This article was published in Smart Soldier 67, February 2022.


I have lost count of the times that I have been involved in training, either running it or receiving it. There were times, subsequent to the training, that I asked myself… what was that all about? What did we just achieve? Did we just waste resources? Could we have used our time better? There have also been times on operations that my training didn’t necessarily prepare me for the environment within which I found myself. I had ‘tools’ to lean on, but they weren’t optimal and needed some modification.

This article on critical thinking is designed to generate thoughts on how it might be applied to suit your soldiering. Though it is geared towards critical thinking within the context of training, please note that its application can be applied across multiple disciplines, roles, jobs and domains throughout Defence.

Critical thinking is different – but complimentary – to some processes we already have in place and relates to fundamental inputs into those processes and how they are derived. Two examples are provided below:

  • The Military Appreciation Process (MAP) uses mostly tangibles for input. The process from which those tangibles are derived should have some form of critical thinking applied. The optimisation of those inputs will no doubt produce better outcomes in your MAP.
  • The After Action Review (AAR), which looks at actions conducted during an activity, should include a critical thinking process in order to best assess any required remediation or sustains.

Regardless of the process: who, what, when and how are often easily defined. The path to critical thinking becomes more apparent when we develop the ‘why’. Critical thinking of the ‘why’ will more often than not help optimise the other factors at play.

A definition

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully analysing, assessing, and reconstructing it[1].

Why critical thinking?

Thinking is something we all do, but at times we can be blinkered. Culture and environment can bias, distort, prejudice, or make us less than informed. Yet the quality of our decision making will directly impact our actions. Poor or less than optimal thinking is costly in time, money, resources, quality of training and – potentially – blood on operations. Rigour in our thought must be systematically cultivated.

Regardless of your position within Defence, the application of critical thinking in your workplace will enhance your ability to optimise effort and outcomes, and better equip us for the unknown.

The end product

A well-practiced critical thinker will: raise vital questions and problems, gather and assesses relevant information, and come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions while testing them against relevant criteria, standards and like-experiences[2].

Soldiers must think with an open mind and communicate effectively with other soldiers in figuring out solutions to complex problems. Like any activity, to become good at it takes practice so it helps if you make critical thinking a part of your routine.

The elements of thought

As instructors, when preparing any training we should consider the elements of thought[3]. We will be coming back to these considerations again later in this article. For now, the elements of thought are as follows:

  1. The point of view – frames of reference, perspectives, orientations, purpose, goals and objectives – needed to be achieved.
  2. Relevant questions at issue, as well as potential problems.
  3. How we can use information – data, facts, reasons, observations, experiences, and evidence – to enhance the training.
  4. Link interpretation and inference – conclusions, solutions, and concepts – theories, definitions, laws, principles, models to our training as required.
  5. Discussing assumptions, the implications, and the consequences before, during and after training.

Critical thinking prior to, during and post training

Let’s apply critical thinking to a reality based training (RBT) scenario of a section or platoon conducting a basic building or compound clearance in a low-level conflict, concentrating on the training outcomes and skill transference.

What is vitally important to this approach is that the instructors have a clear understanding of the objectives and outcomes of the training. One of the keys here is that the training can be paused at times during the scenario to provide or seek clarification of what soldiers are thinking, using Socratic questioning techniques. Then the training can recommence as required. Skilled instructors can do this without upsetting the flow of the scenario. These pauses should be short, sharp, and helpful to the students.

This article will now list some of the questions that must be asked at all stages of the training – pre-training, during training and post-training.

Pre-training questions

Standard questions prior to training may look something like these:

  1. Who is the training for and at what level of training is required?
  2. Is this training pertinent to what we need to know?
  3. How much time do we have to run this training?
  4. Can we run this safely and achieve our aims/outcomes?
  5. Do I have the appropriate equipment for the training, if not how and where do I get it?
  6. Do we have the resources, facilities and personnel to run effective training?

