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What is “Training?”

It’s been a little more than a year since I retired from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia and embarked on a new path training law enforcement officers as a commercial training provider.  It has been a real eye-opener. I was immediately confronted with a situation I was not expecting after spending a significant part of my life as a government-sector educator and instructor.

I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Adult Education way back in 1986 when I was an instructor at the Naval Submarine School in Groton, Connecticut. I studied and learned fundamental principles of andragogy (the science of teaching adults). I was designated a US Navy “Master Training Specialist.” I then attended law school and became an Air Force JAG where I spent five years of my Air Force career as an AETC certified instructor at the Air Force JAG School. I then went to FLETC where I was certified as an Instructor then a Senior Instructor.  I have been an instructor for the government in one capacity or another for over 30 years.  In every one of those assignments, it was my job to train people to perform specific tasks. I was an instructor.

Having spent 15 months now in the private sector, I am genuinely dumbfounded at what passes as “training” in law enforcement.  There is a profound distinction between “training” and “information sharing” and this distinction has been lost to many people in the law enforcement education and training business.

Information sharing is exactly what it says it is … sharing information.  When I send out my weekly “Blue Flash” legal update newsletter, I am not training anyone.  I am simply sharing information.  To be sure, it is my hope that this information will help law enforcement officers make proper legal decisions based on updated case law. But I have no way of knowing to what extent the information will have any impact at all.  I can’t tell if someone skims over the words or reads it thoroughly and analyzes the rule of law.  If I were to physically stand in front of a group of LEOs and verbally provide the same information, it would still only be “information sharing.”  I have no way of knowing if any particular person understands what I am saying, or even listening for that matter.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying information sharing is bad.  In fact, it is vital to professional development.  What I am saying is that information sharing is not training.

“Training” is much more than information sharing.  Unlike information sharing, training requires specific and defined learning objectives with outcome achievement measured through assessment.  Without these learning objectives and outcome assessment, it is not training.  It is only “information sharing.”  Precisely defining these learning objectives and creating valid assessments requires formal education in curriculum development.  Any subject matter expert can share information, but it takes more than being a subject matter expert to effectively train people in that subject.

To properly provide training to law enforcement officers, a training provider should have expertise in not only the subject matter, but also in curriculum development and instructional delivery.  This is sometimes referred to as the three-legged stool of training. Without all three of these legs, the stool does not stand.  If the curriculum is not properly developed, then the outcomes are not properly defined or assessed. If the subject matter is not peer-reviewed, then what is being taught may not be accurate.  If the person delivering the training doesn’t know proper instructional delivery techniques, the training may not be effective.  At the POST level, we all know this to be true.  Basic academy-level instruction in each state is typically based on peer-reviewed content in lesson plans with defined objectives and outcomes measured by assessment, taught by certified instructors.  The question then becomes, why do we allow refresher and update “training” to be anything less?

Why should we care if someone calls what they are providing “training” when it is really just information sharing?  If training is not required, then it probably doesn’t make much of a difference (other than to add to the confusion regarding the difference between the two concepts).  But if the training is mandated, which it often is, then we are doing a huge disservice to our officers who rely on this required training to properly and safely perform their duties.

There are lot of very experienced and well-intentioned people out there mistakenly offering “information sharing” as “training” in various aspects of law enforcement.  Some of these training providers have all three legs of the Training Stool, but surprisingly, many do not.  Many of these training providers are subject matter experts and have been academy instructors, but have no acumen in curriculum development.  Some POSTs address this issue through the POST course certification process.  Furthermore, IADLEST has recognized this problem and has taken a significant step to rectify this situation on a national level through the NCP training certification and INCI instructor certification programs.

So how do you know if what you are getting is really training?  It is simple: insist of seeing all three legs of the training stool.  Fancy flyers and websites are no substitute for the three pillars of law enforcement training.  You should investigate the answers to these three questions:

  1. Was the training curriculum properly developed? To answer this question, you should request lesson plans and syllabi that fully set out the objectives including how these objectives will be assessed. Without objectives and assessment, it is not training.
  1. Is the content accurate? To answer this question, you should look for two things. First, you should look to see if the qualifications of the subject matter expert align with the training. Just because someone was an LEO for 20 years doesn’t necessarily make the person a subject matter expert in the area being taught.  Second, you need to know who peer-reviewed the content. This is extremely important! There are a lot of people providing training based on what they personally believe to be true without any review by another expert in the field to ensure the information is accurate.  You should absolutely insist that all training content is peer-reviewed by at least one other subject matter expert.
  1. Is the person trained to deliver the training? You can be the most knowledgeable subject matter expert in your field … and be the worst instructor. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you can teach it to others. Teaching is both a science and an art and it is a profession in its own right. Make sure the person delivering the training has proven himself or herself capable of doing so.

Here is the bottom line: Don’t assume that what is being offered as “training” is actually training.  It is important to understand the difference between “information sharing” an “training” and ask a few questions before we accept what’s on the label.

Bruce-Alan Barnard