This is the final in a series of four articles about the civilian firearms market that we’ve written. This series is in response to some excellent questions received from readers who teach primarily in that area. In the first article we discussed the motivations of civilian students, specifically regulatory compliance, experiences, entertainment, and (as a distant finisher) education.
In the second article, we examined some of the practical business aspects of the marketplace such as scalability and overhead, as well as their effects on training quality. In the third article, we applied these market considerations to the various structures used in the civilian training market, including one-day and half-day classes, multi-day courses, and the “martial arts” model. We also looked at the advantages and disadvantages of each from the perspectives of student motivation, business, teaching value, and, also, learning value.
In this final article we’re now going to take this body of information and examine how instructors can apply the principles of modern brain-science to the training structures of the civilian market. The objective will be to produce better long-term results from the students.
If you haven’t read our book, it contains an overview of how the human brain learns and recalls information—specific to the needs of those who must ultimately perform in high-stress operational environments that require decision-making skills. We’ll briefly touch on some relevant high-points here for the purposes of this article.
Because of the brain’s architecture and function (as an information system) the needs of individuals who are training for (or training others for) performance during critical incidents are quite different than those addressed through traditional educational structures and systems. People who must perform skills and make decisions while under the control of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) do not have the luxury of accessing their brain’s full battery of memory. The chemicals released into the brain during periods of high stress prevent this from occurring. Instead, people in these environments are largely limited to the use of information contained in a specific long-term memory system—called procedural memory.
Unfortunately, traditional educational structures (and most of the structures that we currently use in both the civilian and professional sides of the firearms training industry) are not designed to put information into procedural memory. In fact, most educational and training structures are not designed to do much to impact learning at all. Instead, they are designed to facilitate teaching—the effective presentation of information. Actually learning the skills and information? That’s largely left up to the student in most cases. Instructors simply put out information and (with respect to firearms training) endeavor to keep the training safe. Most everything else is usually on the learner.
From the business angle (and with respect to the marketplace) this whole arrangement works pretty well. After all, the students are generally less concerned with learning than they are with getting their certificate, having fun, or garnering a “bucket list” experience. The students who actually are concerned with education will judge the quality of the information presented—and equate that to educational value. They intuitively understand—and are also told by most quality instructors—that they must practice on their own before they can truly learn the skills and information.
Unfortunately, many range facilities make it very difficult to train individually with live-fire in practical skills such as shooting on the move, rapid fire, and drawing from the holster. Furthermore, real, practical force-on-force training in the civilian sector is rare, usually expensive, and certainly cannot be accomplished effectively during individual training. That requires some infrastructure and other people.
Even among that force-on-force which is available, the close-range, fast, and extremely brutal nature of most deadly force self-defense situations precludes real practical simulation in most commercial settings. To be truly realistic, such training requires an entirely separate unarmed skillset, requires physical capabilities outside the reach of many students in the civilian market, and also routinely produces injuries (cuts, broken fingers, deep bruises, concussions, sprains, strains etc.) that are generally considered commercially unacceptable.
For most students, it’s very difficult to really train (and learn) sufficiently in a realistic way “on their own.” It is true that much (though not all) learning can be accomplished through well-structured “dryfire” training. However, the lack of feedback received through this training method can also quickly lead to the consolidated development of poor technique. Significant training scars can also be developed when the training is performed improperly.
Too, the reality is that very few students actually “need” functional firearms skills out in the real world on a routine basis (if ever). Outside of competitive shooting, (in our opinion a valuable—though somewhat different—animal) there is little that can indicate to a student whether they have actually learned or not—at least related to preparedness for a lethal force encounter.
I’m sure every instructor reading this has had a student with a wholly inadequate skill or performance level turn to them and say, “This is what works for me,” especially during entry level training. Watching them, you know that’s not true; it mostly certainly does NOT work for them. Their skills aren’t likely to produce positive results should the rubber ever meet the road.
However, because that student has no actual personal frame of reference to understand what works and what doesn’t, nor any personal tools to evaluate what the term “works” actually means, they are self-convinced that things are fine. (Self-delusion is always easier than self-awareness.)
