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Back to Archives | Back to November 2006 Contents 

Using Problem-Based Learning in Police Training

By Gerard Cleveland, President, Police Society for Problem-Based Learning, Clayton, California

any police training practices persist because instructors are used to them. Educators, trainers, leaders, and managers pass on what they know. They often, though not always, consider them the best way of doing the job, although they usually do not offer evidence that this is so.

Changing customs is difficult, though people will do so when forced by circumstances to abandon long-held beliefs and practices. Technology often changes customs. For example, personal communication systems have replaced call boxes, roof racks of multicolored strobe or light-emitting diode lights have replaced single-bulb emergency roof lights, and computerized reporting systems have replaced handwritten reports.

But technology is not the only change agent in law enforcement. As law enforcement trainers learn more about human behavior, they use and teach new practices, as we see in the proliferation of hostage negotiators, crisis intervention teams, community mediation centers, and victim family liaison officers.

Another change is how officers are prepared for service. The traditional mimetic—mirroring—method is changing as we learn more about how the brain works1 and how knowledge is acquired and transferred.

The human brain constantly searches for meaning and seeks patterns and connections. Authentic learning situations increase the brain’s ability to make connections and retain new information. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner and others have written that much of learning and problem solving depend largely upon how individuals are brought to accept learning and how they receive new knowledge.2

Police Training Is Adult Education
Adults enter the classroom with knowledge and experience, which can either help the learning experience or hinder it. Many factors affect how adults learn. Most important is that adults must apply their knowledge practically in order to learn effectively; they must also have a goal and reasonably expect that the new knowledge will help them reach that goal. Teaching strategies that enhance adult learning involve real-life activities.

Persons Attracted to Policing Have Established Learning Preferences
How policing professionals are trained may in part be explained by the preferences of those individuals who are attracted to the profession. Deputy Chief Ron Glensor and criminologist Ken Peak have observed that “because policing often attracts action-oriented individuals, police officers tend to be more receptive to [training in] arrest methods, weaponless defense, pursuit driving, [and] firearms. . . . [But] it is common knowledge that only a small fraction of the typical officer’s work routine involves use of weapons, defensive tactics, high-speed chases, and so forth. If training is to help officers do their jobs better, it must focus on what they need to know.”3

Police executive Dan Reynolds agrees: “Reactive policing is so much easier. Police officers are trained to prefer order to disorder, and problem-solving seems, to some officers, to be creating disorder, to be upsetting the balance of things.”4 Some learning must be by rote, especially in the psychomotor domain, such as weapons and unarmed defense techniques. Both require repeated practice to teach the muscles to react and develop muscle memory.

Police training must be active, engaging, and relevant for the recruits and in-service personnel who attend professional development courses. Today’s learners—generation X, generation Y, and millenials—look for learner-centered, problem-based training. These technology-savvy, multitasking individuals, with their repertoire of transferable skills, are highly independent and expect instant feedback. Few have structured experience such as military service, and many may have been raised in a permissive, less-structured social environment than were their police trainers. If the policing profession hopes to attract, train, and retain these new problem-solving individuals, trainers must abandon the traditional lecture with PowerPoint.

Four Critical QuestionsAny evaluation of an agency’s learning environment should include four questions.

Q1. Do the agency’s training programs reflect adult learning methodologies, where the learner decides how he or she is to learn?
Traditional training methodology that uses PowerPoint presentations, lectures, and study groups does not reflect adult learning practices and principles. Even the give-and-take of classical Socratic dialogue remains directed, if not dominated, by the instructor.

Adult learners need to discover the material, discuss it, and engage in their own learning processes. The best test for the nonlecture approach is also simple: if you, the reader, were learning, would you prefer to sit for hours listening quietly to an expert or would you rather engage in a problem-solving scenario in a classroom or patrol car where the instructor seeks your input, values your previous experience, and allows you to actively discover the answer?

Most police officers, regardless of age, prefer to participate. Younger officers, raised on cooperative, action-based learning, believe they have the right to speak up in any learning situation. If the instructors merely lecture, they may well find themselves facing an unresponsive, if not hostile, audience. Agencies risk losing the most active and engaged officers, who may decide that a profession that does not engage them is not worth joining.

Of course, lecturing cannot be eliminated. It has its place in front-loading knowledge; but too much of it shuts down learning. Furthermore, lecturing too often fails to challenge learners to move into higher-order thinking levels.

Q2. Do the agency’s training programs focus on multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence?
Two important components of adult learning are multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence. Multiple intelligence recognizes that not everyone learns information the same way and that training must be provided in several different ways to accommodate the various learning styles.

Emotional intelligence includes the way police officers manage their emotions and the way they manage their contacts and relationships with others. Emotional intelligence has an enormous role in policing, particularly in developing new officers and solving the most common issues that create problems for the department and the individual. These problems develop when police officers are unable to empathize with others or to control their impulses and emotions.

