Blue Line

Cognitive apprenticeship in police training

October 1, 2019  By Peter Shipley

If we are going to develop and support adaptive police learners, then organizations need to develop “personal learning analytics...” Photo: OPP.

More emphasis needs to be placed on the development of critical and analytical thinking skills in attempting to address the future training needs of police officers. Unfortunately, some police training has not progressed enough in order to address this increasingly complex role. One of the ways to enhance this is ensuring the curriculum is designed with a constructivist principled approach.

Researchers Sandhya Baviskar, R. Todd Hartle, and Tiffany Whitney (2009), as well as Brooks and Brooks (1999) provide excellent descriptors of the theory of learning through a constructivist approach. Samuel Yoders (2014) identifies the essential features of constructivism in practice, which include:

learning is characterized by cognitively active learners; learning should happen in context and be structured around related themes or primary concepts; new knowledge constructs are built upon prior knowledge; new knowledge should be applied and feedback provided; learner self-reflection on the learning process is a key learning activity.

This process has to occur in police training and education; not just with new recruits, but coach officers and investigators as well. New recruits have to learn basic information that is fundamental to policing like the Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and provincial statutes, use of force, etc., before they can ever “enforce” the law. We shouldn’t be teaching a recruit to handcuff and search someone before they have a clear understanding of what a citizen’s rights and freedoms are. Learning has to be constructed on these related themes and built upon.

Subsequent to that they must understand and apply the correct “arrest procedure,” which incorporates key elements such as informing the person they are under arrest as well as providing them with their rights to counsel and ensuring they understand those rights.

Vygotsky’s (1978) work in the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) is absolutely critical in police training, especially for coach officers. Schunk (2012) describes this area as the difference between what a learner can do with or without assistance. Vygotsky’s early work of overcoming this difference centres on “how all knowledge is constructed and where cognitive development occurs” in police training; once recruits master the theoretical knowledge required to be an officer, they have the opportunity to apply this knowledge in practical, realistic simulations.

Related to this training is a key element called scaffolding. This process is the educational technique that assists the learner to close the gap in their cognitive ability found in the ZPD (Yoders, 2014). A well trained, knowledgeable, experienced coach officer will be able to effectively guide new recruits through the ZPD.

Another important concept for coach officers to understand is what Collins (1991) describes as “cognitive apprenticeship.” This is where the transmission of expert knowledge to a novice occurs in a gradual manner via specific processes, which includes:

  1. task or problem modelling or demonstration
  2. provision for performance feedback
  3. scaffolding via decreasing levels of assistance as the learner progresses, allowing the learner to become increasingly autonomous
  4. mentoring by monitoring progress, evaluating performance and helping overcome specific weaknesses

Although this “cognitive apprenticeship” is exactly what should occur in policing, we can always improve how this is constructed both formally and informally in the field. The coach officer, for instance, will demonstrate how to conduct a professional vehicle stop, and then have the recruit perform that task. If the recruit makes a mistake, they should be provided feedback along with the opportunity to demonstrate improved proficiency. One of the ways our police training has implemented scaffolding is through an effectively designed process of feedback and achievement.

There are recruits who are released during their probationary period because they just cannot make that transition from the theoretical aspects to practical application in the field. Just because a recruit scores 95 per cent on their academy examinations does not guarantee they will make a good police officer. Asking if they are able to “apply” what they have learned is one of the key questions. Recruits will make mistakes, which is one of the ways in which we all learn. When a learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts, then “transfer has occurred” (Medsker, Ertmer, & Newby, 2013, p.52).

If, however, the recruit is not demonstrating some of the competencies, they need to be supported and provided with additional opportunities to succeed. They should be mentored continually by coaches monitoring their progress, evaluating performance and assisting them to learn how to apply what they have learned.

Although behavioural and cognitive strategies are very valuable and applicable to police training, the constructivist strategies are also important contributors to the learner’s task knowledge. “As all students’ learning will involve errors, tasks should offer opportunities for self-assessment, correction, peer discussion, teacher feedback and other ‘reality checks’” (Teachers Toolbox, n.d., para 1).

In policing, errors can be devastating and erode public trust. In fact, Smith (2000) notes that “almost every training program I design benefits from a combination of behaviourist and constructivist approaches” (as cited in Cronje 2006, p. 405).