Unless you’re in a really high-level training environment (in which case you are unlikely to have this problem), you probably can’t show them it doesn’t work either. If nothing else, it’s likely to be a safety issue—they don’t even have enough skill for you to show them it doesn’t work without taking the chance of hurting them. Therefore, when it comes to really impacting students, sometimes it’s a wash—and very frustrating.
You want to help your students. You want to make them prepared. Often though—you can’t.
So let’s back up a few paces to more broadly (yet succinctly) frame the problem.
Learning defensive firearms skills effectively is very difficult to accomplish “on your own” outside the confines of a quality, formal training infrastructure. At the same time, formal training infrastructures are neither intended to produce, nor capable of producing, effective student learning.
Let’s clarify what we just said—to avoid confusion. We aren’t saying that the training content is bad. We aren’t saying that the instructor is bad. Both may, in fact, be excellent. We are saying that the structure of the training itself is what precludes effective learning.
No doubt about it; it’s a conundrum, especially because the training structure is largely dictated by market forces and student expectations—not instructor desire or knowledge.
So, what can we do?
Of course, the “right” answer is patently obvious. We can change the structure. In the last article we talked about several structures that work very well in terms of learning value, specifically the PADI model, the martial arts model, and the personal trainer model. Any of these structures can be exploited to produce extremely effective learning environments.
Unfortunately, as you already know, it’s not that simple. Resource limitations are real. Time limitations are real. Student limitations and lack of interest are real. And, we all have to live in the real world. (Snarky comment about politicians withheld.)
Because this is true—that we live in the real world—we’re going to spend the remainder of this article proposing and examining a slightly different approach to training. The specific methods we’ll discuss are not necessarily “ideal.” However, they are based in applying what we know about the brain to maximize the effectiveness of training programs within the confines of our existing infrastructure. Because it’s the most common structure, we’ll focus mostly on the one day class here.
We’re going to start by proposing something we are going to call a Hippocratic approach to training. Just like in medicine, Do No Harm comes first.
Unfortunately, the effects of progressive interference and the high levels of stress hormones that can accompany entry-level training mean that a well-intentioned training program, that contains very high quality information, can actually harm a student’s long-term potential as much or more than it helps it.
As instructors, we should try to avoid this—damaging students’ potential. Who cares how much information we put out, or how high quality it is if we are hurting our students’ in the process? (Please note that we are not advocating for low quality training or information).
The structures dictated by the market may limit our ability to impact effective learning; however, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to understand, and ultimately change for the better, what we are doing, neurologically, to students in our courses.
If you find that your students are consistently doing things like slapping the trigger, flinching, gripping the weapon incorrectly and/or inconsistently, and using a wide variety of different shooting positions and types of body mechanics (like inconsistent and varied drawstroke performance), there’s probably a reason they are having these problems. Most likely it’s because you (or another instructor) taught them that way. You didn’t mean to perhaps—but these issues are common byproducts of substandard training infrastructure and methodology.
Note: Yes, it’s true that real life does not necessarily lend itself to things like a consistent shooting stance—that doesn’t mean learning the fundamentals at the beginning isn’t important or ultimately beneficial operationally.
A student who instinctively grips the weapon differently each time they access it, or who flinches and slaps the trigger incessantly, or has one or more hitches in their draw stroke, or who cannot engage even a static target past a few yards because they don’t have the capacity to attain an adequate visual reference under any level of stress—has a very long road ahead to become a “good” shooter with a functional defensive skillset. Depending on how badly ingrained the problems are, these issues may even significantly affect their personal safety potential.
As most of you already know, it’s very difficult to “unteach” these issues. Mostly, it’s up to the student putting in a lot of long hours to overcome them. However, since the problems are actually our “fault,” (as the instructors) this does seem a bit unjust.
So, what if we take a different approach? What if we make sure that we never teach students these things in the first place? (Or at least approach an 80% solution in this regard—after all we’re talking about a real-world system involving people, not fantasy land.)
