Teaching junior leaders to think

“It is essential that all leaders from subaltern to commanding general familiarize themselves with the art of clear, logical thinking. It is more valuable to be able to analyse one battle situation correctly, recognize its decisive elements and devise a simple, workable solution for it, than to memorise all of the erudition ever written of war’ (Infantry in Battle, 1939, p.14, cited in Fischer and Spiker, 2009).

Army prides itself on the numerous strategic leaders who have served our country. The challenge as we head into 2020 and beyond is the preparation of our junior leaders not only in courage, versatility and resilience amongst other aspects, but primarily in critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it can be defined as ‘the objective evaluation of an issue in order to make a judgment’. Utilising Bloom’s Taxonomy of Intellectual Behaviour (Krathwol, 2002), the top three intellectual behaviours such as ‘Analysis’, ‘Evaluation’ and ‘Creating’  demand higher levels of thinking and help demonstrate critical thinking. Analysis is the examination of parts of a whole, causes and effects and differences. Evaluation is the expression of opinions and justification of those opinions. Creating is combining information and ideas from sources and creating something new. These aspects combined are the foundation for critical thinking skills.

The increasing complexities of asymmetric warfare, the changing nature of the Defence environment including the introduction of new weapons platforms and systems and their requirement to be interoperable with Services and Coalition partners, necessitates the development of junior leaders with critical thinking abilities. Our future operating environment is likely to change as regional neighbours develop their military capabilities to diminish our technological advantage. In this challenging environment, we will rely more on the cognitive ability of our soldiers and less on high technology weapon systems to maintain our competitive advantage over our adversaries.

Our traditional education system encourages students to regurgitate knowledge from their educators, who are perceived as experts. Universities present information as knowledge that is often absolute and unchanging. Those who challenge are required to substantiate arguments with peer-reviewed papers, which often mirror lecturer viewpoints. While this has begun to change over the last ten years and a critical view is not seen as entirely negative, traditional pedagogical methods are still the primary means of educating our soldiers. This could be in part due to our recruiting procedures.

It could be argued that Defence recruits members using performance indicators developed utilising Trait Theory. In Trait theory, leadership potential is determined using patterns of personal characteristics that reflect a range of individual differences and leader effectiveness across a variety of group and organisational situations (Zaccaro, Kemp and Bader, 2004). Defence Psychologists assess the ability for candidates to display these traits. To what extent our critical thinking abilities are assessed is debatable.

So while our education system is based on traditional teaching methods which encourage conformity to long held views and our selection process categorises us according to ‘traits, it may be left to our Professional Military Education and Training (PMET) system to transform us into critical thinkers capable of adapting to a diverse workplace, full of technological advances for which our ability to apply learning will be tested, not our capacity to recall facts. Or could it be the way we are educated and trained in Defence?

To succeed in a diverse and technologically advanced workplace, a transition should occur from instructor-led strategies to learner-centred experiential methodologies, including action learning, facilitated by subject matter experts. These new methods, approaches and techniques approaches will enhance the skills necessary for critical thought and complex problem solving (Fischer and Spiker, 2009).

Current learning outcomes in some of the military education and training do not encourage higher-level thinking. The three components of Analysis, Evaluation and Creating are generally not identified. This raises the question of whether members know how to think critically and can perform this skill to a high level. There should be focus on teaching members how to think, not what to think. Training Analysts, within the Education field are specialists in identifying gaps in member’s education and training and identifying efficient methodologies for assessment of this.

There are other methodologies for enhancing critical thinking skills. Defence offers postings, exercises and exposure at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. Critical thinking is adopted in Joint Operations, where challenges in joint and interagency contexts provide valuable learning. However, further experiences are required at the junior officer levels in order to prepare members for higher command.

Critical thinking is a key skillset for the future. The increasing complexity of regional threats across multiple spectrums, space and cyber, necessitates improved critical thinking skills in our soldiers. These skills are not taught as part of our traditional education system nor are they fully taught in our military training. It is too late by the time members get to Command and Staff College. Development of our leaders is an investment into the ADF. Whilst the focus generally is on platforms, systems and equipment - let’s consider how we can best teach our junior leaders to think.

Flight Lieutenant Naomi O'Neill is the training systems officer at the Australian Defence Force Academy

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.