Every day around the world, law enforcement professionals are on stage in front of an unrelenting audience of critics: each action on display and streaming like a binge-worthy show. Intense public scrutiny—combined with dwindling resources for training—puts incredible performative pressure on an already challenging job.

These are the treacherous conditions under which On-the-Job-Training (OJT) occurs.

Errors are a part of life, but scrutiny of policing suggests a need for consistent, error-free performance. Officers are expected to continuously be at their peak performance, but opportunities to develop skills are crammed into a narrow gap between high-stakes settings. If the culture is toxic, even training is a high-stakes setting because mistakes may be admonished, criticized, or weaponized for jokes. And with instructors feeling most fluent in academy-style techniques, training time is often spent in hurried repetition of job-related tasks.

Conventional wisdom says to get better at a job, you must keep doing the job. This is equivalent to improving push-ups on your fitness test by doing as many push-ups as you can, for record, daily. “Again. Again. Again.” But it isn’t effective because it follows the conventional wisdom, not the research of how people learn.

Research says complex jobs require complex training.

People who are serious about improving push-ups also do chest presses, dips, and negative reps in sets with rest breaks, with a supportive and experienced training partner and plenty of recovery time to rebuild muscles. When broken down like that, it’s easy to see the flaws in conventional wisdom—yet we keep expecting officers to develop advanced skills with observation and performance in high stakes settings. Thus, OJT is inadequate.

The brain-based solution.

There are four components that create optimal conditions for learning complex tasks in high stakes occupations: a growth mindset, a safe environment, the will, and the way. These are somewhat flexible in delivery order and assessment, and can be influenced (positively, or negatively) by inputs from the individual and the organization. These components are best thought of as a fluid continuum of officer development. Let’s dive in.

Growth Mindset is a focus on improving—not proving—oneself. As opposed to a fixed mindset  where you’re constantly seeking to prove you’re infallible, a growth mindset enables you to seek improvement as a challenge, even when uncomfortable. Personal development is easier to achieve when you start with the belief that it’s okay to not be perfect, and that you can improve.

The will to learn is reflected in the activity of two brain regions, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, providing us an understanding of the task value—and driven by our own intrinsic motivation. It’s not enough to be told “this is required” because without understanding and believing in the “why”, the brain will trigger a course-correct, subconsciously, to tasks with higher perceived value. We can digest information easier when we come to the understanding of its worth, on our own.

Safety for reflection requires a low-stakes environment. Development requires reflection which can be thought of as a feedback circuit, and that can’t happen when we’re under physical or social threat. When we attempt to learn new skills, especially skills we may not be good at yet, it helps to have physical and psychological safety so that the consequences of mistakes aren’t hazardous or feared. The only way reflection opportunities can be productive is if we see them as useful tools, not dangerous or shameful incidents. We wouldn’t engage in target practice in a school, we also shouldn’t engage in school when we’re a target. 

The way to expert outcomes sometimes requires a little help. Development, particularly in learning something complex, requires what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) or what is referred to as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). When we can’t solve a problem, it could be for lack of adequate reference points in the brain to assemble the skill—a function of our prefrontal cortex. In difficult tasks when we need framing or examples, it can be helpful for a qualified guide to show the way.

Combine these four factors to create the ideal ecosystem for officer development. Take a close look at the individual and organizational inputs that feed the ecosystem. And don’t get caught in a fixed mindset, worrying about mistaken training efforts of the past. Lean into the future—it’s a better place to grow.

A version of this article was originally published in American Police Beat Magazine.

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