The Necessary Death of the One-size-fits-all Approach: Transformative Pedagogy in Higher Military Education


Emilie Alice Cléret is Head of the English Department within the Enseignement militaire supérieur – the French Higher Military Education. She designs the English courses for the Ecole de guerre– the French War College – and for the Centre des hautes etudes militaires– the higher command and staff course. You can read more about her work with the French War College language training programme here, and you can follow her on Twitter at Emilie Alice Cleret @cler_em or connect with her via LinkedIn.

This piece examines the transition over two years at Ecole de Guerre from traditional education methods to a transformative approach, focusing on the English-language programme for French military officers as a case study.

Language Training & PME in France:

Th Ecole de Guerre academy is located in the heart of Paris, opposite the Eiffel Tower, within a unique heritage monument called the Ecole Militaire. It was founded in 1751 by King Louis XV and it embraces a long-standing military tradition. Every year, between 150 and 200 French senior officers from the 9/11 generation join Ecole de Guerre for a one-year course after selection through a very competitive exam that requires two years’ preparation. They come from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Gendarmerie, and military directorates, and have about fifteen years of operational and command experience. In addition, about 70 foreign officers from 60 different countries join the cohort every September.

The main objective of the course is to shape future leaders for joint, intergovernmental, interagency, and multinational operational environments by providing well-trained and well-educated senior officers, many of whom go on to command regiments, ships or air bases.  The officers must shift their thinking from tactical level to wider operational and higher strategic levels.  For the students, this is a decisive yet difficult turn in their military career.

The young men and women they were when they joined the military academies were attracted by the prospect of carrying out operations at the tactical level, as opposed to favoring operational theory, which connects tactical details to strategic goals.

During their years of command at tactical level, they have become conditioned to jumping in and getting things done with a real sense of accomplishment by controlling the mission and delivering the desired results. Objectives and metrics are clear, choices are limited and results are within their control. The idea of removing one’s self from day-to-day problem-solving to focus on the big-picture issues of determining the right course for the future is a difficult transition because the outcomes of one’s work becomes less tangible and less immediate. Tough decisions must be made across a myriad of options with limited information, ambiguous metrics and limited control of outcomes.

For many years, their success has been about “doing things right”. They now have to focus on honing how to choose the “right things to do” whilst they watch others carry out these missions and enjoy the immediate outcomes.

This transformation requires them to actually let go of certain skills that were the corner stone of tactical success and develop new ones. For us as educators, it is therefore crucial to find an approach to learning that will support this change in the professional expectations placed upon our students.

At the War College, officers augment their experience, military culture and methodology to heighten their effectiveness as leaders. This includes a focus on oral and written expression to boost their powers of communication; their future battles will be mostly in meetings of strategic importance. For the English program, the aim was and remains to complement this desired development in an officer’s thinking with a similar shift from passive to autonomous learning.

Until recently there was no formal English training in the French War College. France’s return to the NATO in 2009 was the necessary wake-up call. The English Department was founded in 2010 to train officers to effectively express, promote and defend France’s strategic interests in an English-speaking environment, a challenge demanding not only an advanced level of English but also strong cultural competence and leadership skills.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Adult Learning:

Learners, in order to be motivated and active, must feel comfortable in their learning environment and, ideally, perceive that their career needs are being met. Adult minds means a diversity in terms of knowledge, professional experience, emotional intelligence, academic background, exposure to the language, perception of the language, cultural competence and tolerance of ambiguity.

Over several years, the English programme’s very low approval ratings from students suggested that the curriculum and teaching methods were not meeting their expectations. The faculty soon came to realise that this was due to a traditional top-down one-size-fits-all approach. This fosters an educational ethos where learning continues to be defined in terms reminiscent of secondary or even primary levels of education, and assertive means are used to make students do that work. It was infantilising and wasn’t supporting the officers in making the necessary moves to break out of their prescriptive assumptions to embrace new sets of skills.

A one-size-fits-all syllabus designed according to the principles of a communicative approach had been chosen because French students overwhelmingly complain that their English courses at school focused too much on linguistic patterns and grammar rather than oral communication. Nevertheless, they stated in their feedback that they felt they were never given opportunities to express how their needs could be met.

So why such dissatisfaction? In fact, it appears that, “how can we motivate learners?” was the wrong question because it leads pedagogical staff and teachers to make choices on behalf of learners that often result in artificial and inappropriate answers. Any needs analysis filtered solely through the faculty’s own framework results in a process inherently unfit for adult learners because it leaves them out of the equation by not valuing their experience, not addressing what they regard as immediately useful and not discussing a learning contract with them. The right question is the opposite: “what makes learners lose their natural motivation?” The course design and the curriculum were acting as stumbling blocks between the teachers and the learners.

This cause of demotivation could be called “anticipated” teaching – all aspects of prepared teaching are predetermined ahead of the act of teaching. This anticipated teaching takes many forms, “manuals”, “syllabi” or “curricula”. Yet however well designed, a one-size-fits-all course that is pre-written and then forced on the learner is likely to impair motivation.


The solution seemed to lie in redesigning the syllabus using a transformative approach, i.e. a model of adult learning that distinguishes between learners as receptacles of knowledge versus learners who are actively engaged through critical reflection and discourse to question assumptions, expectations, and contexts to achieve deeper meaning and new perspectives to guide their actions. Ecole de Guerre decided to introduce transformative pedagogy into its foreign language programmes in May 2016 so that the newly designed English programme could be launched in September 2016. To do so, it was key to understand that the challenges actually lie in the learning environment.

