The Challenge of Inert Knowledge

My last piece, “I Will Not Go In That Building, Let Me Tell You Why,” was written attempting to highlight the role psychology plays in decision making, especially in decision making under stress. In that piece, I discussed the concepts of cognitive bias, specifically confirmation bias, anchoring bias, and the availability heuristic. An engaged reader pointed out very specifically how my article on bias was in fact biased! I have to agree, it was biased, it was biased FOR THEM! It was biased to change the way we think so we error on the side of viable victims. That, however, was not my intended purpose, I was merely highlighting the psychological challenges we face when making a decision under stress to ensure we are making appropriate considerations including our inherent bias.

This is the same approach I take in my own risk management paradigm where I look for reasons to enter a building knowing that I am biased and therefore may overlook warning signs telling me otherwise. My personal risk management philosophy focuses on the Mission, the Men, and Me (in that order) as explained in the book of the same name by Pete Blaber. This places a bias on my decisions because it places importance on the mission and my people over myself and my own interests.

This reader’s response highlighted another notion I see becoming more and more prevalent in today’s fire service. Actually, as a matter of concern, its seen across society. As explained by Driscoll (2005) “traditional teaching practices result in inert knowledge, or the inability of students to use what they know in relevant situations.” She continues, “novices have difficulty solving complex, real-world problems because they tend to memorize rules and algorithms in school in a decontextualized way.” (p.161) This can be highlighted by the discussion on bias from my previous work. By pointing out how we may be biased in our decision making, I shifted the bias because I did not provide context. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), the best context in our line of work comes from making fires. It is at those fires where we are able to actually apply the theories of fire and smoke behavior, building construction, cognition, psychology, and our own will in a meaningful way.

This is how we fill our Rolodex with both successful and unsuccessful experiences. It’s been asserted this is how we fulfill the prophecy that is normalization of deviance. I challenge that assertion by pointing out that the disaster that struck Challenger and Columbia are not comparable. In both of those events, there was clear no-go criteria that was ignored after careful (or reckless) consideration. A discussion on cognitive bias and its impact on decision making should help to ensure that careful consideration occurs. That careful consideration is what fills our Rolodex with experiences both good and bad.

Driscoll, Marcy P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 3rd edition. Boston, MA: Pearson: Bacon.

About Jon Misewicz 13 Articles
A 17-year student of the fire service, Jon most recently served 8 years with the Memphis (TN) Fire Department as a Firefighter / Paramedic and Instructor. He is completing a Master's Degree in Education. His passion is training that translates knowledge to real world applications.