Transforming Athena


Terzo pressed his hands onto the trousers of his uniform: “Your Excellency, I’ve never seen a dead man.”

Ciano, who leaned forward to write something, stopped with his pen in mid-air and repeated: “A dead man?”

In his embarrassment, the colonel made a gesture as if to stand at attention: “A dead man, Your Excellency. I joined the Army as a boy and I’m forty years old now. I hoped to fight in Ethiopia, and instead had to prepare a digest of battles lost by colonial armies against natives, to prove that the Italian defeat at Ardua was not unique…Indeed, there is no battle I can’t reconstruct for you…But I have never seen a dead man, Your Excellency. War, for me, is an abstraction, an infinitesimal calculus. Until I have seen a man die, until I myself have risked my life, what kind of a warrior am I? Am I a coward or a fighter? I have vowed to put myself to the test before I die, and that is why I put in a request to be assigned to an operational unit.”
—Gianni Riotta, Prince of the Clouds


The challenging and uncertain combat and combat-like environments that armed forces find themselves in require leaders who can creatively imagine and think as well as quickly decide and act. They must have the intellect of Colonel Terzo in the story referred to in the prologue, and they must have seen their “dead men” to succeed in operational environments the good colonel could only imagine in his nightmares. Those environments—or what is variously named hybrid, unconventional, complex, chaotic warfare—are as the Army describes them volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.[1] One could also add that they are terrifically deadly.

Traditional military educational and training approaches often limit creative and critical thinking that can provide skills for quick decisions and action. Applying simple experiential learning tools in a collaborative physical setting can integrate both requirements, thus enhancing what students learn and can apply.  Effectively, this requires applying Active Learning to professional military education, particularly for mid-career officers who have built up a body of practical field experience, but also are still young enough to be open cognitively to new ways of learning and thinking about their experiences.

How Military Leaders Learn (Or How They Are Taught)

For most of human history, military leaders learned individual fighting skills from instructors through demonstration and practice, obtaining high-level organizational skills through on-the-job training. As warfare became more complex, particularly by the mid-18th century—with specialized arms such as artillery, cavalry, infantry, sappers, and engineers—the environment in which military leaders worked expanded, and the size of armies increased. Leaders could no longer afford the happenstance of on-the-job training. Formal military schools appeared to teach the necessary subjects for mastery of the new ways of warfare.[2] Teachers at these schools primarily used lecture techniques with historical references to communicate the information to their students; staff rides and wargames completed this instruction. By modern times, military schools augmented the original techniques with historical case studies to examine lessons in detail.

The modern pedagogical challenge for teachers and students alike in professional military education is that the pace of change in warfare accelerates so fast that curricula and syllabi never catch up to changes.

Today, the pedagogical methods of armed forces schools generally use some version of the seminar approach.[3] Student leaders learn through a combination of lecture and discussion, usually referencing relevant historical cases. They are then evaluated through exercises, papers, or tests that supposedly measure comprehension of the seminar material. The emphasis on history as a basis for discussion is important for this teaching approach and works best where there is a continuity of experience and theory to assess progress.

The modern pedagogical challenge for teachers and students alike in professional military education is that the pace of change in warfare accelerates so fast that curricula and syllabi never catch up to changes. Student officers, who have experienced the changes in the field, do not have the opportunity to discuss or contextualize what they have done. Call it a teaching-learning discontinuity. For military leaders, this discontinuity has real consequences for the armed forces they lead and themselves. The environment these leaders find themselves in is one of often incomprehensible violence, tumult, and change. To be successful, let alone survive, leaders need to be adaptive and creative as well as competent and courageous.[4]

Those who teach these leaders also must be adaptive and creative; they must learn to incorporate students’ experiences into their courses of study. For example, the Naval War College Joint Maritime Operations course mid-level syllabus for distance education includes a session on Information Operations. However, the session’s content is light on the effects of social media. Students participating in the course routinely have great experience with both the benefits and dangers of social media. As a seminar leader, I encourage students to share their social media experiences as they apply to joint operations, inviting them to reflect on how these experiences affect the scope and process of operations.  Finally I invite the students to recommend possible solutions to the challenges they have presented, and I ask them how they would modify the session content to improve the discussion of Information Operations.

There is nothing earth-shattering in what I do in this instance; most teachers of at least average merit would do the same. My point is that the process should be built into curricula as standard operating practice, not left to the discretion of individual teachers. What the above example illustrates is experiential learning applied in an active learning setting.

