Military Reform Through Education

Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

Almost all of the news regarding the military these days has to do with either a weapons system or budget fights. This clearly demonstrates Washington’s misplaced defense priorities on hardware over people. Any military force is only as good as the people who serve in it. Almost as important are the ideas they wield.

Luckily, there are some good things happening on the personnel front.

One example could be found at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning recently. A group of military teachers spent a week in reversed roles as they became the students, learning innovative education methods geared towards fostering the right kind of ideas and cultivating the culture of trust necessary to succeed long into the future.

I had the privilege of experiencing this process with a group of 30 soldiers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians learning about adaptive leadership and mission command. All were teachers from various courses at Fort Benning sent by their senior leaders seeking to infuse new ideas into their organizations. They spent a week learning how to incorporate adaptability into their courses during a seminar taught by CDI military advisor Don Vandergriff and his colleagues with Yorktown Systems Group.

The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists. Instead, the seminar shows soldiers how to incorporate creative and interactive methods that challenge both students and teachers. This results in empowered soldiers at all levels able to adapt to any situation.

I was particularly interested to observe this course because of my experiences with military education a few years ago. As a captain in the Marine Corps, I taught armor tactics with 2/16 Cavalry Squadron when the Armor School still operated in Fort Knox, KY. The Army and Marine students had to spend hours sitting in a large classroom listening as I delivered the long and detailed lectures required by the syllabus.

These classes often included more than 100 PowerPoint slides, and all of the course material came straight from Army field manuals—hardly anyone’s idea of enlightening reading. The slides included lots of checklists for the students to follow: the seven steps of engagement area development, the eight steps of troop-leading procedures, and so on. It was all just training, teaching the students how to execute tasks in given situations.

Little effort had been expended in providing historical background or theory behind the material. That would have constituted education, or teaching students how to think and enabling them to create their own solutions to unexpected situations.

I had been subjected to the exact same classes a few years earlier as a newly commissioned second lieutenant. It was a painful experience. As a teacher, I endeavored to improve the course material by including discussions of the theory behind some of the procedures I had to teach. I also included many historical examples to help the students absorb the material better. Rather than just telling the students what a turning movement is, I would lead them in a discussion of the 1950 Inchon landing and how that forced the North Korean Army to fight in a direction for which it was not prepared.

My efforts were well received…by some. The students generally gave positive feedback in their critiques at the end of the course. Instructors from other classes even chose to sit through some of my classes to pick up pointers. But the squadron leadership was not impressed. In no uncertain terms, I was told to use only the “approved” teaching methods and not to deviate from the official program of instruction.

After that experience, I was pleased to see what was taking place at the school now.

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(Most activities during the course are led by students. Photo courtesy of Dan Grazier.)

Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, has been on the front lines of personnel reform for many years. While he is most noted for his work at the service level, these seminars seek to transform the Army from the bottom up.

Approximately 20 soldiers and 10 civilian educators spent the week learning various teaching methods through experiential learning, which flips the traditional method military students are used to. Most training today follows the “crawl, walk, run” theory all service members are familiar with. Students are generally expected to complete reading assignments, sit through a PowerPoint lecture, and then finally conduct field training to reinforce what they have learned.

The seminar exposed students to new methods by putting the practical exercises first. For example, the seminar uses several Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) to encourage students to rapidly develop a plan for a military problem presented by the facilitators. TDGs can be created for nearly any kind of a situation, but this course mostly used actual battlefield problems like how to capture a bridge or defeat an enemy force entrenched on a hilltop. While working through these problems, the students are exposed to such concepts as Mission Command and the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act decision cycle, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle.

It is only after the practical exercises that they receive reading assignments about those concepts. Because they’ve encountered them during the exercises, the concepts become more tangible. The OODA Loop, for instance, explains an individual’s or an organization’s decision-making process. It is a difficult concept to truly understand, but it becomes easier when one first sees how it works and then reads about it. The idea is to give them a moment of discovery, that “Ah ha!” moment. Success using such methods is to have a student say, “So, that’s what you call that,” while reading.

Vandergriff’s teaching method incorporates recent research into adult learning, designed “to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress.” This creates a situation where the students learn from one another. Unlike most other military classes, the ASLTE teachers use very few PowerPoint presentations. They also end up speaking far less than the students themselves.

Vandergriff ran the class through the first TDG and led the discussion afterward. From that point forward, students took turns leading the class through After Action Reviews. Students gained confidence in leading such an exercise while the rest of the class bounced ideas off each other. The interactive nature of this kept the entire class engaged and gave all of them ownership of their own learning.

The concept of ownership was a consistent theme throughout the seminar. According to Vandergriff, a good teacher “works to make his students better than himself and encourages them to take ownership of their development, to make them life-long learners.”

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(Students learning important lessons on the paintball range. Photo courtesy of Dan Grazier.)

Students also spent one morning on the paintball range executing scenarios they created in a highly interactive situation. This served to reinforce the concept of outcome-based training. The students, divided into groups, were told to identify a training outcome and then to create a tactical plan to achieve it. The group I shadowed during the week wanted to focus on defensive tactics.

The way things are normally done in the military schoolhouse environment, the teachers would have been given an extremely detailed set of instructions on how to train to a particular task.

By giving the teachers outcomes—train to conduct an attack, for example—and allowing them to use their experience to figure out the steps necessary to train students to that task, the teachers can take ownership of their work.

This has the added benefit of fostering a culture of trust in within the total force. By empowering the teachers to create their own training methods, senior leaders demonstrate an appreciation of the hard work and experiences of those they lead. In addition to being better teachers, the teachers take that empowerment back to their regular units when their schoolhouse rotations end. They become better soldiers, themselves.

Ideally, this will cause a trickle-down effect within the operating forces. The former teachers, having learned the value of trust in the schoolhouse, will carry that over to the people they lead in the force. Thus, rather than having changes mandated from Washington, the culture would gradually change from below. This is military reform at the micro level.

Any military force is only as good as the people serving in it. So with all the focus in Washington on budgets and weapon acquisition programs, it’s refreshing to see education programs like this one focusing on making better, more adaptive soldiers. Fostering good ideas and adaptability among service members will ensure they are able to think on their feet and respond well in chaotic situations.