Lessons from Life and Death Learning

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

Lessons from Life and Death Learning

I recently observed active-shooter training at a local middle school. For a full morning, 11 agencies (police, fire, and federal) rehearsed how they would partner if they were called to respond to an incident involving assailants, guns, explosions, and significant casualties. The scene was terrifying. As the events unfolded, it was also inspiring to witness the commitment and capacity of these tremendously dedicated professionals — as well as some of the most powerful instructional techniques available.

The emergency response professionals involved in this exercise were engaged in learning with significant consequences. They weren't passively absorbing theory. They were actively participating in practices that would have to be internalized as instinctive reactions.

3 strategies for effective learning

This was no normal training; this was life and death learning. However, I observed three elements that any effective corporate learning strategy might benefit from incorporating.

1. Realistic rehearsal

The architects of this active-shooter training constructed a high-fidelity scenario for the officers to engage with. Months of work went into selecting the right participants, creating a robust storyline, preparing volunteers, securing the props and ultimately preparing the environment and learning methods. Great effort was invested in even small details so the experience would replicate the complexity and variability of what might potentially occur in a real-life situation.

2. Real-time coaching

This active-shooter life and death learning experience was well prepared in advance; but it was equally well managed during the event. Participants weren't just let loose to engage in an uncontrolled free-for-all. There were seasoned coaches slightly off to the side of the action. They were charged with maintaining an appropriate pace and redirecting attention or effort to ensure that everyone received the most learning and value possible from the experience.

3. Reflection and repetition

After the scenario had played to its resolution, the entire group reconvened to consider what they'd done, what had worked well, and what different steps should be taken in the future. There was no faultfinding or criticizing — only observations and suggestions. Participants engaged in a constructive exchange of ideas. Unashamed and genuinely curious, they asked for guidance. They understood that improving their ability to respond could translate to fewer injuries and/or deaths.

Then, despite the heat and fatigue, they did it again. A second scenario was introduced, giving everyone an opportunity to immediately put into practice the improved approaches they'd identified and refine their performance and partnerships.

Lessons in effective learning strategies

Few of us work in as charged and high-stakes an environment as those who respond to active-shooter threats. But there are lessons in learning we can apply to the training of more routine skills and tasks.

Create test-run opportunities.

In most cases, there's far more to be learned by doing rather than listening. Create the conditions for people to actually perform the task or practice the skill as part of the training experience. If they don't do it there, it's likely they won't do it back on the job.

Make it real.

The problem with much of immersive or scenario-based learning is that the scenario itself is lacking. To make it an effective learning method, create rehearsal situations that parallel the complexity of real life. If you're teaching managers how to give feedback, invent a set of circumstances where things aren't black and white. Prescribe some of the most challenging reactions an employee might demonstrate. Approximate the reality that managers will face to the greatest extent possible.

Provide a guide on the side.

Typical role plays and skills practices proceed from start to finish even if the "players" are struggling or fumbling through. Getting it done seems to take precedence over getting value. Take these experiences to the next level by offering mid-point coaching. Stop after a few minutes to recalibrate and offer support to ensure optimal learning.

Unpack the learning.

One of the biggest (and most easily corrected) mistakes we make in training is shortcutting feedback and reflection. Allow for as much time to debrief as you did for rehearsal. Insights aren't instantaneous. People need to process the experience and make meaning out of it. And if this doesn't happen within the context of the learning experience, there's little chance that it will happen when people go back to their full, time-starved lives.

Take two.

After reflections, feedback, and improvement planning, allow people to seal the deal with a do-over. Those who struggled during the first round will have the chance to experience greater competence; and those who performed well will take their techniques to the next level.

Raising skills and performance in your organization

These learning methods can enhance the value of any learning experience. And while most training doesn't carry the risks and consequences of responding to active shooters, improving skills and raising performance does contribute to the life and vitality of an organization. So find ways to make use of these effective learning strategies in your organization.

How to Align Learning with Business Outcomes

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How to Align Learning with Business Outcomes

Align employee development to corporate goals throughout the employee lifecycle.


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