If It Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Called Training

Issue 11 and Volume 9.

In the movie A League of Our Own, Tom Hanks plays the role of a baseball coach yet speaks words that are directly applicable to today’s fire service trainers: “If it were easy everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.” These words resonate with the training officer, and all fire service officers who take training seriously. The job of fire service training requires analysis, synthesis, and evaluation skills. Its no coincidence these skills occupy the highest, and most difficult level of a foundational keystone of education theory, Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Every Fire Instructor I has learned about the taxonomy in their methodology coursework. Yet like so many gems we study early in our careers, the memories of Bloom fade to an obscure memory of a test question, rather than a keystone of learning. Simply stated, Bloom reminds us it is relatively simple to ‘recall’ or ‘list’ items, whereas it is infinitely more difficult to analyze, synthesize and evaluate a subject.

FOR Example

Take a fire service ground ladder, for instance. The easy solution to teaching and assessing your recruits is simply to have them list the parts of the ladder. This could include some comprehension skills such as labeling a diagram, or citing facts about the 1¼” diameter of the rungs at 14″ on center. An easy lesson is put together or borrowed from the textbook in a matter of minutes. The test is easy to grade, and feedback is as simple as a percentage of items labeled correctly. That, in a word, is easy.

But the hard … is what makes it great.

Take those same recruits and put them on the fire our own department faced last week: a three-story, 24-unit multiple dwelling. A breezeway fire, believed to be arson, blocked the only means of egress for residents. Fire consumed the breezeway on floors 2 and 3 and rapidly extended into the roof. The scene was complicated by access problems including a retention pond and 15′ retaining wall on the Charlie side.

It is clear that easy, or low-level knowledge, such as being able to identify the halyard, has limited value when citizens are climbing down sheets tied to balconies and jumping from windows. What we needed right then, and now, was firefighters with high order thinking skills. They needed to quickly analyze the rescue problem, synthesize the capabilities of the available resources, evaluate the options, then select and execute the best solution. Our firefighters performed brilliantly because our training officers chose “the hard” in training for this worst case scenario.

Because It Matters

So why do exceptional fire service trainers choose “the hard” over “the easy” every time? This selfless question is at the core of this article. The simple answer is: because it matters. Great fire service trainers don’t see instruction as a series of check boxes and skill sheets. They take the time to dig much deeper than knowledge and comprehension. They strive to develop high-level cognitive skills backed up by flawless muscle memory in the basics. This combination doesn’t come easy.

But you can use “the easy” to unlock and plan “the hard.” The recipe requires you to first take a look at your subject matter and list out the knowledge and comprehension items. Use the action verbs in Table 1 to create a handful of learning exercises.

Using a process of elimination, boil the lower-level knowledge and comprehension down to the “must-know” elements. In our ground ladder example this could be the anatomy and physiology of a ladder—what are the parts and how does it work. Now create some skills and drills to support this learning. For example you could have recruits draw a 24′ extension ladder from memory labeling all the parts they can recall. This can grow into a hands-on exercise asking small groups to tag and label all parts of the ladder complement carried on the engine.

Raising the Stakes

Now jump directly to the higher level: evaluation. Define exactly what your firefighters need to evaluate and choose between options. With the ladders at our multiple dwelling fire, cite what information is necessary to evaluate: 1) what rescues need to be made, 2) what ladders are appropriate, 3) what carries and raises would work best for the situation and 4) exactly how the limited resources on scene will be deployed to do the greatest good.

In this example, students must know the capabilities and limitations of each available ladder. They must know how many personnel are needed to deploy each, and what skills are required to successfully execute a rescue. This becomes the task list for developing your objectives. These objectives will eventually build on the lower-level skills to create a comprehensive and complete training episode.

Write each objective on a piece of paper, or page of a Word document. Now brainstorm two or three drills to support learning this objective alone. At this point, don’t worry about the context of the skill. For example, if you identify the need to secure the tip of the ladder to a balcony, write the objective simply for that task alone. Don’t worry about what comes before or after. Simply identify how you would evaluate if the firefighters were proficient at completing this objective. To finish the page, list one or two resources and add a link to a diagram or YouTube video you believe clearly demonstrates the objective. These resources will prove invaluable when assembling learning materials.

Now group the objectives according to Bloom from simple to complex (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis). Wordsmith the objectives by adding the action verbs from Table 1, and work to make each objective a standalone document, with clarity that matches the level of the taxonomy for which it is written.

Now build the learning episode from simple to complex. You may want to utilize online or pre-course learning to address the lower-level skills of knowledge and comprehension. Consider the audience and match the level of the taxonomy to the audience. For example, a ladders class for a new recruit is much different than one for an experienced truck company. Strive to push firefighters to higher levels in the taxonomy no matter what skill level you are teaching. Create a lesson that builds from the simple to the complex, and culminates with firefighters making high-level evaluation. For example, guide a discussion that asks the truck captain to defend his ladder selection for a specific objective. Follow up with comparing and contrasting two ladder types for a specific task.

In Sum

You must not only teach “the easy” or “the hard.” You need a combination of brains and the brawn to do the job. Always remember: “The hard … is what makes it great.”