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Differentiating Training in the Emergency Services

AppleFollowing on from the research on how different we all are, it is also worth sparing some thinking time to how we then differentiate learning to meet the needs of the varied learners that we know exist in our training groups. Differentiation needs to consider:

  • Content – Resources and methods used to instruct and share information
  • Processes – Activities learners undertake to better understand content
  • Products – Demonstrable outcomes or questions answered to assess skills and understanding
  • Environment –  How and when learners need to be learning

There is tons of generic education research available listing strategies to support differentiation of content, process and product. Google is your friend – check some ideas out… but always ask yourself: will this standard suggestion work for me in the Public Safety Sector? Hmm, often the answer may be ‘sorta, kinda, maybe’ because we have some extra challenges to face here.

Emergency Services in Australia delivers mainly competency based training and assessment and awards nationally recognised units of competency. For consistency of delivery and reliability of assessment, training material is mainly developed at an organisational (and increasingly, a multi-agency) level.  The content, processes and products are already set and for many valid reasons, trainers and assessors are not required to (and are often discouraged from) developing their own sessions and materials. Let’s also add on top of this time pressures to complete training within available session times and the need to have members “job ready” ASAP!

So how do you differentiate learning when you have standardised session plans and tight time frames to train it in?

1. Work within constraints of your current training

As a quick summary of what generic education research suggests, key strategies for differentiation includes:

  • Using inquiry/problem based learning scenarios
  • Delivering material in a variety of formats and using different learning styles
  • Chunking learning into smaller parts
  • Focusing on need to know not nice to know
  • Using buddy systems

Some of these should hopefully already be developed into your standard organisational training materials. Others are training tweaks that you can apply within the normal session, such as asking people to buddy up for different activities or noting down where to pause for a quick brain break, state changer or repetition of key idea. As time allows, some things could be included as extra non standard sessions, especially in preparation for assessment. Problem based or scenario based activities are examples of this.

2. Support organisational level change to training materials and training approach

This is a solution that won’t happen overnight, but can (and needs to!) happen. There are several agencies already heading down the road of differentiated learning, so hopefully the thought virus will spread quickly. Learner, trainer and assessor feedback that gives helpful and concrete suggestions are a major part of this. Ideas include:

  • Using of bite size learning videos demonstrating different skills and knowledge
  • Using of skill and drill cards for practice activities
  • Incorporating a flipped classroom approach
  • Learning in reverse by using reflection and debriefing after practical scenarios, not just front loading  the session with talking followed by practicing (presenting information through both whole-to-part and part-to-whole)
  • Including cooperative and inquiry style activities into the standard session plans when theory must be covered this way, such as “think, pair share” strategy and traffic light reflections
  • Documenting/clearly incorporating/guiding on the job training and assessment opportunities
  • Offering links/opportunities for deeper or further learning, such as links to the next level up of training or via Wikipedia type information
  • Including re-training opportunities in the training calendar for learners needing support

Now for one last suggestion that we are not seeing much of in this sector… Let’s try training less.

This suggestion is currently impacted heavily by the need to cover requirements (oh so many requirements) that form the units of competency… The process undertaken to generify units of competency because “one hat must fit all” in the sector means many things are skimmed over or branded by trainers and assessors as “just something we have to do for the competency but it really isn’t that important or relevant”. So do units cover more than the real essentials and the minimum requirements? Let’s take a really hard look at ourselves and our roles the next time the Public Safety Training Package is up for review. Maybe then we can focus on training less but doing it in a way that meets the different needs of members.

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