Agencies should evaluate whether various curricula are used to teach all of the learners, assuring—not assuming—that the students involve themselves. Agencies should also assess how trainers engage in and practice effective emotional intelligence skills such as conflict resolution, selfawareness, social awareness, and empathy with the trainees.

Both multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence should be a critical part of every teaching and learning environment in a police department. These allegedly touchy-feely topics should not be dismissed; these are the meat-and-potatoes issues that police officers must deal with on the street and in the police station every day.

Q3. Where on Bloom’s taxonomy is the department focusing its training?
Police training for adult learners should be focused on how the training will foster, encourage, and support problem solvers. If an academy or in-service training program focuses on the most basic level of providing knowledge, then it operates at the bottom of the thinking ladder. Police officers must analyze, synthesize, and evaluate dynamic circumstances every day. They are called upon to instantly and accurately respond to meet their community’s needs.

What better place to begin this process of higher-order thinking than in the training programs? For an example of an educational taxonomy, see figure 1.

Q4. Does the agency’s training staff create dynamic learning environments and do trainers recognize the key elements in transmitting and acquiring new information?
The concept of teaching for adult learners—andragogy—is based on four crucial assumptions about adult learners characteristics and emphasizes that adult learning is self-directing (see figure 2).

The adult learning test is simple: does the training staff practice adult teaching techniques? If all that is overheard in the classroom is an instructor and the click of changing PowerPoint slides, then adult education is not occurring.

In the evaluation of a department’s training effort, ask trainers and training consultants to explain what they know about learning rather than teaching. Often, police trainers know a great deal about teaching and not enough about how adults learn. Some police trainers respond to any perceived criticism by commenting that they are cops, not teachers.

Yet anyone who stands in front of any classroom or takes on the responsibility of showing someone how to do something has become a teacher and has assumed the educational responsibilities associated with teaching. The training staff needs to know adult educational methods just as a patrol officer or detective needs to acquire skills in their responsibilities. Too often, trainers simply default to lecturing. New requirements and new audiences require new methods.

Critical Factors for Training Programs
Many trainers evaluate their recruits using a number scale based on how successfully, according to the trainer, that trainee completes a task. At best, the employee can replicate the performance set out by the trainer. The real question for the agency executive remains: “Am I asking recruits to think at a higher level or to just perform what they are shown?”

The learning environment affects what training is achieved and how what is learned can be transferred to other circumstances. Clearly, there are police actions best taught by rote (handcuffing, firing a weapon, pursuit driving, traffic stops), and trainees should learn these actions in a safe environment, even if it is a stressful environment. Screaming at recruits on a parade ground, on the range, or in the defensive tactic arena may be appropriate when teaching discipline and self-control. Stressful teaching methods can help prepare recruits for actual field situations; but a stress-teaching environment is not necessary to prepare students for problem-solving skills.

Students should know static skills before they engage in problem solving. The reason is simple: no one would suggest just handing a recruit a firearm and telling the recruit to figure it out and solve the whole shooting technique.

Experienced officers know that they learn their policing skills most effectively by thinking, discussing with peers, and using trial and error to solve new problems. If the materials for teaching police officers are current and will help them perform their jobs more effectively, police learners will engage enthusiastically.

Whether experienced or inexperienced, adult learners who attend training want to be dedicated participants rather than just obedient observers and passive listeners.

Problem-Based Learning Is Different
Teaching a new task has two goals. The first goal is to increase the odds that a skill will be retained; the second goal is to transfer knowledge. Given the nature of the job, police officers cannot be trained on every conceivable situation an officer might face. They can be trained to build upon their foundation in order to respond to new situations and variables in those situations.

Traditional content-driven training requires the trainee to learn mounds of instructor-provided information in a short time. Trainees acquire information from instructors. If the instructors do not provide the information, then trainees lack that knowledge.

In contrast, in problem-based learning (PBL), trainees apply the knowledge as they acquire it. PBL includes the opportunity to solve problems according to an individual’s learning style (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) as well as their own multiple intelligences.

The seven most common intelligences as defined by Howard Gardner are linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, and spatial. Trainees who know their learning styles can compensate for weaknesses and capitalize on strengths, for themselves and for others.

PBL also develops critical thinking skills. Trainees must employ a process—PBL stages—to work through a problem. This process can be used to address any problem. PBL emphasizes skill development in multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution, necessary for any career.

Using Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning offers a return to traditional training and education and moves away from lecturing, which has produced dangerously passive learners who will not progress to higher-order thinking skills unless trainers change their ways.5

To emphasize the importance of problem-solving skills, trainers must return to a PBL format to encourage recruits to think. Lieutenant Peg Johnson, the officer in charge of training in the Duluth, Minnesota, Police Department, reports that for her, “new officers must work through a PBL process so that their critical thinking skills are cultivated; they achieve success in their recruit training or academy classes by working through their learning issues and applying known and learned information to new situations. This process offers a boost to their decision-making confidence as they enter the profession and allows them to achieve success based not on what they are told to do but rather on working collaboratively through their learning issues with others who have a part to play in the original problem.”