We may not be able to give our students a fully adequate skillset in a single training program—given the infrastructure limitations we face. However, there’s no reason why we can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid screwing them up and placing significant barriers in their pathway to functional proficiency. Just because we can’t fully solve the training problem in our one day (or other) programs doesn’t mean that we need to create more of them or make things worse.
Proposing A Hippocratic Approach to One-Day Training
Author’s Note: The baseline method and concepts outlined in our book Building Shooters are focused on making fundamental infrastructure changes to training systems. Those core concepts have been used by us in a variety of environments and have consistently produced excellent long-term results—though empirical, peer-reviewed study is still forthcoming and necessary. What follows is theoretical application of scientific principles to improve results in more common training environments. When we teach one-day or similar programs, we apply these principles during training and have seen extremely positive results from them with respect to relative student performance. In our opinion, these are the currently known best-practices for delivering training within existing market infrastructure limitations—and we will explain the “why” in terms of basic neuroscience in the section below. However, both because our business focus and experience is largely organizational in nature, and because the lack of consistent follow-up with most students in the civilian industry precludes effective long-term evaluation, we believe (given the scientifically-based nature of this site and our general approach to training) that it is appropriate to disclose that our experience applying and evaluating the effects of these principles is far more limited than it is for our core methodology.
Do no harm. That’s where this approach starts. Always keep it safe of course; but, it’s OK to be entertaining. It’s OK to do “cool stuff.” It’s OK to have fun in class. It’s even OK to give the students what they want—though you may know it’s completely useless to them practically. (We’ll caveat this by saying that this should fully be disclosed.) What’s not OK is to do actual harm to the students’ long-term performance potential—especially without their informed consent.
How do you know if you’re doing harm? If there’s a doubt—diagram it out. In Building Shooters we present and explain a simple graphical modeling tool that facilitates evaluating a training lesson in terms of what’s actually happening inside the students’ brains. If you’re putting more into the brain than it can hold—especially if you’re expecting the students to do things with repetition and/or under stress—you’re probably hurting their long-term potential.
Define the Learning Objective
With the Hippocratic underpinning of this approach defined, the next step is to clearly define the actual learning goal for your training. In other words, what do you want the students’ short-term memory systems to look like at the end of the training day? Again, use the modeling tool. Draw it out—we do.
Recognize that your ability to affect learning is limited to how much you can put into short-term memory. You’ve only got one day, so pick information that will fill short-term memory up (you’ll be shocked at how little it is when you dig into the modeling)—and that’s it.
That’s your learning objective. That’s as much as you can put into the students’ brains. You may actually want to do less—believe it or not. Alternatively, you may find that you exceed the theoretical modeling parameters in order to get a complete skill in (such as loading and unloading a firearm). (Real-life is what it is, theory is helpful, but we don’t live in theory land.) If you do need to exceed the parameters, that’s OK. Just keep it as close as possible—this will help you produce better results.
Develop the Learning Plan
You’ve now defined your learning objective, (which probably looks pitifully small). However, this doesn’t automatically mean the students will learn it. It probably doesn’t look like much on paper. However, it’s entirely possible for you to fail to accomplish this goal.
Just teaching a relatively small amount of information isn’t enough to create learning. You have to plan to intentionally place the information into the students’ brains. This involves getting the information into the brain, letting the brain stabilize it, telling the brain that it’s important to keep for the long-term, then letting the brain accomplish the processes necessary to consolidate and transfer.
Let’s look at how.
Before somebody can learn something, they first must receive the information. This sounds simple right? It’s really not. It’s important to recognize that when you talk to students, everybody is usually hearing something different—and none of it is likely to be what you’re actually saying.
There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that each person’s brain has a kind of filter in it. This filter sorts out information, only letting a small percentage through into the short-term memory system.
What this means to us is that we need to not only put out the information or skills to the students so that they all get (more or less) the same information into their sensory input (hearing, vision, touch), but we also need to get the information through their brains’ natural filtering systems and into the short-term memory system.
The technique we’re going to use to do this is priming.
