This article and the related 'ADF Values Training Transformation' is developed from a previously published article, 'Training Transformation and ADF Values: Helping Trainees Identify their Line in the Sand', Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (2022), 54-62.

Where is training transformation most critical?

Training transformation is inviting a paradigm shift beyond instructor-led, classroom-based residential learning. Part of this is making training available just-in-time and on-the-job with enhanced technology, online access, and regional delivery. Yet training transformation can have a dual meaning. As well as alluding to new systems of training, the term is suggestive to me of the need for individual “training transformation”. Training that transforms character has to be seen as most critically important.

So what part does character development play in the overall transformation of the training ecology of Army? As well as transforming training as something to do to our learning systems and overall organisational ecology, Army needs training that is focused on transformation of character for the learner. Inculcation of Army’s Good Soldiering philosophy through dedicated character training is part of what can set trainees up for a career that embodies service, courage, respect, integrity, and excellence.

Initial Employment Trainees (IETs) in the training continuum

As training transformation is stretching and adapting Army’s training systems for soldiering and technical skills of Initial Employment Training, there is a parallel need for the foundational character that our next generation of soldiers need for the challenges they will face.

The reality is that we do not know all the ethical challenges that our trainees will face in their careers. They will hold and face the power of emerging technological, psychological, and cyber capabilities that soldiers of previous generations never dreamed of. They may deploy in contexts of peacekeeping and humanitarian, counterinsurgency, and diplomatic missions that present all sorts of ethical and moral dilemmas.

The Australian command and control system, and the demands of contemporary operating environments, devolves enormous responsibility to soldiers. Army soldiers at all ranks need the best of our training transformation efforts for their tactical and strategic decision-making, and not any less for the ethical decision-making that is an intrinsic part of combat behaviours.

Brigadier Rupert Hosking AM, when Commandant of the Royal Military College - Australia, said that character is at the heart of everything we do, and that it is built over time – through practice, reflection, and – sometimes – hard lessons. That might be an informal continuum for some, but it also needs be part of the formal continuum for all trainees.

It is true that character cannot be taught in a classroom, but it can be reflected upon there. What character training transformation lessons can provide, whether in person or online or other self-directed learning, are contexts for reflection on what trainees are experiencing in their broader Army training context. Classes can offer learning spaces for trainees to consider what and where they want to develop.

Adolescent learners

One key aspect of a learner-focused posture with trainees is that they are mainly adolescents. Developmentally and socially, this is a risk factor for ethical behaviour. The adolescent brain – and especially its capacity for self-control and risk-awareness – is not fully developed. Training Establishments have seen results of this with misconduct incidences, especially during previous COVID lockdowns. Regardless of the need, however, lecturing trainees on unacceptable behaviour in the short-term, or unethical soldiering for the long-term, will not necessarily help them mature their values.

Colonel Brad Kilpatrick’s insights on adolescent learning strategies have helped the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and instructors understand their training audience and how they think and learn (or why they don’t think ahead and misbehave).

As Commanding Officer and Chief Instructor at ADFA 2011-2013, Colonel Kilpatrick responded to issues of unacceptable behaviour, bullying, binge drinking, social media misuse, mistreatment of women, intolerance of difference, and lying to staff to cover up. From studies of adolescent brain development and educational psychology, he identified 17–23 year-old cadets and midshipmen were not adult learners but adolescents with tendencies of higher risk taking and underdeveloped empathy, impulse control, and higher-order decision making. Thus ADFA developed more adolescent-specific learning strategies.

As a chaplain committed to character training transformation, I have sought to work with instructors to implement adolescent strategies outlined by Colonel Kilpatrick. For instance, we seek to posture ourselves as approachable instructional staff in a supportive environment – including usually hosting character training in the chapel or the soldiers’ club as a safe space.

We seek to underline the importance of the topic by giving it time. We scaffold from movies for inspiration, though also seek to critique unhelpful stereotypes. We focus on problem solving with scenarios rather than knowledge transmission. We focus on ethical decision-making processes rather than suggesting there is only one certain answer to a dilemma.

Wherever possible, given adolescents’ underdeveloped empathy and the motivation of dealing with personally relevant issues, we invite trainees to reflect from their own perspective and current or future contexts, rather than seeking to identify with someone else.

We acknowledge the importance of peer status with group work. So, we avoid the “Question, pause, nominate” approach to individuals and instead help trainees feel less threatened or singled out by using small group discussion then group response to report on what the group thinks. We respond to demonstrations of desired thinking and behaviour with immediate generous positive feedback in front of peers.

Transforming character slips

Another part of our adolescent learning strategy is discipline and behaviour management. We understand they are legally adults (or soon will be for the occasional 17-year-old) and as soldiers are responsible for their actions. Yet we also understand they are still forming as adults and sometimes need to learn what responsibility for their actions means.

Lieutenant Colonel Philippa Cleary explains that “behaviour management” is not just about punishing wrongdoing but about paths to redemption that also build character. Mistakes can be opportunities for learning. When trainees make ill-advised decisions, staff urge them to admit and learn the valuable associated lessons. When soldiers feel like they need to cover up, the risk is a culture that hides rather than deals with problems. When soldiers of any level are prepared to own up and be transparent about mistakes, we can build a stronger Army, according to Lieutenant Colonel Cleary.

One way we help trainees see mistakes as an opportunity for growth is by explaining the difference between character slips and character flaws. Chaplains Luke Skipper and Rob Sutherland helped me understand this distinction. Character flaws are an identified and ongoing problem with a person’s decision-making. They an area where ongoing improvement is required. Less leniency is given to those with known flaws and who do not proactively attempt to correct them.

A character slip is a misjudgement by otherwise sound soldiers. Usually, more leniency can be given to slips since the soldiers themselves are their own harshest critics and will less likely repeat mistakes. This distinction can also help commanders when determining post flaw/slip remedial action.

A character slip may occur one or more times but is generally a result of a cerebral process where judgment is lacking, such as when an adolescent has not assessed the risk or consequences or reacts inappropriately to the pressure of situational pressures or group factors. A character flaw results from incompatibility with ADF values. Someone with flawed character does not belong in the Australian Army. But if they slip up and make a bad decision they can acknowledge and learn from, then they can become a better soldier and contribute to a better Army.

I heard of a discussion about problems with young recruits and tendencies towards poor decisions and misbehaviour. One response was to suggest that recruit school commanders should toughen up, tolerate it less and remove offenders earlier. But a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) spoke up in defence of young recruits. The NCO explained they had reached their rank but when they joined had displayed a normal share of slips in judgment.

What is needed, the NCO urged, is a recognition that our recruiting base is adolescents, and we can expect they will need some discipline and guidance. We should not be surprised at this, nor should we discharge the difficult ones as a first response; rather we should correct and discipline where needed, and only move out those who will not take correction.

Where is training transformation most critical? Training that transforms character has to be seen as most critically important.