Digging deeper with some criticality:

  1. Is the training going to be relevant, challenging, rewarding and enjoyable? If it does not contain these four elements you should reconsider running the training.
  2. Is the training current best practice, and where did we derive that supposition? Who has conducted searching and clearing techniques during operations and what is different than current doctrinal teaching? Where do I find these people? If I cannot find someone with recent experience where do I get that information? Does this align with current legal and humanitarian protocols?
  3. If there is no current expertise in Army, can we call on police training or other Defence Forces that may have more recent or continuous use of these techniques? If other agencies are to be assisting, before using their techniques, we must ask are they appropriate for combat situations? What are the relevant aspects of their techniques that can work for us?
  4. How do I integrate any new knowledge into the lesson and align it with the current lesson learning outcomes? A suggestion would be to ask the students questions (what ifs?), giving them some ownership. In conjunction with other teaching points, remember this is not a formal lesson, so as instructors we can add and remove elements as required, ensuring we do not lose context. The great thing about RBT is you can then practice this right away in the scenario and develop robust discussion about what you have just done and observed.

During training questions

As with questions that are asked prior to training, we need critical thought during our training. This means that we need to be vigilant that we do not let the training get away from us at the expense of retaining a critical thinking mind-set. This can be a common occurrence with Army training; we set out with a certain amount of goals to attain in a set training period and will let great training and learning opportunities slip through our fingers for the sake of getting everything done in the one training schedule. If you can get three or four learning outcomes done with excellent clarity of learning and understanding as opposed to seven or eight rushed scenarios and thus missing great learning opportunities, it would be a better outcome. Less, it could be argued, is more in this instance.

Important questions to ask during training are as follows:

  1. Is the training progressing safely? Is anything out of the ordinary?
  2. Is the training proceeding as planned?
  3. If not what needs to change? (Be positive if change is needed)
  4. Is it worth continuing with the current plan or do we need to modify the training?
  5. Do we need to stop and adjust/modify?

Additional questions to increase the level of critical thinking during training:

  1. Is the training achieving its aims?
  2. What elements are working well, and what elements are missing the mark?
  3. If some elements are going well, what is it that is positive and can that be used in comparison to training that is missing the mark?
  4. Is there anything we can amend now to make the other elements more positive?
  5. If we cannot improve them immediately can we take them out and still achieve our training aims?
  6. Can we come back to the negative elements at a later stage?
  7. Are the participants enjoying the training, are they being challenged, is it still realistic?

Wrapping up training

I feel that we, as an organisation, do not optimise the debrief at the completion of training. If during the debrief, or AAR, an element of training was identified as not being understood or did not achieve the appropriate standard, there should be time left to revisit the most important aspects. Training should always include time to re-run elements of training that have not gone to plan or need extra practice. Within doctrine it articulates that a key element of the evaluation and lessons cycle is the implementation of actions in response to lessons identified. Training programs need to allow time between training events for this adaptation to occur[4].

Post-training questions

Questions to be asked at the end of training:

  1. Is everyone OK?
  2. Were all participants involved?
  3. Did we achieve the aim of the training?
  4. Was the training relevant, challenging, rewarding and enjoyable?

Break down the key components of the training, and link these to the appropriate key elements of thought touched on previously. Additional questions that should be asked are as follows:

  1. What is the key take away for each component of training? Get this from the students!
  2. Did it work well? Apply the 5 whys[5] here.
  3. Why did it work? Apply the 5 whys here.
  4. Was the sequence appropriate? Get this information from the trainees!
  5. Did the students understand the concepts and teaching points? Link this to the key elements of thought.

Being able to apply critical thinking principals prior, during and after training iterations will benefit you and your instructors, and it will enable students at any level to remain engaged throughout the training continuum. It also helps to ensure that the training is optimised, challenging, rewarding and enjoyable. These are all key elements to ensure the knowledge retained after training is as close to permanent as you can make it.


As we train our soldiers for their roles, whether in peace time or on operations, we are by osmosis[6] changing their beliefs, behaviours and actions in differing environments. These fundamental inputs from training will provide a sound foundation from which the soldier will learn and grow. The art of critical thinking will enhance that growth, help us understand the ‘why’, optimise performance, and lead to better decision making. This is paramount to success regardless of the domain, and it will enhance a soldier’s understanding, competence and, most importantly: performance.