Don’t worry – the instructor is competent: Army training from the perspective of a Chief InstructorBy David Beaumont February 22, 2019
Callum Muntz, in Bigger bang for your buck – what if the teacher is ‘not yet competent’?, makes some excellent and incisive comments about how we train our soldiers and officers. He takes aim at ‘career courses’: those significant episodes of learning that are intimately tied to career progression. These courses comprise significant periods of time away from units, workplaces, and family and impose real opportunity costs - but for what is described as ‘poor return relative to the investment they required from students’. Callum proposes that the problem relates to the preparation of instructors for the important task given to them, and suggests good solutions to rectify the proficiency gaps. He also challenges us to converse on the issue in the open; a challenge that as a Chief Instructor of a school responsible for soldier and officer career courses I feel obliged to respond to.
Callum is absolutely right. We need to invest in the development of the right people who are given the privilege to instruct Army’s soldiers and officers. When we get these people into the training establishments, they deserve to be given the opportunity to succeed. Therefore, as Callum notes, we need to invest in creating the right training environments which enable best-of-practice outcomes. There are no other institutions in Australia that can teach a soldier or officer to fight a war, so it is imperative that we make our training systems the best that they can be. I’m not seeking to criticise any of Callum’s views, but would like to contribute to the worthwhile discussion from a different perspective. And yes, while we have our challenges, I do believe that the instructor is competent!
Before I outline these views, a few words on the Army School of Logistics Operations (ASLO) to establish context. This is important as Army’s schools are quite different from one another; the biggest distinction being between ‘Corps / technical’ and ‘career’ schools. I categorise ASLO as a ‘career’ school in that it provides 80% of the Army Logistics Officer training continuum through basic, intermediate and advanced courses, and the entire Subject Two training continuum for Army’s logistics soldiers. It’s not trade-based training. We instruct on tactics, operational logistics and Army and Joint strategic activities, applying a variety of teaching methods along the way. The School is the recipient of a career management system that has identified excellent performers as instructors – often senior at rank and promotion ready themselves. These are individuals who have had considerable experience leading others in tactical environments.
Perhaps this fits right in with Callum’s comments that instructional posts are ‘based on when it fits the individual’s career model’, but it’s hard to argue that Army isn’t trying to get the right people into the job. This leads straight on to the first of a number of challenges I have observed.
Instructor development is no replacement for experience. The only way in which we can assure a high standard of instructional ability is by giving individuals an opportunity to practice. In my experience this will only come after around a year of consistent instructional time; anything better (or worse) than that is simply due to the characteristics of the instructor. It is highly advantageous that potential instructors are given opportunities in their units to lead in training – just as a teacher undertaking professional study would undertake work experience. But we should also recognise that much of what we do in barracks is conducting training. In saying all this, I would absolutely support extra time for ASLO staff to be ‘inducted’ prior to posting to the School. I just don’t think I’d spend much of that time on the science of learning. I’d spend it on rehearsing and aligning instructors to components of courses that draw on their strengths.
A general education is good. In introducing his article, Callum considers what might be achievable in the time that is spent in career courses. True, in such a period, you can engage with a topic deeply. 60 students and seven weeks can deliver great things. The challenge we face with ‘career courses’ is that we need to cover a wide span of material in order to give the workforce a base level of competency, at rank, and to ensure that experience can be applied more effectively at a later date. In individual training you are getting ‘breath’; with experience and collective training you are getting ‘depth’. Of course, we also want individual training to allow stronger performers an opportunity to excel, or in some cases, be challenged by more difficult topics and problems. We want to bring out the best in people. The only realistic compromise between the two is to concentrate upon the truly essential areas of training, and use any time ‘won’ in training to give students the time to repeat activities, or apply the skills in a range of contexts. It may result in an unsatisfying training outcome to some, but it produces a consistently good Army.
We do things for very good reasons. Be cautious when making conclusions about the perceived obsolescence of training content, assessment methods and doctrine. Individual training, founded on doctrine, keeps Army honest; doctrine is the distillation of the history of war and practice that has been tested, and I trust it more than I do our ability to predict how we might fight in the future. As one of my staff reminded me, a major challenge for Schools is how to make those lessons and information relevant to the ever-changing environment. We’re dealing with this right now with the introduction of the Decisive Action Training Environment and Battle-Management Systems at ASLO, and as we consider the future through artefacts like Accelerated Warfare. Sometimes it will be perfectly acceptable that the same test is used for decades at a time, or a TEWT covers well-trodden ground. It is equally acceptable that the methods used to undertake training are consistent with those used in the past.
