Tactical and Technical

The case against essays as Professional Military Education

By Chris Hall February 13, 2019


Over the coming month, many Australian Army units will be planning their Professional Military Education (PME) program for 2019. Such programs often include asking Officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers to write essays. This article will outline why an essay may not achieve the aims of PME and alternatives that may be more appropriate. As such, it will argue that while long-form written communication is not the only form of PME, if a written product is required then an essay is the least useful format for the individual and the unit.

Instead, this article will propose that a report (or written brief) achieves all the aims of an essay but also much more, especially if accompanied by an oral presentation. Reports and oral briefs are how problems are solved in the Army. Writing a brief or report trains staff for subsequent appointments and enables work that contributes to solving real-world problems.

Current use of essays as PME

Essays are a common form of PME in the Australian Army; imagine if all the hours spent writing essays were put towards identifying, defining and solving problems!

However, based purely on personal observation I suggest that essays are most often used to improve the writing skills of contributors, to fill time, and to provide a sense that PME was conducted. Essays almost never inform conduct of actual work within a unit or wider Army, and may only be read by one or two people, ever. This begs the question - if members of the PME audience are not going to do anything differently after conducting PME, why do it at all?

Reports and presentations: a practical alternative

Written communication is an important skill, but the outcomes achieved through writing an essay can also be accomplished through the use of a report. Reports, especially if accompanied by a short presentation to a group, are more focussed on solutions while developing the same skills as an essay.

Importantly, the work completed in PME can flow onto actually addressing an issue within the unit or even wider. The report produced can be sent to those working on the problem at higher headquarters or in other parts of the Defence Force. The work completed in PME can assist in implementing a solution, especially with involvement from the author.

The table below provides some broad comparisons between essays and reports to illustrate why I suggest a report with a short presentation to the PME audience is best practice for written PME: .  

Criteria

Essay

Report Report with presentation

Success defined by:

Writing a prescribed number of words e.g. 2000.

Identifying, defining and offering recommendations to a problem as succinctly as possible.

As per a report, plus clear and convincing oral communication.

Summarised: 

In a final paragraph, if at all.

Usually upfront in an executive summary.

In writing and orally.

Read, viewed or discussed by:

One to three people in the unit.

Staff involved in solving the real-world problem.

As per a report plus the whole PME audience.

Topic selection:

Encourages an "easy" topic to fill the required word length.

Encourages identification of a workplace (or wider) issue.

Encourages a defendable, well researched position.

Consultation required:

Academic sources encouraged, with experience or expert opinion discouraged.

Academic and expert sources, plus staff involved in the problem.

Greatest encouragement for consultation, to add credibility when presenting.

Relevance of skills to the workplace:

Least.

More.

Most. This combination is how problems are solved in the Army.

Potential for the work to go towards solving a real problem: Least. More.

Most. The report and presentation can flow to higher headquarters or functional experts.

Conclusion

So, when was the last time you solved a problem with an essay?

Best practice for written PME is a report or brief followed by a short presentation to the PME group. There will be times where an essay is suitable, such as for studies of history or issues far wider than the organisation. Usually though, a report or brief will achieve more for the individual and the PME group.

Let's drop the pretence of needing exactly 2000 words to communicate an issue. Instead, let's succinctly define a real-world problem, suggest what to do about it, and get that information to people who can use it. That way, PME will not only develop us as individuals, but contribute to improvements across the organisation.  


Portrait

Biography

Chris Hall

Captain Chris Hall is an Infantry Officer instructing at the Royal Military College – Duntroon. His professional interests include military history, the psychology of battle and methods of overwhelming enemy decision cycles.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Thanks for the article Chris. As a read, it was nice and light and if all you wanted to do was initiate discussion then you have achieved your aim. However, as an Education Officer I don’t agree with your approach for a number of reasons.
Education – by definition – is about study. It’s a long term goal and involves theories and concepts (some of which you may never actually use) but the aim of education is to broaden your understanding of something which you can then apply to different situations. As an example, a degree in management won’t actually make you a better manager “on the ground” but instead it provides you with information and case studies to consider as you develop your own approach, learning from the examples of others in that field.
Training is more about development of skills and attitudes, especially those that you need right now to do your job. Army is very good at training. In writing, our training is functional and directly aligned to the workplace and the standards expected of the rank. In the All Corps Officer and Soldier Training Continuums (ACOSTC), written communications are all about formats and structures for the workplace, and as S7 RMC-A, I have a heap of data on this if you are interested.
But what we are talking about here is PME. PME is ‘intellectual, moral and social instruction in the profession of arms’ (CA Directive 22/17) and the key word is “intellectual” as it relates to “education”. This is the point that I think that you have missed, Chris. If the CA wanted us to write more reports and conduct briefs, there would be no need for PME. The ACOSTC is already delivering on that functional front; what it doesn’t have time to do is provide opportunities [for you] to demonstrate deeper awareness of what else is going on in that discipline (the profession of arms), and articulate a perspective, in an appropriate format.
Essays easily lend themselves to better written expression and are actually easier to read (and assess). The purpose of an essay is not to see how much can be said in a word limit, instead it requires presentation of a logical and coherent argument in response to a question or statement that persuades the reader that your position is credible (i.e. believable and reasonable). This requires thinking about the task, researching the topic, deciding on a position, and then convincing the reader with supporting evidence. An essay, when used for the purposes of PME, should include intellectual, moral and social elements because these things are linked to Army values and character. It is also easier to find references and evidence to support an essay, even if they are not all that current. Essays are a great trigger for further conversation and ideal for PME, lending themselves well as a vehicle for long term planning and strategies at unit, corps or even whole of Army-level. How’s that for influence?
This is very different from a report, the purpose of which is to relay information and facts. End. It doesn’t require the writer to be persuasive or be an advocate for a particular position. In fact, a report that reflect values or opinions would be deemed inappropriate. Reports don’t readily contribute to further discussion and are easily undone if the facts are not correct. If the references are out of date, they are immediately dismissed.
In closing, I propose that a report is the wrong format choice for PME. Anyone can write a report, but only a true leader will invest the time and effort into PME and articulate an argument with logic, intelligence and depth of research and analysis. For anyone looking to shape and influence others, then an essay is the way to go.

