Discussion as a Strategy for Educating Law Enforcement Officers
By Cynthia L. Lewis, Ed.D.
Law enforcement officers (LEOs) face an ever-changing landscape of local and global challenges. They continually must hone their skills and gather knowledge to confront these issues and protect the public. Officers can benefit by participating in training and educational opportunities with other police professionals.
To this end, effective discussion in the classroom can help officers develop better practices in their own agencies and communities. Instructors often use a lecture format in traditional adult learning environments, but retention increases when students actively engage.
Discussion is one teaching method that may help better prepare students to think critically and resolve problems efficiently. It allows them to explore ideas and perspectives from another’s unique point of view and, thus, develop a deeper understanding of the thought processes of others. Classroom conversations help officers cultivate empathy toward other individuals and cultures and reevaluate their own mind-set regarding particular topics.
Opinions vary on what effective classroom discussions look like. Some instructors view dialogue with little or no interaction from the facilitator as more productive, while others deem guidance necessary to ensure that class members do not deviate too far from the main topic.
Dr. Lewis is an instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Students prefer to become actively involved in their learning and use their experiences as a resource for others.1 Many components of law enforcement training now include andragogical, or self-directed and practice-based, approaches to address the needs and interests of LEOs.2 Such changes in curriculum help officers prepare for what they will encounter in community policing as well. For example, discussions and role-plays develop interpersonal and oral communication skills that LEOs need in real-life situations.
Instructors who typically teach large groups can modify their lecture outlines to incorporate these modern techniques. Passive learners in such a classroom size may benefit from integrating discussion for active learning. Such collaboration among officers can result in students—
- communicating expertise;
- identifying current topics or trends;
- developing critical thinking skills through possible conflict;
- acknowledging uncertainty; and
- empowering others.
Educators may engage students by employing such teaching strategies as debate or question and answer. They should feel comfortable with silence to give students time to process and respond. To manage this dialogue successfully, instructors often begin by sharing their own experiences, which requires effective communication skills and the ability to develop rapport with students.
Instructors need to share their opinions and beliefs without offending students and understand the importance of showing that they care about them. Further, by affirming officers’ views and ideas as valuable, they encourage healthy discussion by eliminating judgment and ensuring no student responses are minimized.
Some educators make an unexpected statement to help prompt alternative viewpoints. They also could present opposing stances and deliberately provoke discussion by debating common beliefs. LEOs who participate in these exchanges may increase their knowledge of a subject or change their perspective and opinion.3 Instructors can ask students to assume the opposite of their preferred stance on a topic and argue in support of something they do not believe in, which can help them understand how others see an issue.4
Debates regarding the numerous controversial subjects related to law enforcement allow officers to share experiences and knowledge and develop critical thinking skills. LEOs may have strong opinions about certain issues and readily agree to debate them from their point of view.
Instructors always should have a clearly defined objective so students know the end teaching point. For a productive discussion, subjects should hold relevance for the majority of the students and offer them the opportunity to see themselves in certain situations that might not have occurred yet in their organization. Instructors must plan for the dialogue before class and advise LEOs to prepare what they will share in the classroom discussion. Students who have materials to read prior to a discussion can start to think a particular way and contribute more to the conversation.
Educators who answer the questions and solve the problems may stifle discussion and limit facilitation. In such cases, LEOs may not challenge others’ ideas and, thus, limit shared experiences and learning. Although instructors are subject-matter experts, they must not dominate discussions but instead emphasize their role as facilitator.
Exposure to directly oppositional perspectives and opinions in a relaxed, safe classroom environment can foster officers’ ability to assess or reevaluate situations. This may positively affect the way they interact with others and resolve issues.
With any instructional method, educators will encounter difficulties. Those who can recognize and manage four specific barriers related to classroom dialogue will be better prepared when they occur.
First, students’ personalities may prove a possible barrier to classroom discussion. Some students are perhaps too eager to share their experiences, while others prefer to have conversations one-on-one, rather than in front of a large group. Other students may be more outspoken with a lot of conviction in their beliefs. Instructors who lack a firm grasp of the material or an assertive-enough nature may see the class quickly derailed. They must be able to manage classroom discussions and properly handle unexpected topics.
Second, some discussions may become involved and last longer than anticipated, causing the instructors to fall behind in their teaching plan. Additionally, time constraints of class periods can limit lengthy and in-depth discussions. Instructors still should proceed in a useful direction for the officers.
