Conference Observations: Reimagining the Future of Professional Military Education


Over the past year, there have been some very insightful and provocative contributions to the debate about professional military education, with War on the Rocks providing an important platform for this debate. Driven by perceived changes to the functioning of the international system and by notional challenges posed by emerging technologies, armed forces around the world have looked to leverage their professional education system for greater military effectiveness and power. Nowhere is this drive more starkly illustrated than the latest US National Security Strategy, which states:

PME [professional military education] has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity. We will emphasize intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors…. PME is to be used as a strategic asset to build trust and interoperability across the Joint Forces and with allied and partner forces.

On 5-6 December 2018, representatives from 17 international PME institutions met at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom for a conference on ‘reimagining the future’ of PME. Presenters were asked to outline recent innovations from their institutions as a means of sharing ideas about how PME is currently developing around the world and what we might learn from each other. From my perspective as Dean of Academic Studies of King’s College London’s support for the Defence Academy, there was a lot to draw out of this gathering. What follows is some of my reflections.

Above all else, the conference demonstrated that we in PME might find it useful to draw a stronger distinction between learning and education. We can define learning here as ‘the acquisition of new knowledge and/or skills through experience, reflection, study, or instruction.’ From all of the participants came the firm recognition that life-long learning is a fundamental element of professional military education. This life-long military learning obviously takes many forms, from the formal to the non-formal, and varies according to the role, rank, and aspiration of individuals. There is large element of choice in this version of life-long learning. Individuals chose to read specific items from reading lists; they chose a particular postgraduate course; they select civilian qualifications to pursue.

It might be helpful to think of education, on the other hand, as being a more formal and institutionalized version of learning. Of course, individual learning is a fundamental element of such education, but in the ‘education’ part of professional military education, the institution provides the goals and often the methods of learning. It also generally leads to a formal qualification, be it professional and/or academic. Education allows an institution to identify the knowledge and skills required for specific military roles. Through formal assessment mechanisms, education also ensures that individuals achieve competency in defined areas. Formal learning is also an essential element of organizational learning, which, in turn, drives innovation.

The key for the future of PME is how to make the most of both of these elements – a highly individualized life-long professional learning where objectives are largely set by the individual and a formal educational system where the learning requirements are set by the institution.

Although not articulated, there was a recognition of this issue from the institutions represented at the conference. A number of presenters spoke about the growing importance of ‘personalization’ or ‘customization’ of professional military education. This was most evident in the approaches taken by New Zealand and France. In New Zealand, they place significant emphasis on a deep assessment of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in leadership as a means of creating an individualized development plan. In the Ecole de Guerre in France, students themselves chose how to complete the majority of their education at the school, with only a small element being set by the institution. It is also evident in the approaches we have been developing here at the UK Defence Academy with a diversification of the Advanced Command and Staff Course underway.

Running parallel to this personalization of professional education was a strong emphasis on differing methods of delivery and assessment. Dr Paul Mitchell from the Canadian Defence Forces College spoke eloquently about the importance of experienced individuals in the ‘co-creation’ of knowledge in formal PME. This demonstrates the strong link between individual learning and organizational learning. Capitalizing on this, there is a trend amongst PME institutions towards more interactive learning – wargaming, simulations, case study approaches – that draw and build on individual experience and knowledge. Moreover, there was a clear recognition that as learning objectives change, so the assessment methods must change as well. Long-form essays retain a central place in PME assessment strategies, but they are increasingly being joined by assessments that practice and demonstrate other skills, such as short, concise pieces of written work, ‘lightning talks,’ etc.

Despite the embrace of new delivery methods, there was also a caution about an over-reliance on distributed learning. While most acknowledged that distant learning had a role in both learning and education, there was a strong feeling that residential learning produces better learning outcomes. Indeed, most institutions represented at the conference believed that PME still requires significant periods (circa 10-12 months) of formal residential education to enable students to develop the intellectual attributes and skills required in this complex world and many, if not most, of the institutions represented were moving away from distance education.

Indeed, there appears to be a strong belief across the world that education provides an essential ‘force multiplier’ for armed forces today, and most of the nations represented at the conference are investing in educating their personnel as a means of ensuring they have the intellectual skills and knowledge essential in a rapidly changing world.

Military education has always been a reflection of ideas and advances in broader education, and the conference in December made this clear. Just as civilian institutions wrestle with the integration of new technologies and new ideas in teaching and learning, so too do PME institutions. The value of this conference was in bringing together educators from a wide range of PME institutions from across the world and in hearing how others were addressing the issues of today. The conference helped sharing ‘best practice’ in PME in order for this to be a ‘strategic asset’ for the countries represented.

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