PBL encourages critical thinking, ethical decision making, and collaborative partnerships as a regular, normal part of police work.

PBL: The Mechanics
PBL employs many learning techniques, particularly problems that mimic real-life situations. These ill-structured problems are not easily solved and have many possible answers. For example, a class of recruits may deal with a traffic stop that involves uncooperative occupants, drugs, and an unsafe environment. Unlike scenario training, there is no right way or proper format to follow when solving an ill-structured problem. Because every call may require a different response, PBL problems require learners to consider a variety of solutions.

Because the problems are not easily solved, they challenge the student and promote critical thinking skills. Because students work in collaborative groups and follow a five-step process, they develop organizational skills. The students will need these primary skills—critical thinking, organization, collaboration—throughout their careers.

The PBL program has five sequential steps:

Step 1—Ideas: Create a cohort group from the class members (if in an academy setting) and generate a list of ideas about how the problem may be solved. If on the street, use community members, other members of the department, and government and social agencies to act as resources. The training officer should act as facilitator.

Step 2—Known Facts: Discuss and record all known facts related to the problem. This helps clarify the issues.

Step 3—Learning Issues: Generate a refined second list of learning issues so the trainee is essentially answering the question “What do I need to know to solve this problem?” Once this list is created, the learners find appropriate resources, some of which are provided by the facilitators, and learn the material they have listed. How they learn it is up to the group and the individual learner. Facilitators guide and support the group during this phase and suggest ideas that the group may have overlooked. The members then review all the material they have just collected and revisit their original ideas. The group decides whether they have any more known facts or further learning issues to deal with concerning the problem. If not, they move on to the next stage.

Step 4—Action Plan: The cohort group determines how to respond to the original problem using the material members learned during step 3. In effect, they apply their own current research to a contemporary problem and develop an action plan.

Step 5—Evaluation: The group has a rubric, or evaluation, to use to stay on task and achieve their objectives. Evaluation is ongoing, with input from peers as well as the facilitators.

Self-evaluation plays a large role in the entire learning experience. Instructors should remember that good teaching starts with evaluation. Too many instructors give the test or evaluation only at the end; by offering the evaluation (rubric) at the beginning, instructors give their learners a roadmap to success.

The Training Future
When followed properly, PBL affords the opportunity for adult learners to construct their own learning. With the support and guidance of the trainers and facilitators, the students discover for themselves what they need to know to do their job properly.

A visit to the Napa Valley Academy in California provides an example of how PBL is being used across the United States. “The Napa Valley College Police Academy . . . believe[s] that in order to train effectively, we must engage the recruit in real-world ill-structured problems that interconnect the curriculum and cause the recruit to think,” according to a statement on the academy’s Web site. “PBL is a teaching method that incorporates just that. The PBL model is the exact process that law enforcement officers use (naturally) every day to solve problems. Then why not begin this process of learning in the academy?”6

Numerous law enforcement agencies are moving to the PBL training model. Academies in Washington, Kentucky, and California are changing their instructional style to reflect current learning and teaching needs. The model has several names, including the National Patrol Training Officer Model, the Reno Model, and the California PTO Model. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have used PBL in their training academy for years. The University of Delaware uses PBL in its continuing studies program for law enforcement personnel.

Author Alvin Toffler says we are now immersed in a radical cultural shift, a so-called hinge of history. Nowhere is this more evident than in law enforcement. One of the critical hinges in policing is how to train for a new millennium. PBL offers a breakthrough option to those who are no longer satisfied with the status quo.


1 Pierce J. Howard, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain (Austin: Bard Press, 2006). Several of the chapters on learning and teaching from Howard’s recent publication would help police trainers.
2 Howard Gardner, Changing Minds (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004): 23–48. Much of Gardner’s early work on multiple intelligences and his current work on changing minds and acquiring new knowledge argues acquiring information.
3 Kenneth J. Peak and Ronald W. Glensor, Community Policing and Problem-Solving: Strategies and Practices (New Jersey, Prentice Hall: 2000): 172.
4 Dan Reynolds, cited in U.S. Department of Justice, COPS Office, Problem-Oriented Policing: Reflections on the First 20 Years, by Michael Scott (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000): 179.
5 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993): 107–122. Postman argues effectively that machines are fine tools, but when they become the focus, instead of getting better thinking results from our students, we risk simply getting better PowerPoint presentations.
6 Napa Valley Academy, Web site, www.nvccjtc.org/nvcinstructionalskills.html , September 1, 2006.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 11, November 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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