In France, the sage on the stage spoon-feeds knowledge. Understanding and acquiring that knowledge is a solitary and silent process for the learner. Culturally, in this vertical structure, learners do not negotiate or debate with a teacher (just as, importantly in this context, you don’t with a higher-ranking officer).

French learners can be reluctant to learn English for historical, linguistic and cultural reasons. The most salient point is that the French identify the English language with the English people who have mostly been their violent enemy.  The French language underwent huge phonetic changes between Old French and the modern language: the loss of final consonants, weakened pronunciation of diphthongs, etc. Thus, the English language is counter-intuitive to the French learner. In addition to the learners’ national culture and academic background, it is necessary to add military culture into the equation.

Although aware of what needed to be changed and why, the directing staff had to be convinced to support the chosen strategy and process. It proved more effective to demonstrate what would be the outcomes using examples such as honing cross-cultural understanding and becoming more effective working with American or British counterparts. Military culture is very pragmatic – approval of a course of action is by reference to observable outcomes.

Creating a transformative learning environment requires a lot of work from faculty prior to the beginning of the course. Each student is interviewed individually to find out who they are, and more precisely, their exposure to the language, how they perceive their own level, how they relate to the language, their linguistic awareness, their expectations and their needs. We discuss the English programme with them to help them understand it is flexible and adaptable.

Once we have an accurate description of each profile, we tailor the training to the students. We put them together into groups of 8, taking into account their command of English, how they relate to the language, their international exposure, needs, expectations, and interests.

By creating these homogeneous groups, we make it possible for the teachers to design, add into, or change their lesson plans as they deliver.

To do so, you need the best match between the students and the teacher. This means one needs to know the profile of the teachers perfectly – their area of expertise, their comfort zone, their strengths and weaknesses.

Fully aware that a transformative approach is fundamentally different from the students’ academic culture, we have to gradually lead them to taking over their own learning process. We try, step by step, to bring in the seven conditions identified by Jack Mezirow to help students engage freely and fully participate in discourse in order to achieve transformation.

The first module puts the teacher in a very directive role but already preparing for transformative learning by adopting rituals, assigning and rotating roles to create trust within the group – teacher and students – crucial to foster transformation. It certainly creates “a willingness to seek understanding, agreement, and a tentative best judgment as a test of validity until new perspectives, evidence, or arguments are encountered and validated through discourse as yielding a better judgment” (Mezirow, 2009). They are gradually given “more accurate and complete information” as to how the teacher hands over tasks and decisions to them. The teachers being from a different cultural background will always suggest their point of view, explaining how their cultural bias operates to trigger “openness to alternative points of view and empathy and concern about how others think and feel”.

The second module moves into a transaction mode using a more communicative approach. The use of inductive activities, especially debating, offers opportunities to question and triggers critical dialogue thus honing “the ability to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively” and the “awareness of the context of ideas and taken-for-granted assumptions”. Debate, as formatted public-speaking, generates “equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse” and cultural awareness of different ways of reasoning from a Cartesian construct.

The third module will turn to a learner-led approach. The teacher initiates and facilitates a brainstorm to collect the students’ input to suggest a learning process that they can accept or reject until the group reaches consensus, free “from coercion and distorting self-deception.”

Transformative pedagogy mainly comes down to teachers finding out student aims (language, skills, subject matter, exams) and students accepting their responsibility in building the lessons; teaching then follows a transformative student-led approach, with constant reference to cultural insights.  Weaker students tend to ask for teacher direction within traditional pedagogical approaches.  Preparation for specific exams – increasingly demanded for career development – leans heavily on grammar-translation and drills.  In the advanced groups, students can decide to focus the English component of their course on specific projects such as debating, writing a research paper or organising seminars. They take the lead on tasks discussed with external partners in a mix of autonomous learning, project management, cultural awareness and communication skills.  As for teachers, weary at first, they have fully embraced transformative pedagogy because it is a broad church, which is exactly what Ecole de Guerre needs.



Cleret, E. (2018). Transformation at the learner, teacher, and instruction Levels: One teacher’s story at the French War College. Dialogue on Language Instruction28(1): 52-64.

Leaver, B. L., & Cleret, E. (2018). “Developing intercultural competence and idiocultural transformation in foreign language programs.” In Welsch, Marguerite, Victoria Marsick, & Dylan Holt, Eds. Building Transformative Community: Exacting Possibility in Today’s Times: Proceedings of the XIII Biennial Transformative Learning Conference(pp. 405-411). NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Leaver, B. L., & Willis, J. R. (2004). Task-based instruction in foreign language education: Practices and programs. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Mezirow, J. (1978).  “Perspective Transformation,” in AEQ (Adult Education Quarterly).

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult education. NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (2000). Learning as Transformation. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass

Mezirow, J., & Taylor, E.W., eds. (2009). Transformative learning in practice: Insights from community, workplace and higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Rogers, C. (1986). Freedom to learn: A view of what education might become (second edition). Merrill Publishing Company. Indianapolis: Merrill Publishing Company. (First edition published 1969.)

Stryker, S. B., & Leaver, B. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Models and methods. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Image: Central building of the Ecole Militarie, via wikimedia commons.

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