PS. If you’re not getting anything out of PME, I suggest you look a little deeper or have a conversation with the one who set the task and see what you’ve missed.

The gem in this article isn't what the title might imply, since I think you've misrepresented essays a bit. The fact is, if you can give a genuinely good presentation, and you have generally good writing skills, you can write a good essay if you want. The opposite is not true: you do not get oral communication skills from essay writing.

Delighted to read such a provocative article. I disagree with your argument, but I am very glad you have made it. A well-written essay should have all the characteristics of a report that you have outlined. I don't think essay structure is the problem, but how we teach and assess essay-writing.

I agree. Thanks for the provocative post! I too think an essay could be as effective as a report + presentation in meeting the objectives listed out. I also agree teaching and assessing essay writing is a challenge (On that note, I recommend this handy guide: https://press.uottawa.ca/academic-writing-for-military-personnel.html BUT will the students read it? :)

In my experience essays are problematic because of the mechanics of writing an academic paper. The three main challenges I've noticed in assigning essays are inexperience in researching, referencing material and writing (in order to conform to academic conventions and expectations), defaulting to a "staff paper" form of writing where everything is short-and-sweet (often overly so) and ends with some form of recommendation (which the essay question may not require) and from the student's point of view, establishing relevance to their job ("we don't write academic papers unlike you guys!").

Another institutional challenge is determining other suitable modes of assessment that are fair and can be implemented by different faculty members. A report + presentation is, of course, what this short post suggests. I suppose the larger issue then is what is the purpose of the assignment in general.

Perhaps that's the first order question which has to be answered. And responding with "that's what we did in university, and that's what is needed to maintain 'academic rigour'" isn't good enough an answer, as easy as it is to give and force through.

Well written article and evidently a great discussion prompt.

I agree with your points about the utility of reports and your thrust at the heart of a PME difficulty - we need to look at the outcomes we want from PME and the opportunities we have to execute it. It doesn't have to be academic or standardised amongst officers or soldiers - you could task inexperienced individuals with coordinating rehearsals of key upcoming activities and completing a post activity report, then mentor them through and provide development for both the individual, collective and yourself.

A tailored PME program with a range of activities and target skills, to fit the objectives and tempo of your formation or unit, build the capability, critical thinking and expertise of your subordinates is where I take the direction your article is headed.

Great, short, discussion raising article. I concur with all points especially IRT source input. An essay is but a very small part of PME, Research Projects on weapon technologies, enemy tactics, disposition along with oral presentations should be the focus of PME.

Bloody good post. The arguments against it are that a well-written essay accomplishes what a report should - but Christ, when was the last time you read a well-written essay? Since when do we have time to turn our officers and soldiers into better essay writers when we're so busy training them to be better at the specific role that we've employed them to do?

I know I should devote more time to developing my section commander's ability to think more deeply about the profession of arms. But I need them to spend that time developing their ability to command and lead small teams and developing their own soldiers even more.

If I were to give them each an essay topic to research and write about, I would probably need to spend the next few weeks sleeping with one eye open. Then I'd have to read through three or four lengthy bits of prose that accomplish nothing in particular. Maybe one would stand out brilliantly and I can be proud to know one of my guys has a solid grasp on the Battle of Coral-Balmoral.

But if I stood up in front of them and said "OK fellas, you've all been complaining about the way the Company does X since the day I marched in. You all have an opinion on how X could be done better. Well, here's your chance to fix it. Here's a basic report template, don't worry about a word count. You'll be presenting this to the headshed in two weeks - go!"

Interesting argument from Roz Rice about the more philosophical purpose of essay writing. I actually hadn't thought of it that way. Based on that argument, essays are great tools for broadening a single individual's understanding of the topic, with the end result being they are better placed to think critically about similar problems in the future. Especially useful to people gunning for greater leadership responsibilities. I get that.

But reports and especially a report coupled with a presentation on a real topic are far more beneficial to the collective good and have the potential to actually solve problems. It's tangible. If you had to choose between the two, I'd choose the one with a tangible effect. Every time.

Interesting argument and clearly articulated in essay format!
An essay is just a form of media, commonly accepted in numerous institutions. As are reports and briefs.
There is ample opportunity to develop an individual's skill in producing reports and briefs through the promotion course curriculum as well as day to day operations.
I do agree, that essay writing should not be the sole form of PME to the exclusion of other development opportunities.

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