill environment is a level of stress adaptation.
The impact of closed-skill training has been measured by asking officers to self-report on their experiences. Officers assigned to closed-skill, constant and blocked training methodology state that they felt less prepared and more stressed about scenario testing during academy training, became bored and did not feel challenged during training due to the monotony of the more-reps instructional strategy, had difficulty transferring their gym-based theoretical knowledge into the practical knowledge needed for scenarios, and felt less confident in their ability to improvise and adapt to operational situations that they expect to encounter on the job.
Blocked and constant training works best for short-term memory retention. If the desired outcome is to teach officers a skill one day that will be tested on the next, then have officers perform mass repetitions of the skill. If the goal is to develop a skill to be retained for many years, such as operational safety, then apply variety and randomness to the training cycle.
New material is quickly forgotten if not reinforced, so review time should be strategically incorporated in practice schedules. High-risk and high-frequency skills needed by officers are more readily retained with frequent and short practice sessions distributed throughout training. Start training sessions with a review of the tasks most frequently performed by officers. After breaks, review new material that was presented in the previous instructional block. Performance rapidly improves with this strategy, as does officer interest, confidence and motivation.
With appropriate skill modelling and application of the scientific principles of adult learning and motor skill development, instructors can demonstrate relevancy, motivate officers to take responsibility for learning and develop their ability to transfer skills to different situations. By developing and applying simulations to the learning cycles, officers develop a problem-solving attitude and have an opportunity to adapt to the stressors presented in the event.
To develop the problem-solving operational safety skills of officers, agencies should deliver content while remembering that it is equally important to set context. Transition training from the gym to hallways, stairs and vehicles, set up scenarios that challenge officer skills early, and make the scenarios realistic and solvable. Instructors should guide officers to an acceptable resolution, not demand a pre-programmed solution – they are not going to be there on the job to assist them.
Agencies should teach officers how to problem solve – how to think – and be confident that they have given their officers the best training upfront to prepare them properly for operational reality.