Hardly Thinking or Thinking Hard: The Future of Military Pedagogy

LCol Anne Reiffenstein, Chair, Department of Military Planning and Operations

 

Many of the students that I engaged with at both the US Army Command and General Staff College and the Canadian Forces College discussed that the workload placed on them required that they just go from one task to the next to get through the year of staff college.  Though there have been attempts to give reflection time, or additional preparation time, there seems to be a common theme of not really having the time to enhance or foster critical thinking that is a desired outcome of the staff college experience.

The professional military education system is intended to prepare senior officers for their roles as future leaders in the ever-changing global security environment. As an integral part of this global security system, militaries are being asked to do new and unusual tasks for which there is no doctrine or direct historical example. The leaders of the future will need to be able to think critically under intense pressure in ill-defined environment.  The military pedagogy is constructed for digital immigrants and “Dewey Decimal System” searchers vice the digital native and naturally networked professional. It is also constructed on the tried and true content that generations of staff officers have been exposed to.  The professional military education system needs to change to better support this new generation and the challenges they will face.  The focus needs to be on creating a learning environment that fosters critical thinking in the student body allowing for experimentation and creativity.

So how do we create this type of learning environment in a military environment?  The Canadian Forces College has been promoting design thinking as a discrete part of a course to encourage Majors to consider the ideas of design thinking, creating tutorials that walk them through a variety of design processes exposing them to different schools of thought.  Though students were open to the idea of design, they baulked at the ‘doors wide open’ approach to the small segment of the curriculum while the remainder of the curriculum is highly structured and formatted content-centric material.  Presenting design thinking as a piece of the content was discordant and for many seemed at odds with the remainder of the curriculum.  The students struggled with the idea of innovation and creativity when it had not been encouraged elsewhere in the course.

To create an innovative and creative environment where students are encouraged to push boundaries, the staff college program needs to create an unstructured organised learning environment. This can be developed by creating courses that are based on collaborative inquiry as opposed to set content.  There can still be content delivered to the students but as an informational source for empowered learners.  For example, if a leadership course is developed as an inquiry-based course, a possible course structure would be as follows:

Week One – A set of foundational theory lectures; 

Week Two – Students would be posed an open ended question, for example “What is the key institutional leadership challenge facing the modern militaries?”  Students would then engage in collaborative problem definition exercise facilitated by faculty; 

Week Three and Four – the student group would develop a research methodology and then guided by their faculty, research with a view to developing a presentation on what they perceive to be the greatest challenge. They would then share these ideas in a group presentation; and

 Week 5 – Students write their own paper on the groups problem space and their perspective on it.  

Design thinking is well suited to this type of educational construct as it relies on creativity and the cultivation of judgement in the student, which are characteristics that are desirable in a military leader.  A design session using any of the different schools of design would facilitate the collaborative learning of the group and allow them to develop their premise.

Design thinking and design activities also leverage collaborative learning aligning well with the social-constructivist approach to adult education, which posits that individuals learn better when they are engaged in creating or constructing something with the purpose of sharing with others.  The more opportunities that students have to articulate their learning to others, the better they themselves understand it.

Structuring courses based on post-modernist pedagogy promotes the desired critical thinking in a collaborative environment that militaries are seeking from graduates of staff college.  The pedagogic approach proposed allows for the emancipation from what has been done before, deconstruction of the issues being dealt with and the creation of an innovative, unstructured dialogue while still producing a “product” and an assessable deliverable.  This approach embraces post-modernist pedagogic strategies while still providing the measurable educational outcomes. Creating courses based on the application of design thinking vice ‘teaching’ design thinking will permit students to have ownership on the development of their ‘design methodologies’. As such the idea that students have no time to think becomes moot as they are not spending their time mastering content but are developing understanding through application.

The staff college based on a classic modernist approach to pedagogy is not preparing the leaders of the future for the problems that they face.  A change to  pedagogy will turn the student experience from one where they lurch from task to task to one where they have greater ownership of their learning and greater understanding of their materials.  Staff colleges need to create a learning environment where students have the opportunity to think hard about messy complex problems.

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