Teaching Officers How to Think verses Telling Them What To Think

Educating future leaders and officers in “how to think” (cognitive skills) takes longer and is intellectually far more expensive than industrially based task training, while task training requires resources like weapons, ranges, equipment, and special facilities that require training be done at established locations, requiring centralization. The good news is that recent studies by Dr. Bjork (UCLA) have discovered that theories about learning have been wrong. The focus on process, training for the test, and task proficiency benefits short-term training but does not promote long-term learning. The translation for police education is that task training can be done anytime in an officer’s development, but the longer you wait to develop cognitive skills, the harder it becomes.

Bjork’s work, as it relates to evolving the current task-centric and process-centric approach to police education can be summed up in the following two statements:

“Conditions of instruction that make performance improve rapidly often fail to support long-term retention and transfer,


Conditions of instruction that appear to create difficulties for the learner, slowing the rate of apparent learning, often optimize long-term retention and transfer.”

The basics begin with teaching people how to frame and solve problems. All learning grows from there.  All skills training is taught in the context of a problem.  Learning evolves from that concept.

Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E) best supports Mission Command principles in that it operates on outcomes while subordinates select the appropriate way to achieve those outcomes.Don Vandergriff says:

"The mission command concept is designed to allow maximum room for individual initiative, while still accomplishing the department’s mission.  A mission order can be thought of as a virtual contract between superior and officer. Today’s highly complex operations have driven home for Police, the importance of quality decision-making at all levels."

Even with modern command, control, communications, computer intelligence, and investigation capabilities, the officer on the street more times than not has the best situational awareness and thus is likely to make the best decision—but only if he or she is equipped, intellectually and culturally, to properly assess the situation and creatively arrive at the best solution.  The only way to get this way is to prepare professionally, and it is not easy.

A culture that practices Mission Command and craves its members to take initiative and solve problems, is only superior if it ensures that its people are professionally prepared for the demands that our organizational culture requires of its personnel shouldering decision making once reserved for higher levels, and taking ownership and care of the culture ensuring that it evolves as the environment it is supposed to operate and succeed in, evolves. This is what this education and training strategy is about.

The strategy i am discussing illustrates how mission command and the contract of leadership will operate in contrast to the environment policing has known since the Industrial Age. The centralized authority within most Police agencies that is top-to-bottom control—is outdated, while a system such as Mission Command and decentralized control, which gives more freedom for creativity, adaptability and innovation, would better prepare policing for future demands. Additionally, Mission Command would inevitably see a reduction in undue competition between officers; with this shift, trust and adaptability would become more widespread throughout the department, but only if police departments adhere to all the recommended practices and not a few or watered down versions. Watered down versions are all too common in policing. Can we do better?

Stay Oriented!