The training versus education discussion is a trap. It’s really important that we understand how people learn, and it’s important that we define learning outcomes. Just don’t dwell on the difference between training and education, and most certainly don’t design courses to favour one over the other. As the Ryan Review found, ‘[t]he desire to separate for military purposes education and training is misleading and creates a false divide’. For a time the Logistics Officer Basic Course (LOBC) was described as training, and the advanced course (LOAC) education – with the intermediate (LOIC) somewhere in between. I think this approach meant the two weren’t being combined effectively at all stages; we weren’t critically challenging future logistics commanders thinking at the junior level, and at the senior level we were compromising the basic standard of knowledge expected of a logistics Major serving in a theatre or strategic organisation. As I wrote above, it’s vitally important we have courses that give us basic standards of knowledge, and once this knowledge is confirmed through diagnostics and assessments, get them to apply it. TEWTs, case-study analysis, planning and quick-decision exercises are the best training events we have.
Time is precious. The time available to schools affects the quality of training in two ways. Firstly, as mentioned above the time available to train students limits the opportunity they will have for repetition and learning. Limited time to observe and assess student performance can inadvertently create a training environment which goes little further than a summative assessment, which exacerbates the ‘fear of failure’, stress and negative emotions. Secondly, and I am sure most instructors would agree, the ability to respond to deficiencies in training and develop course material further is highly limited. In 2018 we conducted a systemic analysis of Logistics Officer training. If it only achieved one thing, that was to highlight the delta between broadly accepted reasons to modernise training and the capacity to actually change things. If we are serious about renewal and modernisation, we’ll have to work as communities in Army and give our personal time to make the effort.
Innovation can be an enemy. I tend to be careful when it comes to innovation, and even more so when it comes to innovation in training. We should be responsive to ideas that have the potential to improve student outcomes, and we have routine mechanisms that ensure feedback creates positive change. Be we must also be aware of our tendency to wander into discussions on training with preconceived ideas based on personal, and often outdated, experiences. Many of us fondly (re: selectively) look upon the past and use it as a benchmark to drive change in training. Furthermore, we tend to be slavish in adopting new technology and forgetful when it comes to supporting it. When we propose changes to training it’s important to recognise that practicality is the key, and remember that introducing even seemingly small changes to courses can fracture effective training programs and calendars that have been ‘planned within an inch of their life.’ Any transformation in training has to be well-planned and resourced to an appropriate level to allow it to succeed, and as an Army, we have to avoid wasting our time and energy on ultimately fruitless tasks.
The instructor is competent. Callum points out that the ‘professionalism [of instructors] is second-to-none and their desire to do the best they can for their students is admirable’. I think we have to accept that, as with most things, there are some people who will be naturally good instructors and others that require further development. Skills and knowledge don’t appear to be a problem as a general rule, though currency in knowledge can occasionally appear as a factor in the instructional staff. I would hazard a guess that the same still applies in the academic profession, where teachers have years of specific training. I also observe that instructors have a good-enough understanding of modern methods of teaching, and I believe we are at a point that all we need now are the tools to take high-quality training even further. It’s great to see DG TRADOC’s comments to Callum’s article that a ‘Training Transformation’ is underway, as well as improvements in instructor development, as the building-blocks to an even better training system are already in place.
I admit I have digressed from the topic at times throughout this article. However, I felt that as a Chief Instructor it was worth offering my experiences in training soldiers and officers, just as I reflect on my own responsibility to steward and prepare the instructors of ASLO. We all recognise that individual training is a small piece of the total training received by Army’s soldiers and officers, but a tremendously important one at that. It can’t be separated from training at other echelons including in the collective environment, nor can problems in one area be addressed without considering others. As they say, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Nonetheless, Callum is right in asserting that we need to develop our instructors, just as our instructors develop others. We can always work on improving the learning environment but we shouldn’t abandon the impactful teaching methods we use today, some of which we’ve been using for decades. What we need to do most of all, is give our instructors an opportunity to practice supported by whatever resources we can practically and practicably deliver to them. After all, instructors are students as well.