Reflect on the last career course you participated in, and its duration. Mine was seven weeks long. Now consider what you could learn in that time period, if taken away from your life – your family, work, hobbies, distractions – in a dedicated block of learning, for eight hours a day. For me, in seven weeks I could have learnt the basics of a new language, learnt an instrument, learnt how to program machine learning, or completed two intensive study periods of a degree. To open this example further, on my course was a panel of roughly 60 officers. In seven weeks, you could have developed 60 personnel to become the Army’s future cyber capability. That is potent. Now consider the actual outcomes you achieved. Did you find it wanting? I believe we can be better, but I encourage you to disagree with me on this journey based on your own experiences.
The current problem
Army’s career courses are poor relative to the investment they require from their students. This is particularly disappointing given their importance in developing our command capability. It has been said that the Army is a learning organisation, yet I contend we are failing to effectively deliver on our most important training and disenfranchising large numbers of our maturing leadership. Poorly developing our soldiers and officers during critical career courses could have dire ramifications – including an inability to outperform our adversaries. And war is hardly known for being kind to those in second place. Daily, our training organisations and teachers are striving to do great work. Their professionalism is often second-to-none, and their desire to do the best they can for their students is admirable. Moreover, there are some excellent instances of forward-thinking, open, safe, and learner-centred training. The hands-on trade training at Army Logistic Training Centre, and the Combat Shooting methodology are but a few. But my experience on our ‘core’ career courses is enough to prompt me to believe that change is needed. These foundational courses provide the substance to our organisation’s leadership, tactical and technical skills. Therefore, we must continually ask ourselves ‘are we getting the best cost/benefit?’; are we getting better bang for our buck? I think not. We must challenge ourselves to be better.
The importance of investing in our instructors
The building blocks of an elite force could be a combination of three pillars – people, equipment and training. I’d argue our people are some of the best the military has ever employed, and our equipment is world-class, yet our career training leaves much to be desired. This is because the military fails its instructors by not suitably preparing them to teach. Given our instructors are responsible for shaping the minds and talent of the Army’s future – a less critical role there is likely not – such training is vital. Yet we do not select our instructors for suitability.
Given civilian teachers require at least one year of focused higher education to become qualified and must hold a tertiary education, can we honestly say we run suitable education for our instructors? Do they really understand how to be the best teachers they can be? My observation is the Army simply allocates instructors based on when it fits their career model and then expects them to be proficient at teaching. Despite the best-intentioned induction training for instructors, their preparation is hardly comparable to a professional teaching education. Further, the limited nature of such induction training almost mocks the importance of being prepared to teach, and the seriousness of the role. Would it then be surprising if Army’s instructors were not teaching effectively, in alignment with modern understanding of education and learning?
I was once an instructor and can honestly say that I did not completely understand, or was prepared, to teach. Hindsight is 20/20. Yet what saved me, and likely many others, is the experience we all bring to instructional roles that give us an intuitive feel for what is right and wrong in teaching. We apply our Fingerspitzengefühl with limited capability to critically think about our teaching, and our learners. We learn through osmosis; ‘monkey see, monkey do’. If you’ve been the beneficiary of excellent instructors, then it is likely you will succeed in mimicking at least some of their positive performance. Yet just because a degree of success can be (and has been) attained, does it make it optimal?
Such success is largely a bi-product of intuitive, reflexive or ‘systems 1’ thinking and not the result of deep, considered understanding on effective teaching. Systems 1 thinking results in attitudes akin to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’, or ‘that’s how I did it’, which is anathema to change and improvement.
Some proposed Improvements
To begin to think deeper about our teaching, we must challenge every supposition we have about our training. How often are our career courses reviewed for relevancy to modern operations and tactics; or scientific practice for teaching and learning? When a Battalion Commanding Officer returns to teach on a career course and finds the same assessment they conducted over a decade ago as a student, I’d offer we are not doing our best. But what does ‘our best’ look like?
Many have studied this field which we can draw from. Ed Hess, a researcher and author, astutely identifies that the best learning organisations combine the right people, with the right environment, and the right processes. Each of these topics is worthy of their own book, but I’ll attempt to focus in on things the Army could do now to improve each of them. Firstly, and I believe most critically, we need to immediately instigate education and training for our teachers – i.e. we need to train our instructors to be teachers. This training must ensure instructors understand the science behind learning, teaching techniques, and student motivation and mindset. Such an improvement would be relatively simple, yet requires command driven coordination to achieve. I’d suggest the Royal Military College – Australia is a well-suited organisation to implement and oversee such change. Making this improvement will cascade across our career course curriculum, as our instructors use their education to improve our training.
Secondly, our training environments can be improved. Environments that facilitate the best learning should mitigate inhibitors; like fear of failure, stress, negative emotions, and ego defences. They should encourage learning through intrinsic motivation, and be learner-centric, forging an atmosphere of trust. Further, they should not punish learners for making learning mistakes or failures in non-assessment situations, so long as they learn from those mistakes or failures. The need for such change is being recognised slowly around the Army, the best example being Combat Shooting training which I have spoken about before. Yet there is still much work to be done. I propose the Systems Approach to Defence Learning (SADL) process could incorporate activities / steps to ensure effective learning environments are developed.
Further, our teachers should be instructed to understand what this looks like (and what it doesn’t look like). The body of work required to achieve this would be relatively straight forward. Much of it exists in current literature. It merely requires acknowledgement that this change needs to happen, and assign an appropriate organisation to implement it, perhaps starting at our initial training institutes like ARTC and RMC-D. Lastly, the right processes generally already exist within the military. The After Action Review is the most contemporary example that readers will be familiar with.
We simply need to reinforce the use of such tools, and their importance for critical thinking and activating ‘system 2’. If anything needs to change, it is ensuring we continually review the relevancy of what we are teaching to ensure we are consuming our student’s time for maximum benefit.
Once upon a time our Education Corps played a greater role in Army’s teaching. They understood (and still do) how to get the best results from their students and could apply modern teaching principles. Yet the Army has decided to reduce this capability, and we are left with our current system. Just like the expression ‘you go to war with the army you have’, we must learn to ‘teach with the instructors we have’. If we do not challenge ourselves to be better in delivering career training to our soldiers and officers, we are at risk of falling behind our adversaries; developing incompetence in areas vital for protecting lives and wasting the most precious resource to us all – time.