Experiential Learning

There are over fifty theories on learning in the social sciences; most focus on developmental (child) learning. Of the few focused on adult learning, only a handful can be categorized as experiential learning theories. There are four main branches of experiential learning theories.[5] All discuss experiential learning in one of two ways: (1) learning involving a direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter; and (2) learning that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life.[6] Experiential learning is a powerful learning tool that exhibits high learning retention.[7] Generally, all experiential learning applications have been derived from the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin as interpreted by David Kolb, whose broad experiential learning model is depicted below:

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model [8]

The above model applies to military leaders who return to the schoolhouse for professional military education from the operational environment. These students should have the opportunity to share these experiences, to learn from them, and to grow from them. The most effective place to do that is in a conducive classroom setting that enables students to reflect on their experiences, to share them openly with fellow student leaders, to develop new concepts and insights into their experiences, and to then reach a higher level of understanding and knowledge which they can then apply to new experiences. The cycle then begins anew. Thus, instead of the circular Kolb model presented above, a more accurate depiction of professional military education would depict an expanding upwards spiral in self-knowledge and understanding.

In more practical terms, this cycle may be described as an information or decision cycle, in which the leader actively observes or participates in some salient (to the leader) event(s) during a field tour. Upon returning to the educational setting, the student reflects on what happened with fellow students and teachers. Then the leader’s own ideas develop on what and why the observed event(s) were salient. Finally, the leader experiments through simulations, theses, or examinations to determine the validity of these ideas. Of course, the true content validity test is the use of the ideas upon return to the field.

Diagram of the OODA Loop (Wikimedia)
Students of organizational behavior and decisions will note the close similarity between this approach, the Boyd Decision Cycle Model, and Schein’s Organizational Adaptive Coping Model.[9] Both of the latter models are familiar to many serving military leaders, so using an adaptation of the Lewin learning model should seem familiar.

There are four keys to succeeding with experiential learning methods:

  1. a group collaboration/participation/sharing experience;

  2. a competent facilitator/seminar leader/teacher;

  3. a formal environment in which the learning can occur and a coherence of that environment with what students will experience when they leave the formal learning environment; and

  4. relevant evaluation of the learning cycle(s).[10]

In establishing the collaborative/participative/sharing experience, the classroom generally provides an environment where ideas and opinions can safely be expressed. The classroom, with the leader’s peers—even better if the peers are diverse, from other services and countries—enables the students to reflect, to generalize, to argue, to refute, and, perhaps most importantly, to actively listen to others. When these students are part of a course designed to stimulate relevant ideas—military, technical, political, psychological—then the class naturally will form a group. The teacher/facilitator/seminar leader must ensure the group develops positively while avoiding the development of destructive, non-productive cliques.

The teacher’s role in experiential learning is different from stereotypical instructional roles, now serving as a facilitator as much as a communicator. The teacher in this role should have deep respect for the students, desirably sharing the student’s experience. The teacher or facilitator should be highly involved in active listening and focused questioning. Lectures are rare and short, used to introduce a general idea from which the group extrapolates.

As mentioned above, the classroom on a military campus provides an effective place to conduct experiential learning. It is offsite, that is away from the necessary distractions that impose themselves on practicing military leaders. The campus classroom especially facilitates the reflection and abstraction elements of the experiential learning cycle. It also provides a safe environment if the class/campus is managed on a non-rank basis. In turn, all the above characteristics encourage students to experiment and to think creatively without career risk.

All theorists and researchers on experiential learning emphasize the need for relevant evaluations. Some, like Carl Rogers, go as far as having the students design their own tests and forms of evaluation.[11] Even if not that extreme, evaluations are critical to any form of learning, especially experiential learning. The evaluations at the very least must be relevant to students. For example, if the course involves teaching modern warfare techniques, tests should focus on modern warfare, not historical warfare; conversely, if the course involves historical cases, it would be unwise to not include those cases in the subsequent evaluation. Tests, papers, and research projects should test knowledge, not the lack of it. This is a basic element of all modern pedagogical theory.[12] It is especially true for the select group of military leader students. Failure is inimical to these leaders; what they need is a deep understanding of what they know and don’t know.

Recommendations and Conclusion

From the above discussion, one should expect that any reasonably experienced teacher of military students can quickly implement the most basic aspects of experiential learning in an active learning setting without much change from established patterns. Here are five suggestions to quicken that implementation. These suggestions should be considered illustrative and not comprehensive.

