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Teaching in the classroom is necessary for passing on knowledge to firefighters. But chances are that some of your firefighters grumble as they enter the room and cringe at the thought of reliving the educational nightmares of their youth, and for good reason.

February 5, 2015
By Chris Davison-Vanderburg

Instructors should use PowerPoint as a visual tool A poor classroom instructor can easily cause his or her students to lose focus on training

Firefighters have a love/hate relationship with training, specifically with lectures and presentations. Firefighters love it when the instructor is engaging and motivates them to pour their hearts and souls into the job. There is nothing better than walking away from a conference or training room and having pride in the fire service reignited, with new ideas or techniques planted as seeds in the brain.

Conversely, there is nothing worse than recognizing within the first three minutes of a training session that the instructor is terrible. A poor instructor sucks the life right out of his or her students, and passion for the fire service takes a hit. It is painful to sit still while someone monotonously reads, word for word, slides created on some sort of corporate template – students watch the seconds tick on by and long for the next break. Students become even more frustrated when an instructor mutes all classroom discussion and recounts story after story about his or her own experiences.

To be fair, people in the fire service don’t end up as instructors because they are formally trained educators. As a result, most instructors don’t necessarily consider teaching methodology when preparing lessons.

You might be familiar with Steven Covey’s seventh and final habit for highly effective people – sharpening the saw, the habit of continuous improvement. The next time you prepare a lesson, consider how effective your instructional methodology is and think about how you can improve the experience for your students. Time spent sharpening your instructional-technique saw will help you motivate firefighters and keep them interested.


Here are three strategies that will turn even the crustiest, back-of-the classroom, paper-airplane throwing, know-it-all fire-service veteran into an engaged student.

■ Flip the classroom
Most instructors tend to spend classroom time either covering theory that students could learn better at their own pace or reviewing what they already know. Time wasted in this way causes eyes to roll and the washroom breaks to increase. Flipping the classroom means introducing new concepts and performing knowledge review through pre-class activities, and focusing the valuable classroom time on practice, activities and group discussions. When instructors do this, student engagement increases.

It helps if instructors resist the urge to work on their PowerPoint presentations. Stay analog for as long as you can by crafting every other aspect of your training session first. If you start digital, you may miss the big picture. When you use your initial preparation time to really define your learning objectives, you will recognize how to be efficient with your face-to-face time. Instructors often spend so much time cramming everything they know into PowerPoints that they lose sight of the learning objectives and how best to achieve them.

Take, for instance, a presentation on ladders. Ideally we begin by defining our learning objective – what is the successful outcome of a ladder-training session? Is it more important that your student can throw a ladder safely and efficiently, or name the parts? I don’t care if firefighters use the term halyard or rope, as long as they can place the ladder where it needs to go, safely and efficiently. Preferably, firefighters know both terms, but my instruction time with them is limited, so flipping the classroom allows us to spend the instructional time conducting ladder drills.

We have become so accustomed to PowerPoint presentations that our default when we need to teach something is to start building the digital presentation. We begin with introductory slides of the different ladder types and parts, right?

Should we really include photos detailing every part of the ladder? Would it not be better to be in the apparatus bays looking at the real thing? Or, better yet, have the students point out the parts to demonstrate that they have completed their pre-class reading and then begin practical evolutions? We just need everyone to be able throw a ladder. Keep away from the computer. That’s right . . . stop. Take a slow step back and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.

As an instructor, it is important to recognize that theory is best learned at the individual’s pace, so assign reading, e-learning modules, or pre-class assignments to your students. Consider making a video of your lecture so that struggling students can rewind, pause and re-play concepts that they aren’t grasping, and top students can fast forward through to the key points.

Now that you have prioritized your time for effective learning, you can begin the next phase of your course development – creating activities.

■ Guide on the side
The sage-on-stage teaching model is an industrial-age leftover from a time during which knowledge was held by few and information was not readily available to the masses.  The ever-wise, all-knowing teacher stands at the lectern on stage and spills out everything he or she knows about a subject while the students listen attentively and take notes. Let me officially put a bullet into that model because it is dead. Welcome to the information age. Frankly, you never know who in your classroom knows more about the subject than you do, so be open to learning from anyone. That veteran in the back of your class will quickly turn off if you don’t acknowledge his or her experience and provide opportunities to speak. All adults bring experience to the table and if you encourage them to share, you will nurture engagement.

Your job is to become the guide on the side; you want to facilitate rather than maintain absolute control – pull knowledge and information out of every possible source in the room by creating an environment that is conducive to collaboration, a none-of-us-is-as-smart-as-all-of-us environment.

How do you create this type of environment? Design your lesson plan for active learning instead of passively sitting in front of a presentation. Active equals activities, and figuring out what those activities will be is more important than working on your PowerPoint presentation. Stay away from that computer.

Break down your learning objectives into the key points. The key points for a class on ladders might be:

  1. Selecting the right ladder and placement for the job
  2. Safe ladder use
  3. Techniques for working from a ladder

With defined key points, you can now design your instructional activities around them. For example, when it comes to selecting and placing the right ladder for the job, create an activity in which groups review photos of fires at different types of structures. Assign tasks for each picture and ask students how they would select and place the ladders.  For example, access the roof in photo 1, perform a rescue in photo 2, vent a window in photo 3, and then discuss the results. Instead of telling students how your department always selects and places ladders, the students discover for themselves how to do it. You’ve moved from passive to active.

To maintain high-energy levels, break up lecturing time with an activity every 15 minutes. Be creative and build an activity repertoire. For many instructors, using activities is not a new concept but there is a big gap between knowledge and application and it boils down to planning: you will be more successful if you prioritize the development of your activities before creating a digital presentation.

OK, you can open up your software now.  

■ PowerPoint as a visual tool
We desperately need to alter the way we use presentation software and discover its true potential. This begins with letting go of our past experiences with this type of technology. I can distinctly remember being taught the six-words-on-six-lines bullet-point rule of PowerPoint in an instructor course. Well, the only bullet that should go anywhere is directly into that rule. Even six words on one line is too much information for a single slide. We’ll dive into working memory theory in the next article, which will focus solely on presentation software, but the take-home message is that we overload students when we have them listen to words and try to read at the same time. The screen can become a powerful tool that can evoke emotion and support our instruction, but it shouldn’t become the star of the show. Dumping everything that you know about a subject into your visual presentation is going to leave students frustrated, and they’ll be whispering and passing notes in the back of the classroom. Using single images and one or two words that support what you are saying will help students maintain interest and increase the effectiveness of your lecture. We’ll examine this next time.

If you keep sharpening your instructional techniques saw, and master the strategies outlined here, your students will walk away from your training sessions saying how much they loved it. It takes work to become an engaging and motivating instructor, but I hope you’ll agree that having firefighters who are eager for more is certainly worth the extra effort.

Chris Davison-Vanderburg is a training officer with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services. He has been a member of the fire service since 2004. Email Chris at or follow him on Twitter @CapHyphen

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