Trainers! It's Not About US

March 31, 2009
Telling isn't training. How do we change the focus from what we say to what they learn? How do we give them choice and power over their learning so they're more involved? Read on.

Teaching a dog to whistle

A ten-year-old kid named Joey had a dog named Buster. One day Joey tells his younger pal, Brian, that he taught Buster how to whistle. Brian looks doubtfully at Buster and says, "Oh yeah, show me." At that, Joey begins to urge Buster.

Okay, Buster, whistle! C'mon, boy, you can do it - whistle! Just like I taught you, Buster, whistle boy!

But Buster just sits with his tongue hanging out and every time he hears his name, his tail wags. Undeterred, Joey continues, until Brian finally interrupts.

Hey! You said Buster could whistle. We've been here ten minutes and he hasn't whistled once!

Joey looks at Brian with a grin on his face and says,

Oh, Brian. I said I taught Buster to whistle. I didn't say he learned it.

Telling isn't training.

Many of us trainers are focused on the information, the content of our subject matter - what we are going to say. This is a product of the traditional approach to teaching and what much of our education was based on.

In traditional teaching:

  • You select or are assigned your topic
  • You gather and organize your information
  • You present your information

There's a big problem with this approach. Can you see it? What's the focus? That's right - the trainer and what the trainer is going to say. But as Buster showed us, that doesn't create anything of value. Unless we're only interested in adding hot air to the already diminishing ozone layer, we need to do a paradigm shift.

We need to shift the focus from the trainer telling to the learner learning. In a learner-centered approach:

  • You decide what you want officers or recruits to do
  • You assemble the information they must have to do it
  • You present the information in a way that engages them to listen, learn, remember and act

Cognitive research has shown that learner-centered training has a powerful impact on learning, remembering and being able to apply what we've learned.

What is learner-centered training?

Learner-centered training shifts the paradigm from a trainer-centered/content oriented focus to a learner-centered/learning oriented one. Think of a continuum with training centered on one end and learning centered on the other:
Where do you fall on the continuum? In learner-centered training the trainer isn't a teller or transmitter but a facilitator and guide. Which are you?

Tips for learner-centered training.

The first thing to do is design your instruction with the learner-centered approach set out above.

Here are some other tips for giving your officers or recruits more power and choice and getting them more actively involved. Ask your learners to name the training. The power of naming is huge. In the Genesis story God brings all the other creatures to Adam and lets him name each one. The vast, unknowable expanse of creation becomes more known with each name Adam attaches. Naming creates ownership and investment.

Letting your learners name the training can also generate more interest. Compare:

Patrol Procedures to Enhance Officer Safety
What If You Went on Patrol and Never Came Home?
Police Report Writing
What If a Defense Attorney Fed You Your Report Word by Word in Open Court?
Cold Water Survival
Ten Tips for Staying Afloat When the Water's *&%#@% Freezing!

Make the naming a competition, have the group vote on the best and give a prize to the winner. If there's going to be a post-test, get recruits or officers actively involved by giving a pre-test. I tell my learners that before we even begin the training I'm going to give them a pre-test. I make them put all writing or recording materials away and I ask them what a pre-test is.
A test "before" learning?

"That's right," I say. "And it's a learning tool. What might we both learn from a pre-test?"

They eventually respond that they can learn what's going to be on the post-test and I can learn what they already know and what they still need to learn. These are good things for both of us to learn.

Then I give the test they are going to take at the end of the instruction. I don't give them any of the answers. I just give them the questions and let them discuss possible answers.

At regular intervals in the training, I have the learners discuss what pre-test questions have been answered and have them validate the answers as a group.

Tests should be learning tools, not hide-the-ball games. Officers and recruits have a high interest in doing well on tests. Tap that learner motivation by letting them know up front what the learning objectives are and then providing them an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery during the learning process. Tell them the teaching a dog to whistle story. Ask them what it means.

Tell them you need their active participation in and contribution to the training to create anything of value. (That's what was lacking from Buster.)

Ask them what they want from the training. Have one of the participants write down the group's answers. (If a learner mentions something that won't be covered, explain why.) These are learning goals they have set themselves. That's active. That's choice.

Now ask them what they see as your responsibility in this process. Have a participant list these. Take a deep breath. Commit publicly that you will do your best to meet your responsibilities.

Then, ask them what they see as their responsibility. Have one of them write these down. Ask them to publicly commit themselves to their responsibilities in this learning-centered process. Throughout the training recognize learner contributions. Incorporate their questions and comments into the discussion. Take care to show you appreciate their contributions.
  • Yes!
  • Exactly!
  • Great!
  • Absolutely!
  • Good point.
  • Thank you.

If a learner makes a point or asks a useful question during a break, share it with the group. Show as much interest in what the learners have to say as in what you say.

The greatest good.

Benjamin Disraeli, twice Prime Minister of England and a brilliant debater said,

The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.

That's what learner-centered training is all about.

About the Author

Val Van Brocklin

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website:

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