We talk about priming extensively in the book and lay out the science behind it. However, basically, you can think of it like punching a hole in the brain’s filter. You don’t get through the filter, but you punch a hole so that the next time the information shows up—it goes right through. This works really well in long-term programs where overnight breaks occur between training sessions, but we’ve observed that mini-priming (doing it all in the same day) can also produce positive results.
So, look at your learning objectives, and plan to start with the most complex (or most important) stand-alone skill. If you could have them learn one skill only—this is it. With beginning handgun students, that’s probably locking the slide back to the rear on a semi-automatic pistol, but it could certainly be something else depending on what you’re teaching and what level they are at. You’re the instructor, you know your own goals for the class; we won’t presume to define them for you here.
At the beginning of the class—immediately after covering the safety necessities and introductions—teach your most complex (or perhaps most important) skill, and have them do it a few times in a structured way that prevents bad habits from forming. We like the EDIP process (Explain, Demonstrate, Imitate, Practice) for most applications. If you want to learn more about this tool and applying it to firearms training, we recommend Mike Seeklander’s book The Art of Instruction as a good place to start. He does a really nice job laying it out and applying it specifically to firearms training.
It’s likely that many of the students won’t really get it right here. In fact, it’s likely a lot of them won’t even understand what you’re doing or why. And that’s OK. You’re not trying to teach them anything. You’re trying to prime them so that when you actually teach them this skill later—the information gets into the brain.
Now you can take a short break—then use some of your filler material. We all have it. It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just stuff that’s more conceptual or background information than it is critical to actually learn for the long-term. The important concept here is that you don’t want to re-tread on the same neural space as the information you just used.
If you can think of a way, you can also use this time to try to create an emotional link—to the skill you’ve primed. Maybe you can use a personal story, maybe a video. Ideally you want something with an emotional hook to it that connects directly to the outcome or objective—the goal—of the skill you just primed. This will help the brain prioritize that information as important.
This entire “fluff” time period should be around an hour or so. Not too long, but you want to give the brain some time to relax and focus on something other than performance of the specific information you primed.
Now it’s time to teach.
Go back to the beginning, almost as if you’d never presented the information before, and teach the skill again—in depth. Again, the EDIP process is as good as any and better than most for use here. This time around, you want to really focus on skill performance, and getting in some practice repetition. Answer questions, take your time. Make the students practice. This is teaching time—this is where you get the information through the filter and into short-term memory.
Now you’re done teaching. Not everybody will have it perfect, but they are hopefully solidly on the right track—so take a break. Make it a long one.
Neuroscience research gives us three different time-periods that are relevant to what we’re trying to do here (keep the information in the brain without corrupting it). The first time-period is five-to-ten minutes. Right after information is placed into the brain, it is incredibly vulnerable to being corrupted or lost completely for five minutes or so. You don’t want this to happen—you want stabilization in short-term memory to occur. Keep in mind that you’ve primed this stuff—so it should have gotten through the filter. Then you taught it, with repetition in performance and practice, ensuring that you formed the correct memory traces in the short-term system during the teaching session.
Now you need to leave it alone.
Don’t take a chance—any chance—of corrupting that data. That’s your big tamale in there. It’s the one thing you want them to learn. So, give their brain a break. Tell them to chill out for a bit—goof off even. Give their brain some time to stabilize the information.
When the break is over, immediately have the students practice the skill again. You’ve given the information a chance to undergo its initial process of stabilization in short-term memory. Now, fire those neural circuits again. Show the brain that this information is important—important enough to keep long-term.
Since you’re in a more traditional training infrastructure (like a one-day class), you’ve got more stuff to teach and no choice but to do it then. So you should. Notice what I said. You should teach, not prime. We’re working in a non-ideal system here. We are limited by structure. We’re also limited by time. Whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it in 8 hours—and we’re already probably close to 2 hours in. So, you teach the next skill. Again, EDIP works great as the process.
