Fire Fighting in Canada

Dynamic teaching and flipping the classroom

Creating a dynamic learning environment is not as hard as you think, it is sometimes the small things that make the big difference.

February 22, 2023 
By Jennifer Delaney

A visual demonstration is often a better example of theory than a conversation. PHOTO: Jennifer Delaney

Teaching in the fire service happens on many levels, in many classrooms, and with all kinds of students.  With certification to NFPA standards looming in the future, there is likely to be more teaching than ever in fire departments across the province of Ontario to ensure we all can be successful.  Did you know that we don’t have to do this using an online ‘death by PowerPoint’ method?  

Many different teaching strategies have come to the forefront in recent years.  Terms like flipping the classroom or learner centered training are what is being broadly used in classroom education.  The fire service is a unique classroom because we regularly teach, review and update skills.  We work in a very dynamic environment that constantly changes.  

Your goal is to guide the learning by letting the students tell you what they know and then create methods where they can apply that knowledge:  scenarios, exercises, discussions.  The engagement of the students is much better because they are part of the conversation and part of the lesson.  

They may have their devices out, but it is to look something up or to answer a question using a group platform like Kahoot or Quizlet  or Mentimeter.  Gamification to validate learning is another great way to get the attention of the learners and have them show you what they have learned. Technology is not the enemy, nor is it the teacher, it is merely another tool for us to use. 

Creating a dynamic learning environment is not as hard as you think. It is sometimes the small things that make the big difference.  

I remember taking the trainer facilitator course, which is what the Ontario Fire College taught to those wanting to teach before the adoption of the NFPA standards. An idea my instructor spoke of comes back to me often when I am organizing training.  He explained that a visual demonstration is often a better example of theory than a conversation. It is definitely more memorable.  We were discussing incident command and the challenge for both the IC and the crews in explaining things in a way that the other could picture in their mind. 

My final presentation was on communication and the importance of using language everyone understands to paint that picture.  I had a practical exercise to help re-enforce concise language and using common terms. I had put the IC in a different room and his crew at the front in the classroom, where the remaining firefighters could see them respond to the communication.  

The IC had to provide direction on how to make a peanut butter sandwich using the radio to communicate instructions. The crew was armed with bread in its bag, peanut butter in its jar, and a knife. The two parties confirmed what resources were available. I am sure you can imagine the reaction of the class when the IC stated that the first step was to put the peanut butter on the bread, and the crew members took the jar and put it on the loaf of bread! 

Sometimes describing things to others based on what you see in your mind is not as simple as it seems.  We all make assumptions about what others know. They all laughed, and the next groups got better and better with their language, breaking down the communication and instructions into small steps, and being concise in their instructions without making assumptions. 

When I teach NFPA 1041 Fire Instructor 1, I start the conversation asking the class to tell me about their favourite teacher or coach. This conversation produces some great traits we collect on the board/ flip chart. My next question is why they like learning something new. The answer to this question is often the same: to help me do my job, to keep me safe, and sometimes because I was told to/ have to. I then ask them to tell me the things they don’t like about learning or taking a course. Answers include presentations/slide shows that don’t directly relate, all the unlikely scenarios used to qualify that the student knows what to do, and often they mention all the sitting in a class and just listening. 

The students will comment it is ironic that we take people that generally move around a lot doing their work, and then we sit them in a classroom for days at a time to learn something that, when you do it, is very dynamic. 

Flipping your classroom and creating that positive environment can be done a few ways.  

One method you can use is to break the class into groups and have each one assigned to a different topic or skill. They can develop the knowledge the student must have; the skill they can demonstrate at the end of the training, and the steps they can take to get there. Is it going to be instructor led in a step by step process or from watching, and then doing?  What should they read or review first? What equipment or tools and what space will they need? This makes your students think about the steps involved in learning for their topic. It makes them consider what is related; both big picture and small steps. 

The next part of this step is to have these groups present their topic. They can share their plan with the class or you can have them deliver their training with one of the other groups. Depending on time and how simple the skill is, you may find this is the best way for them to consider all the steps. It often doesn’t quite go as well as they expect, and they only learn this by doing things according to their plan! This type of teaching has the student far more involved in what they learn and more engaged as a learner.  They will also have a far greater sense of how things are connected and can then apply that knowledge in new situations because they understand how to use what they learned. 

Another way to flip the classroom is to provide them with media/research/ NIST reports on historical fire events that were game changers for us as an industry and have them present to their class about why this event has taught us so much.  I am a firm believer that you need to understand where we came from to know the importance of why we do things that way now.  

The Brett Tarver, Worchester Six, Dennis Redman or Billy Wilkins all changed the way we performed things as firefighters, or inspected buildings as fire inspectors/ for a preplan, and/or reviewed their fire safety plans.

With this method, you are helping the student drive their own learning. This method creates an active learning environment that is much more memorable and impactful to the student. They have a sense of satisfaction because the knowledge they have was validated. 

Be that dynamic instructor and work with your students on the best way to make the learning work for everyone! We all want to come away from the classroom or course feeling energized and ready to take on the next challenge. 

Jennifer Delaney is platoon training instructor with London Fire Department in Ontario. 

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