Classroom at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) in 2010 (Wikiwand)

First, recognition. There is a two-way street in the professional military education classroom. From the teacher’s perspective, this means recognizing that the students are not empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge provided by the professor. From the students’ perspective, this means recognizing that their experiences count and are as valuable as the ideas found in the lectures, readings, and multimedia presentations. Essentially, recognition requires a cultivation of professors’ deep respect for their students, particularly their experiences.[13] In doing so, professors will both initiate their own learning cycle and stimulate reflection, expression, and sharing of the students’ experiences.

Second, shared experience. The cultivation of this respect is enhanced if the professors have shared students’ experiences; one can call this credibility. As such, those most capable of executing experiential learning techniques in professional military education may be those who have also served in the armed forces. There is a professional bond among military leaders that transcends generations; use of that bond in an experiential learning setting can be a great asset to teacher and student alike. This suggestion does not mean reducing or eliminating professors who do not share the military experience with their students; it does mean that this teaching cohort must create connections between their civilian experiences and student experiences that enables a similar relationship.

Third, group identity. Classes are groups, and groups can form either positively or negatively. It is essential that professors know with whom they are dealing. Teachers can use simple techniques to create in-class groups to enhance effective group formation, thereby developing collaborative learning traits enhanced in the experiential learning classroom. These techniques may range from the formal (Myers-Briggs) to the informal (e.g., “What color are you?”). Teachers can manage group performance in experiential learning through application of group dynamics techniques found in active learning methodologies.

Fourth, humility and facilitation. The most potentially uncomfortable change involves that of the teacher’s role in the experiential learning classroom. This suggestion builds on the first, which includes the recognition that the “sage on a stage” approach to professional military education is not beneficial for adult learning. A healthy sense of humility should be a key characteristic of any professional military education teacher, which enables them to seek out other ideas about the relevant classroom subject. Humility can become a powerful classroom tool when coupled with facilitation to maximize the learning group’s output. Professors should endeavor to learn facilitation skills and techniques to achieve mastery of active learning methods in the classroom. This should be relatively natural to most teachers as it involves getting the most information from the class.

Fifth, assessments. We know good assessments that challenge students in non-identity threatening ways are force multipliers in learning. Teachers should design or modify standard evaluations to match students’ abstract thinking and reflection with relevant situations. Practically, this means using appropriate scenarios to enrich classroom discussions, asking the students to extrapolate them into their experience. For example, when discussing the importance and relevance of operational factors in Operational Art, providing the historical and abstract context from the Sicilian Expedition of the Peloponnesian War or the Battle of Leyte Gulf may be important, but then applying the factors to the Battle of COP Keating or the Thunder Run on Baghdad may create learning connections that will improve memory retention.

Times change. Warfare changes. The way to teach military leaders to be successful in eras of intense change depends on how those leaders best learn. Experiential learning offers a highly relevant, rewarding, and theoretically sound set of pedagogical techniques to match learning with teaching through the lens of experience. Equally important, experiential learning offers the military pedagogical profession a way to adapt to change on a par with their students.

Jonathan E. Czarnecki is a Naval War College Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1]Judith Stiehm and Nicholas W. Townsend, The Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy; Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002, page 6.

[2] Accessed 2 June 2020.

[3] Accessed 2 June 2020.

[4] Don Snider and Gayle L. Watkins (eds.), The Future of the Army Profession. Boston: McGraw-Hill Primis, 2002. Pages 410-412.

[5] According to Warner Weil and I. McGill, there are four “villages” in experiential learning, two of which focus on learning from experience and two which focus on usin experience for personal or group growth (Weil and McGraw, Making Sense of Experiential Learning. Diversity in theory and practice. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1989. Page 9.)

[6] Stephen Brookfield, Adult Learning, Adult Education and the Community.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1983. Page 16.

[7],tasks%20and%20seeing%20the%20results)., Accessed 2 June 2020.

[8] Kurt Lewin, Field Theory in the Social Sciences; selected theoretical papers.  David Cartright (editor.) New York: Harper & Row, 1951. Also, David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning. Experience As the Source of Learning and Development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

[9] John Boyd conceived the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Decision Cycle Model in the late 1970s. For Boyd, see note 4. For Schein, see note 5.

[10] Much of what follows has been adapted from Stephen D. Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.

[11] Carl Rogers, Freedom To Learn. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1969. Page 201.

[12],the%20effectiveness%20of%20educational%20programs. Accessed 2 June 2020.

[13] Deep in this context refers to the psychological phenomenon of an enduring belief that influences behavior. See James Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. Part one.

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