Experiential Learning a Big Part of The New Recruit Officer Course In Massachusetts: Looks Promising!

I attended a meeting today on the new Recruit Officer Course and was very excited to see what the Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC) working together with State Subject Matter Experts along with John Blum of Force Concepts a consulting company based out of North Carolina and Tim Bonadies Founder of Law Enforcement Learning out of South Bend, Indiana. Both specializes in adult learning methods and is run by those with police officers and military experience. My personal and professional opinion on their efforts over the last two years, developing this program for the state of Massachusetts is, they have done an outstanding job.

This Recruit Officer Course takes a holistic approach to the planning, preparation, execution, and assessment of education and training that goes beyond task proficiency and incorporates a focus on developing critical attributes in police officers and by emphasizing the “why” behind actions and the consequences of decisions within a wider context. It’s also a strategy meant to challenge us to research, continually learn and seek understand the problems officers and our community face day to day.  Rote learning is no longer sufficient to produce the kind of problem-solving policing, needs for today’s complicated challenges.

Police training has for far too long has been both inconsistent and stagnant. Most training programs have settled for mere adequacy in individual and small-team skills—we can do better. Police officers often had little understanding of the reasons tasks were performed a particular way. Tim Bonadies asked today what we remembered from our days in the academy. I could not remember much other than graduating and recalling how I had a never ending question when I finally hit the streets. That question: NOW WHAT? I got through the academy but never really understood the WHY behind what I had learned.

Teaching people what to think creates police officers are overly reliant on process, not focused enough on results (true in training, but also in planning and leading).  Most institutional training had a mechanical, check-the-block feel and was focused on throughput governed by inputs (hours, ammo, etc.) rather than outcomes or results.  This type of training lead to a pronounced tendency at all levels of policing to control by rules—each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, etc.)

Training methodology (mostly rote learning and lecture), combined with too many rules, and stifled initiative: and a prevalent atmosphere of students; Waiting to Be Told What to Do that continued with officers once out of recruit training and on the community streets.  This all too often has led to officers spending careers with this mindset. This was not always because they were bad or lazy people who made bad or lazy cops. It was because this is what they were taught!

The rote learning and lecture based curriculums that often included lengthy Power Points Decks that compensated for instructor inadequacies by providing them a script.  This may have prevented failure in some, but it prevented excellence in many.  This, industrial age training method was not in harmony with human nature and rarely required real problem solving and initiative. Misapplied stress: too much at the beginning, too little at the end. A big problem in my humble opinion of recruit training offered little room for experimentation, mistakes and focused on meeting minimum standards and avoiding failure, not on pursuing excellence.

Police training must shift from training police officers how to apply solutions and enforce standards, to teaching officers how to frame problems and solve them. The Recruit Officer Course which is still a work in progress and will be adapted, honed and tweaked with input from all the stakeholders, subject matter experts and the consultants as the first pilot begins in January 2018:

I love this part of it too! They are practicing what they preach as they understand that learning takes place not just in those students attending but it also takes place in the instructors and program of instruction designers as well!  

The main difference in this type of program (read the outline Recruit Officers Course here and at the above links) is our acceptance that we cannot predict all the types of problems our leaders will have to solve. So we must train officers who can succeed in almost any situation. A method of doing so is through active/experiential, scenario based learning  which is analogous to shifting from industrial-age mass production by fairly narrow experts (Newtonian determinism, Fredrick Taylor and scientific management, Rene Descartes' engineering) to more individually tailored crafting by all-around artisans.

The policing environment is changing rapidly. It always has and always will.  This fact requires thinking officers. Officer training must now focus on identifying the problem and solving it using the tools available.  We must accept less standardization, more focus on achieving desired outcomes. Officer judgment must replace detailed rules. ALL TRAINING must be designed to include decision-making and develop judgment. This new Recruit Officer Course looks to be the right type of course to do just that.

The whole idea of active/experiential learning inspires the hell out of me as I have been using the methodology for over a decade now, mostly in training veteran police officers but I have used it in recruit training as well. It has always gotten great feedback once the student officers began to see its value which was usually after than ran through some decision making exercises. I would often hear officers after an exercise say “We can do this!” Confidence comes with competence and active learning is a great way of building it.

“We're taught to follow instructions, to avoid significant risk and to be good at compliance. The system prefers it that way, at least when things aren't in flux. But we can learn to make assertions instead. Every once in a while, we see a change in the world and have the chance to speak up, to lay out a plan, to make an argument about how to proceed. We have a chance to lead.” ~Seth Godin

It is exciting to see this type of program being put in place here in Massachusetts, with the Municipal Police Training Committee taking the lead. They took some risk and made some assertions. The outcome I believe will be much more effective and safer police officers on the street.

It’s Very exciting stuff and all those involved in this effort should be commended.

Stay Oriented!