Notes on Teaching Other Skills
You’re stepping up in-front of the class, ready to teach. Say you’ve just taught grip and shooting cycle. That’s your big tamale for the day. Now you need a new skill to teach, because you’ve got the time, so you decide to teach reloading.
You have a chance here—a chance to really screw the students up. If you haven’t read it, when you’ve finished this article read about progressive interference. So don’t do that.
A couple of the things that can really effectively form long-term procedural memories are stress, fear, and multi-objective, chaotic learning (interleaved training methodology). A lot of traditional range training is based around the use of shot timers. Personally, I think shot timers are an awesome tool. If you’re not training with one, I think you’re hurting your potential and preparedness for a fight. Truly. However, like any tool, there are things they are good at and things they are not.
One of the valuable things about shot timers are that they add a component of low-level stress. This can improve learning. They can also add a component of high(er) level stress if there’s a competition involved. This is especially true with newer students who may well be under significant levels of stress already—just from being in a live-fire environment. Think about that. For new students (of any gender) stress is almost certainly already present—at higher levels then you’d like for ideal learning.
If you’ve read the book you know that low-level stress can be great for training men, not so great for women (neurological gender difference). And, if you’re teaching beginners (you are after all teaching reloads after teaching grip in our example) you’re already there. You don’t need to add stress to improve learning. In fact, you probably need to dial it back if you can.
Another thing that shot timers do is they facilitate things like running courses of fire. By default, this usually involves shooting, reloading, drawing, target transitions, often movement. Sound multi-objective? Sure it is. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the fundamental skill you’re trying to teach (grip in this instance) is NOT consolidated. The student won’t perform it with technical perfection—because they can’t do that yet. Therefore, what you’re really doing is applying very effective long-term learning methodology to bad technique!
We suggest an alternate approach: don’t try to make the students proficient at it.
No, you didn’t misread that. Remember that you’ve already picked out your learning objectives. You’ve determined what those are by understanding the limitations of the human brain. It’s not that you don’t want to make the students proficient. It’s that you can’t without sacrificing your primary objective—and probably interfering with both skills in the process.
Instead of trying to make them proficient at this new skill you’re teaching, keep the underlying approach in mind. Do no harm.
Do a great job teaching. Put out all of the information. Have the students practice. But, don’t focus on making them good at it. Focus on not having them perform skills (including the previously taught grip—the goal) incorrectly.
Besides not causing harm, your primary objective here is to show the students “what right looks like.” You can’t make them good at this today (and should tell them this—and why). However, you can show them the right technique, and you can put them on the right path (and an efficient path) to a functional skillset.
Now you’ve taught your next skill (reloading in our example). You did it thoroughly. You put out great information. The students didn’t learn it, but they will recognize “what right looks like” if they see it again, whether from you or another instructor. What now?
We’re going to introduce a technique here that we call regressive stabilization—mainly because it sounds cool.
Regressive means that we’re going back in terms of what we’re covering in the course. Stabilization means that what we’re trying to do is assure that our primary-objective-information remains stabilized with the correct memory trace in short-term memory.
This means you’re going to go back and work on (maybe even teach again) your primary objective for the course. In our example here, it’s grip and shooting cycle.
There’s an approach to training that’s all about the quantity. There’s also a similar approach that doesn’t want to ever go backwards—only forwards. (We have a very fast-paced course—ever heard/said that?) People are paying you, you want to put out as much as you can to them. No arguments here with the logic, or the intent. It’s honorable and laudable. It also may negatively impact the students’ long-term potential.
The idea of regressive stabilization in this type of training program is that you’re periodically going back and hitting your primary objective again. You don’t necessarily have to re-teach it every time. In fact, hopefully you don’t need to as the day progresses. However, with each new skill or drill presented, you go back and hit the primary objective again. Depending on the class and/or student, teach backs may be appropriate and valuable. Pairing students and having them watch and evaluate each other with respect to that one fundamental technique or skill may also have a lot of benefit later-on in the day.
You’re an instructor so you know how much this improves your own understanding of something—basically you’re engaging a lot more of the brain with that skill or subject matter when you do this.
