“We train to standard, not to time.” How many of us have heard that in a training program before? How many of us have said it ourselves at some point? I know I have. Unfortunately, much like quite a few other points of common “knowledge” that have become accepted throughout the training industry, this approach doesn’t do us, or our students, any favors.
There are two ways this phrase is used, so let’s look at each of them independently. The first is to justify long, often grueling training sessions which exceed the defined parameters of the instructional period. “You’re going to learn in my class. I’m going to teach you what I know that you need to know, not let class out just because the time is up. You don’t like it? Well, too bad. You’re not getting killed because I was too lazy to do my job right. Suck it up, buttercup.”
While not always popular with students, the common instructor mindset behind this approach is both admirable and laudable. This instructor, whether all of the students can see it or not, probably genuinely cares—a lot—about the welfare of the students. This instructor understands that the real world is not the range. This instructor understands that, when the bell tolls, it’s too late. At that moment, you either have it or you don’t. As a result, by God, this instructor is going to do everything possible to make sure students have everything possible before letting them go.
The second (and more common in organizational training) way that this phrase is used is to justify cutting training periods short and letting students out early. “Everybody here (including me) has more on their plate than they can handle right now. Everybody is tired. Everybody is stressed. People have lives, responsibilities, families to think about. Everybody has already been through this training, or something equivalent to it. Besides, we do this same thing every six months. What’s the point in keeping everybody here for eight hours just so I can sit around for another two to fill out some paperwork? Nobody is going to learn anything anyway. Everybody here can pass the qualification course right now. If we get them all through the qualification in the morning, I can get everybody out of here, get this paperwork knocked out after lunch, then get back to the work from last week that I’m still behind on.”
How many of us have been there at one point or another? (I’m raising my hand.)
The problem with these approaches to training—while neither of them is the result of either “bad” decision-making or nefarious intent, is that they both have a negative effect on the long-term viability of the students’ skillsets and operational performance potential.
Let’s look at why.
First we’ll look at the components of the statement itself, the first of which is “standard.” What is a standard? Why does the standard even matter? Presumably we are training people to make good decisions and ultimately prevail in armed conflict—if it comes to that. Does anyone’s organizational “standard” involve putting two people in a room with guns and seeing which one comes out alive—without committing a murder?
So, if our standards don’t functionally represent the operational skill requirement then why would we, as trainers, use them as the definitive indicator of our need to continue training? Furthermore, from an operational perspective, why are most of the standards that we use (ie. qualification courses) even relevant to whether or not a student is ready and able to perform on the street? I expect that most of us probably have the same answer to that question. Simply, “They aren’t.”
The second component of this statement is “time.” To understand this, we first have to understand why time is important. Or, in other words, how time affects not only training, but also learning. On the training side of this, it’s relatively simple. Time affects us in three ways. First, it determines how much information we can present. Second, it impacts how much practical time the students can have to work with, apply, or be tested on the information we’ve presented them. Third, it affects both our and our student’s sustainability during the instruction. Like it or not, fatigue is real, and it affects both us, and our students.
Most of us, as trainers, are quite familiar with time and its effects on our ability to train, especially because we never seem to really have enough of it. What about the other side of this equation though? What are the effects of time on learning?
When we sit predominantly on the training side of the interaction, this is something we often forget about—though we should not. In its most simple form, teaching and training are communication; effective communication is not accomplished simply through transmission. The transmission must also be effectively received and understood.
So how does time affect learning? Let’s look at a few ways.
First, it impacts the brain’s ability to form the neural pathway traces that develop as learning occurs by limiting the potential for repetition—one of the key components of the development of memory traces. The more times that something is done, the more likely it is to be learned. Neuroscientists refer to this phenomenon as Hebb’s Law, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Second, time impact’s the brain’s ability to produce the chemicals and proteins necessary for neural networks to develop. Over the past several decades, we have discovered that learning is actually a process that involves physical changes in the brain. These changes involve protein synthesis, chemical reactions, electro-chemical signal transmissions and a host of other incredibly complex functions and processes, most of which are not yet fully understood scientifically. What is understood—and what is important for trainers to understand—is that these processes take time. More to the point, learning takes time; it, biologically, cannot be rushed.
Third, time impacts the brain’s ability to transfer information from one memory system to another. Relatively recent research in brain science has shown that the brain actually contains multiple memory systems. These systems are functionally separate, yet are capable of each containing the same information. (The same data can exist at multiple places in the brain simultaneous, much like the same file can be stored simultaneously on two different computer drives.) For our purposes, as firearms trainers for armed professionals, it is critically important to understand that the human brain can only reliably access one of these memory systems when under duress—that is procedural memory.
Early stages of training put information and data into the short-term memory system. Then, if the information is retained (learned), research suggests that it is most likely transferred first to the long-term declarative system. However, in order to be available for access under stress (such as during a lethal encounter or other critical incident), this information must be transferred to and stored in the long-term procedural memory system. This transfer and storage must occur during training—before the critical incident occurs—and, like other forms of learning and information storage, this transfer takes time.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, many of the biological processes that are required for actual learning to occur inside the brain require that the information is NOT being actively used before the process can occur effectively. In other words, too much training time in a single day or session can actually, biologically, have a net NEGATIVE impact on the students’ learning potential, not a positive one.
Let’s now circle back to the two approaches that result from, “Train to standard, not to time.” The first one—grinding it out until we drop from exhaustion—actually doesn’t do too much to help learning. In some cases, this may even hinder the students’ potential. The second one—knocking out the qualification and getting everyone about their day—this doesn’t really even involve learning. There’s no repetition involved, neural networks are not formed or enhanced, brain centers and functions are not connected, novel connections and applications are not pursued. It’s basically just a paperwork exercise to keep warm bodies on the street.
So, if “train to standard, not to time” isn’t the right approach, what is?
I’m going to make some recommendations, considering the information that was covered above. Let me start by saying that this is big picture, structural stuff—and that this is the place where organizations who recognize the need for changes and improvement can both really make a difference and definitively get the most bang for their buck. If an organization insists on working within the structure of the traditional firearms training systems, there’s very little they can do to affect positive change for their readiness and performance. The exception of course being the addition of massive quantities of training time and other additional resources to their budget.
On the other hand, if organizations and agencies want to make significant—positive—changes to readiness and performance WITHOUT increasing their overall resource footprint, there is plenty that they can do. However, it requires some fundamental changes to the structure of the training system itself.
One of the most important components of this change is the recognition that standards, as we currently use them across the industry, are not designed or intended to prepare people for operational competence. Therefore, qualification should not be viewed as the objective of training, but rather as an administrative component of the training process. Instead, the objective of training should be re-shaped to creating and enhancing the neural networks necessary for operational performance. These networks should be targeted into the desired long-term memory system of the student, by design.
Once this shift in mindset is made, training systems can then be designed from the ground up specifically to prepare students for operational performance. This approach is not only more effective in terms of training, it is also far more efficient in terms of the allocation and use of resources. Furthermore, standards can be designed in such a way that they enhance the student’s development process and provide valuable feedback to the training staff with respect to the training system’s effectiveness.
In essence then, the objective of an individual training session, or day of training should involve neither standards, nor time. Instead, the objective becomes the predetermined coding, enhancement, or linkage of defined neural networks within specific memory systems in the students’ brains. Don’t train to standards. Don’t train to time. Instead, train the brain to perform during critical incidents, by design