Cops love stories. Perhaps more than any other group in industrialized society, law enforcement officers tell stories. We call them war stories or dumb-criminal stories or life-behind-the-badge stories, but at the core, they're all stories. We not only tell stories, we listen to stories--every time we interview a witness or victim or interrogate a suspect (mostly fiction, those).
It's not just cops, of course, who like stories. Storytelling is hardwired into the human psyche. Long before Gutenberg invented movable type, long before the first scribe put pen to papyrus, long before the first ancient Egyptian chiseled hieroglyphics into stone, people told stories. As far back into prehistory as you care to wander, you will find evidence that people told stories. Probably the moment that humans moved past one-syllable grunts, somebody said, "Let me tell you about the time…"
Stories engage us in a way that mere information does not. Which would you rather listen to--a lecture about the use of investigative deception, or a tale of a suspect fooled by a colander and electrical wire into thinking a Xerox® machine was a lie detector? And I'll bet you wouldn't even have to take notes to remember the story.
One of the reasons scenario-based training is so effective is that it invites the participants to step into a story in progress. We are instantly involved with plot and characters and anxious to learn how it all turns out--particularly when, as the officer in the story, we are supposed to guide the outcome. But storytelling is not the only thing that makes scenario-based training work. Research has identified two other aspects of scenario-based training that make for highly effective learning:
- Emotional impact
Remember where you were, a little after nine o'clock EST on the morning of September 11, 2001? Me, too. In fact, I'll bet you can remember who was with you and what they did. Remember your first high-speed pursuit? How about the very first call you responded to as a new officer? Or the first homicide victim you ever saw? These events sear themselves into memory in part because they are accompanied by strong emotion. Modern neuroscience has discovered that both learning and emotion activate the same parts of the brain. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes very good sense: those things you must pay attention to and learn quickly for your (and your species') survival usually involve strong emotions, such as fear (avoid a coiled rattlesnake) or anger (defend your family against attack).
Tactical instructors use the connection between memory and emotion to teach officers how to make entry and clear a room. The principles of room-clearing are nothing more than simple geometry. You can illustrate "slicing the pie" or "buttonhook entry" for example, with lines on a chalkboard. Understanding how it works is cognitive. But if you want officers to be able to apply these cognitive principles in real situations, you're better off to hide some bad guys with Simunition® guns in a real room. Going into the situation, the officer will already be in a state of aroused emotion--and if he or she lingers in a backlit doorway or neglects to clear a corner, the sound of gunfire and the sting of a marking cartridge will add an additional emotional wallop that drives the lesson home.
Scenario-based training always involves emotion because it mimics real life--and not just any reality, but one in which the police are needed. People don't call the police when everything is okay. They call when they are upset or afraid or angry (or someone else is). The actors in a scenario bring emotion to their roles, the officer brings a certain level of anxiety or at least intensity, and the interaction between officer and role players generates emotional content as well. Done properly, this emotional context can speed learning and deepen memory.