It might sound a little counterintuitive, but this is probably something you’re already doing. When you are working with a brand-new shooter and they fire their first round, what are they almost certainly going to do on the next one? They are going to anticipate the recoil and flinch right? So, what’s a technique for addressing this? Have them dryfire a few times to get rid of the stimulus response, then load again. Ball and dummy drill, etc. Same concept right? You don’t let a student keep flinching horribly. You go back and work it out before the flinch becomes something they can’t reasonably break.
What we’re attempting to do with this technique is two-fold. First, with the continual performance and feedback, you’re trying to do everything you can to preemptively limit the effects of progressive interference. You want the memory trace for this skill at the end of the day to be as close to perfect as you can get it. The other skills you have to teach are going to interfere. There’s nothing you can do to stop that. However, this technique greatly mitigates the potential damage.
The second thing you’re doing is you’re telling the student’s brain, “Hey! This information right here—it’s really important!”
Recall that in order to create learning, we need to get the information to the senses, then get it past the filter and into short-term memory (preferably uncorrupted). Then we have to let the brain know that the information is important enough to store. With this suboptimal training model, we’ve given the brain a lot more information than it can hope to store. Because of that, we need to help it prioritize. That’s why we picked out what we wanted to make sure the students learned before we started, and that’s why we’re using regressive stabilization. Tell the students’ brains that this information matters!
There’s another time hack in this process—that’s five hours. Twenty-four hours (including off-line waking and sleep time—sleep preferably within 12 hours of training) is the minimum time required for transfer to long-term memory. Five-ten minutes is our initial stabilization time. Five hours is the point at which the information has (more-or-less) become stabilized in short-term memory and is ready to begin the consolidation process.
One of the things that we discovered in our literature review research for the book is that accessing information during the consolidation process interferes with the transfer to long-term memory. This means that if you keep hammering away at the students much past five hours, starting from your initial teaching session, you may actually be doing some harm to their learning potential.
How much? Honestly we don’t know at this point. It’s one of many thing we hope to research in the future. However, just be aware that this is a possibility.
Practically, this means that you should probably be thinking about shifting to some sort of wrap-up or shifting to non-skill (or totally different skill) based training about five hours after the first teaching session. In a perfect world, from this point forward, you want to avoid anything that will be pulling from that same neural space.
Using the general plan we’ve laid out here, you’re probably coming close to 8 hours anyway. You did introductions and safety. You primed. You did some filler/fluff material for about an hour or so. Then you taught—in-depth and took a long break. Realistically, with breaks, you’re probably in the 3-hour range at this point, making an 8 hour day just about “perfect” (at least for the non-perfect training structure we’re trying to work with).
This wraps up our four-part series on applying scientific research to the civilian training market. As mentioned in the first article’s introduction, this market isn’t our primary interest. We’ve worked in it, but it’s not what we really want to do in the industry as a primary focus. We come from the professional side, and we are passionate about helping the folks there face some of the really significant challenges that they encounter on daily basis.
That said, we’ve gotten some great feedback and some fantastic questions from the civilian side, both public and private, that prompted this series of articles. We intended it to be just one, but in order to do it right, it kind of grew on its own. The point here is, please keep that stuff coming in. We answer a lot of privately sent in questions, and sometimes they also lead to full-length articles. Sometimes they also require a more private response (there’s some stuff we won’t go into “open source.”)
We are also learning a ton though these dialogues. Especially if you’re an instructor, we think you should always consider yourself a student first. We sure try to. Everybody has something to offer and probably most of the folks who read this page have something (or a lot) to teach us as well—and a lot of the other readers.
This is too long so I’ll wrap it up here. We think we have some unique experiences and have been in some unique positions that have given us a somewhat different and hopefully valuable perspective that benefits instructors and others involved in training. That’s why we’re doing this. That certainly doesn’t mean we know everything—we don’t. Please hit us up on Facebook, or privately through the site if you have questions, comments or whatever. We’ll try to answer if we can. If not, maybe you can teach us something and we can pass it along.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned. We have an exciting year planned, lots more coming…