Across the western world, there is growing evidence that military instruction is receptive to new ideas and teaching methods. This development is accompanied by renewed interest in behavioural science, professional decision making, and learning technology. Whilst it is good to reflect on how to improve instruction, there is a need to be critical when drawing up new approaches, particularly when these ideas come from outside Defence.

One trend to be aware of is the increasing emphasis placed on pedagogy. At first glance, this field offers the chance to back up programmes of military education with scientific methods, enhancing the learner’s experience. Unfortunately, education is a complex field and the solutions offered by academia often do not live up to their promise.

What is pedagogy?

Pedagogy is the term generally used to refer to the study of learning, though there is still some disagreement regarding the term’s actual meaning. In a practical sense, the field claims to offer insights on the methodology of teaching, such as what works in the classroom and how best to impart understanding.

As knowledge itself has become more accessible, many universities and academies have begun to see their role change. As they no longer exclusively provide information, they have had to seek out other means of maintaining relevance. This might be through accreditation or emphasising “soft” skills, though increasingly, these centres of learning seek to present themselves as experts in teaching and imparting knowledge.

Whilst the same content may be available online and elsewhere, many formal education providers stress their ability to teach the material more effectively than competitors. To do this credibly, many institutions – universities in particular – now emphasise the importance of pedagogy, devoting resources to and crafting policies around the subject.

It may, therefore, be the case that the current emphasis on pedagogy has more to do with commercial incentives than anything else.

In addition, when drawing on pedagogical studies, there is also a need to understand that many of them simply aren’t very good. A lot of familiar concepts drawn from the field lack evidence of effectiveness and are not backed by sufficient real world results. Bloom's Taxonomy as one example, provides no evidence of enhancing outcomes. Kolb’s theory of experiential learning similarly has questionable validity. Yet these concepts, and many others are still regularly cited in schools, universities, and other centres of learning – militaries being no exception.

Impact of flawed pedagogy

Like it or not, some aspects of the military learning environment are downstream of academia. As a result, many flawed concepts and theories are already present in practice.

A good example of the impact this can have is provided by the concept of “learning styles.” Now thoroughly discredited, the idea that different learners have sensory preferences – kinaesthetic, auditory, and so on – still crops up in western military publications and course design. This particular theory is additionally a good example of a “neuromyth”; a belief about learning that falsely claims to be cited in human biology.

It additionally demonstrates that once a concept becomes entrenched in a programme of learning, it can often prove quite difficult to dislodge. This might be especially true in institutional contexts like the military.

Despite this lack of evidence, both instructors and learners often express a genuine belief that unproven theories work. There are some explanations as to why this might be the case. It could be that these practices give rise to causal illusions regarding good instruction; it is additionally the case that the vague descriptors found in many theories trigger the Barnum effect, with learners all too ready to believe they fit the model of an “activist” in the classroom, for instance.

This is not to say that there is no good pedagogy out there, only that in the case of many popular theories of learning, there is extremely limited evidence of effectiveness. Scratch the surface of pedagogical research and all too often you find a combination of pop-psychology and hearsay.

Why does it matter?

Many pedagogical approaches have no demonstrable track record of success, but what is the harm? Indeed, research suggests that while belief in these junk practices may have no positive impact, there is also no evidence that they are detrimental either. With this being the case, why not leave them alone?

Firstly, in the military context, the capacity to think critically is of paramount importance in the education of officers and NCOs. By basing their education around junk theories of learning, we do our people a disservice.

Secondly, adopting a new pedagogical approach may compromise existing strategies. For instance, it is possible to conceive of instances where tried and tested approaches to instruction are discarded to be replaced by teaching methods with no track record of success, which are instead justified by a citing pedagogical “best practice”. This erodes hard-won expertise, and ultimately degrades the quality of learning.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, belief in flawed pedagogy restricts instructor freedom. Once accepted, flawed beliefs about how people learn rapidly translate into bureaucracy, with instructors not just encouraged but expected to replicate approved practices. With rapid changes in technology, curriculum, and learner expectations, now is not the time to hamstring your experts.


Pedagogy isn’t all bad, and it is fundamentally a good thing that more emphasis is being placed on teaching methods. As an academic discipline, however, the subject is still hard to take seriously. Teaching is a complicated problem, without any absolute solutions. When working in a professional context like military education there is a need to critically engage with any theory, no matter how intuitive it might sound.