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PowerPoint is NOT a Lesson Plan!

You’ve been tasked to teach a 2-hour lesson on Officer Liability.  You’ve spent 15 years as a patrol officer and you’ve been certified as an instructor by your academy, so you feel comfortable with the subject matter.  When you ask for the lesson plan, the person tasking you says: “Don’t worry … I’ll send you the PowerPoint slides.”

How many times has this happened to you?  If you are like me, probably more times than you can remember.  There are three very significant problems with this type of approach to law enforcement training. I will address these three problems in this article.

Problem 1 – There’s a lot more to effective training than presenting a PowerPoint.

There is a difference between “training” and “informing.”  Informing is simply sharing information. We want the recipient to have the information and we provide it in a convenient form like an email, a PDF document, or even a “read it yourself” PowerPoint.  But training is different. With training we want the recipient to DO SOMETHING with the information.  We want them to use the information to make decisions like when they have probable cause to arrest someone (cognitive domain) or we want them to use the information to manipulate something physically like how to shoot a firearm accurately or apply handcuffs properly (psychomotor domain) and sometimes we want them to “feel” a certain way about a situation (affective domain).

PowerPoint is a great presentation tool and it can also be used very effectively for informing people.  But as a training tool it has been elevated to a position of false importance and it can actually hinder learning.  We have all heard of “Death by PowerPoint” and most of you reading this article have actually experienced it: slide after slide after slide with words filling the screen from top to bottom. This is a terribly ineffective way to teach.  The instructor is talking, but the students don’t hear a word he is saying because they are reading the slides instead of listening. All the while, they are frantically trying to write it all down because they are convinced there is some “gold nugget” contained on the slide that will be required to answer a test question.

Does your agency have “mandatory slides” that every instructor must use in a particular lesson or course?  Many people erroneously believe that it will ensure that all the students in the course will receive the same training, but it more likely will turn an instructor into an “information provider” and can actually hinder the learning process.  Put the outline of instruction in the lesson plan … not the PowerPoint slides.

Problem 2 – Any teaching aid should be used to teach the students … not the instructor.

Many people erroneously believe that if you are a master of your craft or profession, you can successfully teach others what you know.  This is simply not true … education is a science and being an instructor requires a skill set beyond subject matter expertise.  A long time ago, when I was a law school student at the University of Florida, I had a professor who was nationally-renown in a specific area of the law.  He literally “wrote the book” on the law in that area and his text book was used throughout the country. Few, if any, lawyers knew this area of law like he did.  And I can honestly tell you he was one of the worst professors I ever had in any academic program.  He knew the subject matter, but he didn’t know how to teach.

Your LEO instructors might be incredibly proficient in their profession of law enforcement, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can walk into a classroom and effectively teach.  A subject matter expert needs to know WHY they are teaching something in addition to WHAT they are teaching.  This is accomplished through a lesson plan. With a lesson plan, a subject matter expert has a roadmap to the instruction and knows the what and the why.  A set of PowerPoint slides cannot provide this information.

I recently provided legal training to a group of LEOs in Jackson, Mississippi under a contract.  The organization who hired me to conduct this four-hour lesson asked me for my PowerPoint slides.  They were dumbfounded when I gave them my slides … all 18 of them. Think about it … 18 slides for 4 hours of instruction.  My lesson plan was my guide for the instruction, not my PowerPoint slides. My slides were mostly pictures and I probably had fewer than 100 words total on the slides.  I have been an instructor/teacher/trainer since 1985 (before PowerPoint was even available). In my experience over the last 30+ years of teaching, PowerPoint slides full of text are more often for the instructor than the student.  If the instructor knows what to teach (subject matter content) and why he or she is teaching it (lesson learning objectives), then the slides shouldn’t be full of text. To the extent PowerPoint is used at all, it should be geared to enhance the learner’s comprehension.  The use of “mandatory slides” means you either don’t have a valid lesson plan or you don’t trust your instructors (or both) and it actively encourages “Death by PowerPoint” as more and more information is crammed into the slides.

Problem 3 – It exposes an agency to potential liability for negligent training.

If there is no detailed lesson plan and the PowerPoint slides are the “de facto” lesson plan, then when your agency is sued for “negligent training” and discovery takes places, your agency is exposed.

When I was an instructor for a federal agency (that I will leave unnamed), one of our Special Agents was sued in a Bivens action for something he did.  His defense was “That’s the way I was trained!” and the agency was joined in the law suit. We were called upon to prove what the agency taught this particular agent, which was made very difficult for us because at the time he was a student, instructors were given a set of slides and told “this is what you are supposed to teach.”  There was no formal lesson plan and the slides became the only evidence we had to overcome the negligent training law suit.  The actual instructor was long gone and it was a very difficult task obtaining a copy of the slides used for that particular student in that particular class.  Lesson plan development and record-keeping are absolutely essential in defending against these types of claims.

The Bottom Line: Any lesson should (at a minimum) be based on a detailed lesson plan that provides the instructor with clear lesson objectives, an outline of instruction, and information on the format and duration of the instructional delivery.  Any instructional delivery tool, including PowerPoint, should be used only to enhance the delivery of the training at the option of the instructor.  PowerPoint is not a lesson plan.

What’s in your lesson?  You would know if you had a valid lesson plan!