The professional military education investigation paper titled Does Army Need Better Educated Soldiers? raises a great question and my short response would be yes.
The opening lines of the paper accurately describe the perception that the opportunities for military education in the Australian Army are for officers. While this perception may be incorrect, I feel that opportunities such as the Civil Schooling Program, the Army Tertiary Education Program and Defence Assisted Study Scheme are not apparent to soldiers or not made obvious by those who command soldiers. Furthermore, there is a lack of acknowledgment that soldiers need time to study or conduct professional military education. Whether embedded in a unit battle rhythm, a training continuum or posting cycle, the reliance on soldiers to volunteer their time to study in an ad hoc fashion is insufficient when compared with a structured, more formalised approach. In establishing a culture of lifelong learning, there needs to be consistent exposure to both formal and informal learning opportunities.
As the paper mentions, Army frames its intellectual need around the skills of communication, thinking and decision-making. The development of these skills requires an individual to read. The Scholastic Australia Reading Report of 2016 indicates that nearly two thirds of children up to 17 years were not reading enough at school. Various other references suggest that people have become fearful of reading and that technology has swamped us with bursts of ‘on-demand’ information. The result is that people do not read sufficiently to form their own opinions and would rather borrow opinions from others. Coupled with the increasing use of social media formats, individuals are more likely to ‘chunk’ or ‘micro read’ rather than immerse themselves in reference books. This lack of reading results in poor communication, poor language skills and a lack of understanding of the environment and culture - all of Army’s intellectual skill requirements for the future operating environment.
As I described in my article, Learning How to Learn via Grounded Curiosity when do we switch from training to education? How do we arm ourselves with the cognitive skills to allow us to engage in life-long learning? and more importantly at ease with the requirement to be able to move between the various learning experiences and styles of courses available. The suggestion that there is a range of education initiatives within All Corps Soldier Training Continuum may be a stretch. There are training opportunities; they teach skills for performing practical tasks. These opportunities do not necessarily offer an educational experience designed to stimulate curious minds. The performance of practical tasks is not a learning experience that results generally in deeper thought on contemporary subjects, nor does this training lead to a thirst for further investigation through reading and research.
I applaud the author of the paper for starting the conversation. But while the All Corps Soldier Training Continuum does prepare individuals with appropriate-to-rank training in communication, leadership and decision making skills, we must not perpetuate the idea that the current Continuum meets our education needs. If not addressed, this may result in a larger gap to bridge into the future as Army attempts to influence the soldier education paradigm.
I think it is important to remember that the question of educating soldiers is not new, and that until the mid-2000s, Army did mandate educational courses for progression through the ranks from corporal to warrant officer. These courses provided an educational experience not just focused on basic numeracy, literacy and service writing, but also building upon foundational communication skills. They also developed a shared understanding of common language and culture and an awareness of an individual’s educational strengths and weaknesses.
I agree that the five trends of the future operating environment are a worthy consideration in deciding the intellectual requirements of our soldiers into the future. Again, to leave the education of soldiers as a voluntary endeavour could be flawed. Additionally, given the complexity of the English language coupled with Army’s desire for a more diverse organisation, is it sufficiently preparing soldiers with English as a second language? Is it a reasonable consideration that while Army aims to increase the intellect for our soldiers, a gap in basic language skills could be growing? Do our soldiers have the basic foundational literacy skills upon which to build their understanding of the nuances of our language, let alone test it while on operations?
While Army continues to utilise technology to advance all areas of soldiering, it must question the appropriateness of current educational entry standards. Are they enough to cope with the outputs / outcomes of the five operating environment trends? Will soldiers be able to cope with increased information? I would question whether such an abundance of data being collected through the many sensors available will deliver information in a format that is usable by soldiers on the battlefield. It needs to be delivered in such a way that does not overwhelm soldiers making them less able to sort and categorise information to support the performance of tasks.
If we are unable to influence community education standards, I would suggest that educational programs be offered that complement the All Corps Soldier Training Continuum. Developing our soldier’s foundational literacy skills while building emerging skills such as digital literacy, enhances their ability to communicate one-on-one with empathy and will begin to expose soldiers to a greater awareness of contemporary issues that will support their thinking and decision making.