I was teaching an instructor school in the Pacific Northwest recently and faced an interesting situation. During the classes, participants rotate through the various roles of safety officer, exercise controller, role player, student and observer within the scenarios they have been taught to write. In one particular scenario, the exercise controller was a bit puzzled after leading four people through his scenario.
His scenario was quite simple. In fact, all scenarios should be relatively simple, because most tactical failures occur due to a breakdown in simple principles. In this instance, the scenario was written around approaching a suspicious vehicle. When the officer begins to approach, the occupant exits the vehicle holding a pistol. When challenged, the occupant indicates he s unwilling to go back to jail and raises the pistol toward the officer.
The officers working through this scenario as students did very well. They responded quickly and decisively by shooting the suspect and holding a position of advantage while waiting for assistance to arrive. As a result, the exercise controller didn t really know what to say to the students other than Great job; any questions?
Think it Over First
After each and every use of force in the real world, officers are held accountable for their actions. The U.S. Constitution, as enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court, is relatively specific in dictating the grounds under which a person s freedom can be curtailed. Police officers, if functioning within society s mandate, should have an intimate, if not unconsciously competent, understanding of those legal parameters.
That understanding, however, usually only resides at the conscious-competent level. That is, they must think about what they can do prior to doing it. Unfortunately, during emotionally charged situations, people don t effectively form rational thoughts. Much of this is because the part of the brain active during such crises is responsible for storing and playing back experiential information rather than intellectual information.
This is the reason I believe much more strongly in experiential teaching than the intellectual education model. Knowledge doesn t change behavior: behavior changes behavior. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins says we cannot think our way into a new way of behaving, but rather we must behave our way into a new way of thinking.
Then, Talk it Over
Debriefings that follow the conclusion of scenarios must be extremely thorough. Using the oration technique in which a trainer simply explains to a student what the student did wrong and/or right is not the best way to do this. Instead, I prefer the Socratic method question your student. This forces the student to recreate the experience in their mind as they recount their actions.
This is much like an investigator arriving on scene after the fact to determine what occurred and gather evidence. The investigator will question the on-scene officer about their actions. The investigator will attempt to do a walk-through with the officer. During this, the officer physically moves through the scene and recalls what they did, from which position, beginning to end.
In the real world, it doesn t matter whether an officer performs flawlessly during a critical incident. Investigators still go over that incident with the officer, and the court system will require a detailed accounting of what was done including an explanation under what authority it was done.
By having every student undergo such a style of debriefing, you help them own that experience due to the reactivation of the parts of the brain that stores this type of information. It also builds neurological bridges between the rational and experiential parts of the brain. Such bridges allow for nearly instantaneous recall during future situations of similar construction.
Officers who undergo high-quality training that simulates gunfights, for instance, later report that an involvement in an actual gunfight was just like in training. Such officers are often fast and decisive. They didn t have to think about their reactions. They simply responded effectively to the chaotic situation.
Studies have shown that more than 80 percent of the learning that occurs during realistic simulations occurs from the debriefing, not the scenario itself. Absent the debriefing, scenario training is relatively worthless not much more than an arcade experience.
There s a distinct method to effective debriefing. Much of it revolves around the concept of Ask, don t tell. This means the exercise controller must ask specific questions regarding student actions, and then shut up and listen to their responses. This also presupposes the scenario has been constructed by people who know how to write effective scenarios. And it assumes the role players have been carefully scripted and act realistically within the framework of the scenario s desired outcome.
Absent effective scenario development and staffing, there s so much chaos occurring in the scenario that an exercise controller doesn t have the perceptual bandwidth to observe all of the minute actions (including verbalization) undertaken by the officer. Instead, they get wrapped up in wondering what s going to happen next, then sitting back and marveling at the spectacle as it unfolds. In such situations, they usually notice one or two things a student did right or wrong, tell the student what they observed, and send them on their way. Such is the mark of an untrained educator.
The debriefing should be much longer than the scenario itself often two to three times longer. We don t have the time for that, I can almost hear the masses lament. Well, I say that you don t have the luxury of not doing it. This is where much of the actual learning occurs. And, that learning is much more powerful when the students themselves must explain in painstaking detail what they did and why they did it, even if they responded flawlessly.
The Educational Value
That was the big lesson to the group described at the beginning of this article. The student, who had a lot of SWAT experience, says much of what he later considered about his performance (a self evaluation he said continued well into the night and following day) he would have never considered at all if the exercise controller hadn t walked him through the process of recounting his actions and his justifications for those actions.
Simply saying Great job to someone after they have performed well in a scenario discards the majority of the value of the training. Beyond this, preparing officers for winning the legal and professional battles they must fight after using force on the citizens in their community advances the Total Warrior concept encompassed in The Seven Survivals principles I ve discussed in the past couple articles.
I ve said it before, and I ll say it again: Reality based training is much more complex than simply throwing a few people into a contrived situation to see what will happen. Reality based training isn t easy. If you re not willing to dedicate the time, effort, money, etc., to learn how to effectively provide a total quality experience to your students, then please, don t even do it. You re wasting valuable training time that could be used for other, more effective training. Until next time, train hard and train safe.