A blend of all three approaches may be needed or, as Medsker, Ertmer, & Newby (2013) point out, we need “adaptive leaners” when “optimal conditions do not exist, when situations are unpredictable and task demands change, when the problems are messy and ill-formed and the solutions depend on inventiveness, improvisation, discussion and social negotiation” (p. 63).

In other words, in today’s increasingly complex environment “police learners” must be “adaptive learners.” If we are going to develop and support adaptive police learners, then organizations need to develop “personal learning analytics” that are specific to the individual as well as to the organization. Although a fairly new phenomenon from higher education, there is a direct application for police leaders to be aware of when deciding how to improve training and education. However, most police agencies do not have the expertise to address this demand.

Brown, Iszler and Hall (2012) indicate that between 60-80 per cent of learning takes place outside of formal contexts, yet we spend the bulk of our staff development resources on formal training. Still others report evidence of up to 70 per cent of what is needed to learn to perform the tasks of the job, does in fact occur informally in the field, “on-the-job” (Giovengo, 2017, Biech, 2017, Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick, 2015). Van Dam (2012) estimates that the rate is even higher – at 90 per cent.

These statistics point to the importance of scrutinizing the initial formal training to ensure the curriculum is well designed from the onset in order to provide a solid foundation for police officers.

It is safe to conclude that the majority of our learning occurs informally. The high-quality training that recruits receive make us hopeful the “errors” in judgment they make in the field will be minor in nature.

The role of the coach officer or field training officer has never been more critical than it is today. Police training institutions must take an evidenced-based or evidence-informed approach to learning in order to design and implement the best possible training curriculum that supports public safety.

This latest research confirms Collins’ (1991) work on the importance of “cognitive apprenticeship.” If most of the learning is occurring informally – “in the field” – and not at the formal police training institution, then policing needs to continue our pursuit of evidence-based approaches to ensure that the initial training curriculum is firmly structured.

One final note to re-iterate is that police agencies need to consider implementing effective and appropriate “personal learning analytics” – not just career mapping.

*The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the OPP.

(This article is a modified version from the original, called “Coaching and evidence-based learning,” which can be accessed in the Journal of Community Safety and Well-being.)



Baviskar, S., Hartle, R.T., & Whitney, (2009, March 11). Essential criteria to characterize constructionist teaching: Derived from a review of the literature and applied to five constructivist-teaching method articles. International Journal of Science Education, 31 (4), 541-550.

Biech, E. (2017). The art and science of training. Alexandria, VA: Association for Talent Development.

Brooks, M.G., & Brooks, J.G.(1999). The courage to be constructivist. The Constructivist Classroom, 57 (3), 18-24.

Brown, R.M., Iszler, B.P.L., & Hall, A. (2012). Corrections learning and performance: a vision for the 21st century.[NIC White Paper]. US Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. Retrieved from

Collins, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology. In L. Idol and B. Fly Jones (Eds.) Educational values and cognitive instruction: Implications for reform (pp121–138). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cronjé, J. (2006). Paradigms regained: Toward integrating objectivism and constructivism in instructional design and the learning sciences. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(4), 387-416.

Giovengo, R. (2017). Training law enforcement officers. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press.

Kirkpatrick, J. & Kayser-Kirkpatrick, W. (2015). An introduction to the New World Kirkpatrick Model. Kirkpatrick Partners Newnan, GA. Retrieved from

Medsker, K. L., Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.

Schunk, D. (2012). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Teachers Toolbox (n.d.). Constructivist Teaching Strategies. Retrieved from

Van Dam, N. (2012, April). Designing learning for a 21st century workforce. Training and Development, 49-53.

Vygotsky, L. S., Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S., Souberman, E. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Yoders, S. (2014). Constructivism theory and use from 21st century perspective. Journal of Applied Learning Technology, 4(3), 12-20.


Dr. Peter Shipley, M.O.M., Ed.D., currently serves at the Ontario Provincial Police Academy in the role of chief instructor and is also the past president of the Canadian Association of Police Educators. He has also recently served as the General Chair of the State and Provincial Police Academy Directors of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in reading Peter Shipley’s article, titled “The professionalization of police training in Canada” from January 2019.

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