I Am Not An Animal!

I Am Not An Animal!

When Old Tricks 9-1-1 Training Isn’t Enough

By Sue Pivetta

If you have a training program that evaluates only performance and skills you may be using a learning theory called behaviorism.  Behaviorism is a theory of animal and human learning that only focuses on observable behaviors and discounts mental activities.

It is true that learning is supposed to result in a change of behavior BUT not only behavior.  So, what does this have to do Comm Center console training?  Do you ever wonder why a trainee can perform perfectly for you but when they get out there on his or her own they either freeze or fall apart.

Pavlov’s Dog Conditioning

When you evaluate a trainee on a ‘skill’ we are looking at their performance under a certain set of circumstances.  We are teaching the trainee to react to a given set of commands.  When those set of circumstances and commands are not present, the trainee must ‘think’ through what to do in this particular situation. How well they ‘think’ may be based upon how much experience they have had with thinking through similar situations.  Of course you cannot recreate every call for them.

Some reactions must be trained by behavior, such as learning to understand how to answer door pages or respond manually to alarms or security doors.

Behavior training can be defined as conditioning.  There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern:

  1. Classic conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. The phone rings and we answer it in a certain way. “911, what are you reporting?”  A different line rings and we answer that in a different way.  “Jackson Police non-emergency.”

The most popular example is Pavlov’s dogs that salivate when they eat or even see food.  Think about a lemon right now.   Essentially, animals and people are biologically “wired” so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response.  We attempt to wire our trainees to behave or react to certain stimulus.

  1. Behavioral conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Basically, a simple feedback system: If a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more probable in the future. “Exactly, good response to that caller.”

The Rat Factor

The opposite of behavioral conditioning can be seen when there is negative reinforcement.  A trainee makes an error in judgment or is too slow in answering the phone and is corrected or criticized.  An example of this may be when rats are shocked when they take one step towards a food dish.  If they were to take two steps there would be no shock.  Of course what type of rat would be willing to take another step and risk more pain unless they did risk regardless of the pain?  That would be a very brave rat, a very hungry rat, or a rat that might be able to consider that not every similar step will result in a similar result – a thinking rat.

What Me Think? 

Behaviorism evaluators do not account for all kinds of learning, since it disregards the activities of the mind and only considers a physical reaction to stimulus not trainee’s  judgment.

judg·ment also judge·ment    n.

The act or process of judging; the formation of an opinion after consideration or deliberation.

    1. The mental ability to perceive and distinguish relationships; discernment:
    2. The capacity to form an opinion by distinguishing and evaluating:
    3. The capacity to assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions; good sense:

You can see from the above that in order to use good judgment, there must be the ability to formulate one’s OWN opinion, own perception, interpretations of relationships.  This is a very personal and internal process that usually is not shown to the trainee by the trainer.  So, the question is this – instead of asking the trainee to act like the trainer, we somehow have to allow the trainee to view the trainers – judgment process.  For that to happen, the trainer would not only ACT but think out loud about their actions.  “I checked status because ______.”.  Act and then explain.  Share perception, opinion or assessment and what it was based on that resulted in this particular action.  Sounds complicated but it’s not.  It’s training through dialogue.

 Provoking The Trainee

Traditional training may not be enough any more for 9-1-1.  Very rarely do you hear someone was fired at a Comm Center because he or she couldn’t adjust their chair, pull the paper off the printer, push the right button on the console, or click the right frequency with the mouse, or hit the door release correctly.  Examine many lawsuits and what you will find is a person that behaved in a particular manner – based on their judgment of what to do. We are often left wondering what possessed them to do that?  Often we can determine the culprit was acting without the brain engaged – which is exactly what behavior conditioning was meant to do but we can indeed act like our trainer without thinking like our trainer.

We are then ‘stuck’ with being able to behave correctly with scenarios only like those observed, performed, evaluated (sound familiar).  So what we want then is to not only allow access to the trainers BRAIN but the trainer access to the trainee’s thinking when confronted with a huge variety of actual calls – simulated, downloaded or heard BUT challenged.

It is said that a good teacher provides information, a great teacher provokes learning.  If there is any workplace on the earth that requires the worker to use all of their operational brain – it is emergency call taking and dispatching. Trainers cannot demand that trainees think, they can only provide a SAFE environment for them to do so.  To do this, trainers must be skilled at understanding the many and varied adult learning methods employed beyond responding to stimulus.

“Sit Fido!”

“Sit”,  I said, but instead he looked at me quizzically, his head cocking side to side, ears flopping gracefully.  Fido was obviously considering my request – formulating a judgment.

“Should I sit, why would I want to, what are the consequences of sitting, of not sitting, what is her intent and why now, why me, what are her motives and what would be the worst that would happen should I decide not to sit”

 He sat. I wasn’t surprised as Fido had excelled in his puppy training, it was a proud moment when I realized he had formulated an opinion after consideration or deliberation because he had the mental ability to perceive and distinguish relationships and the capacity to form an opinion by distinguishing and evaluating and moreover the capacity to assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions; and finally use good judgment!.  Good dog!  Let’s teach our new dogs old tricks through analysis, investigation, inquiry,


D.C. Phillips & Jonas F. Soltis, Perspectives on Learning,

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