Third, although most students focus on the main topic, side discussions among some individuals may occur. Such conversations lead LEOs to share experiences with only one or two other individuals, rather than the whole class. If instructors overhear smaller exchanges that relate to the primary subject, they should consider incorporating them into a larger discussion.
Finally, incorporating discussion during a nontheoretical course can prove challenging. LEOs learning a tactic, technique, or skill may have nothing specific to share about the experience because this type of class generally involves a step-by-step, lecture-based approach with minimal discussion outside of a question-and-answer period.
Instructors must ensure a supportive and encouraging environment, one that values officers’ experiences, perceptions, and beliefs. Students never should feel as though they were “shut down” even inadvertently. Educators should become comfortable with letting the discussion go and develop a trusting environment.
Instructors’ drive and passion for the subject matter and for teaching often highly engage students. At times, difficult topics or unusual situations may arise. Educators should use a diversity of approaches toward discussion and remain flexible for unexpected or even unwelcome comments.
“Instructors’ drive and passion for the subject matter and for teaching often highly engage students.”
Students appreciate educators who show humility and use appropriate humor, such as making fun of themselves. Instructors need to have the right attitude and know how to lighten the mood. However, joking at the wrong time may appear as minimizing the topic of discussion.
To the best extent possible, instructors should try to create the proper environment to facilitate discussions about controversial topics. For instance, the number of officers and layout of the room may encourage whole-class discussion or result in side-group exchanges. Small classes may be stressful to students by making them feel that they must participate continuously.
Often, classroom dialogue stirs emotions of both the instructor and the students. Therefore, educators should accept that such emotions will occur, understand how to handle them, and manage the full spectrum of their own feelings when participants become emotional.
Some conversations can provoke impulsive or even volatile student responses. Instructors should remain positive while redirecting discussion-based learning back on course. Educators should determine the right environment for productive dialogue and evaluate how they can limit factors that stifle discussion.
Setting boundaries can encourage respect and active listening by all officers. For example, instructors should maintain a professional classroom atmosphere, appropriately handle conflicts and differences of opinions, and give all students an equal opportunity to participate. The absence of these key elements can threaten the learning environment and render it detrimental to effective dialogue. Discussion does not necessarily result in agreement, but it should lead to officers recognizing and appreciating perspectives.
Individuals communicate with not only words but also nonverbal gestures. Instructors often can determine students’ attitudes by observing nonverbals, such as head nods, eye rolling, eye contact or lack of it, and glazed expressions.
Classrooms where officers can see each other are particularly conducive to discussion. To facilitate conversation further, instructors should try to maintain a “poker face” while discussing certain topics so as not to create bias toward their opinion, attitude, or belief. They should maintain eye contact with officers—particularly the one talking—and practice active listening skills, such as nodding and showing interest with facial expressions.
True learning takes place when everyone in the class shares knowledge and considers different perspectives. Some officers will have experienced certain situations even the instructor has not. Classroom discussion often focuses on experiential learning because of the wealth of information LEOs have incurred over their years on the job.
Educators should focus on employing discussion effectively for student engagement, learning, and retention and address any barriers or misunderstandings that may arise. Productive conversations can help grow officers’ abilities to think critically and solve problems based on mutual learning. Offering them opportunities to improve their communication skills through class discussion may prove beneficial not only in the training environment but also in their community.
“To the best extent possible, instructors should try to create the proper environment to facilitate discussions about controversial topics.”
Dr. Lewis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 The author bases this information on her discussions with National Academy students and faculty from 2004 through 2018.
2 Robert F. Vodde, Andragogical Instruction for Effective Police Training (Amherst, NY: Cambridge Press, 2009); Mark R. McCoy, “Teaching Style and the Application of Adult Learning Principles by Police Instructors,” abstract, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 29, no. 1 (2006): 77-91, accessed March 18, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235314391_Teaching_style_and_the_application_of_adult_learning_principles_by_police_instructors; and Eric Paul Werth, Problem-Based Learning in Police Academies: Adult Learning Principles Utilized by Police Trainers (PhD diss., Liberty University, 2009), accessed March 18, 2019, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=doctoral.
3 Ruth R. Kennedy, “The Power of In-Class Debates,” Active Learning in Higher Education 10, no. 3 (2009): 225-36, accessed March 18, 2019, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.894.5343&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
4 Stephen D. Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).