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Military Reform through Education

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

Don Vandergriff facilitating Adaptive Soldier/Leader exercises at Fort Benning

Fred Leland at LESC Blog recently had a guest post up by Dan Grazier from the Project on Government Oversight regarding the important work Don Vandergriff is doing to reform professional military education and training:

Military Reform Through Education: From The Straus Military Reform Project, Something We In Policing Can Learn From

….I had the privilege of experiencing this process with a group of 30 soldiers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians learning about adaptive leadership and mission command. All were teachers from various courses at Fort Benning sent by their senior leaders seeking to infuse new ideas into their organizations. They spent a week learning how to incorporate adaptability into their courses during a seminar taught by CDI military advisor Don Vandergriff and his colleagues with Yorktown Systems Group.

The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists. Instead, the seminar shows soldiers how to incorporate creative and interactive methods that challenge both students and teachers. This results in empowered soldiers at all levels able to adapt to any situation. [….]

….Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, has been on the front lines of personnel reform for many years. While he is most noted for his work at the service level, these seminars seek to transform the Army from the bottom up.

Approximately 20 soldiers and 10 civilian educators spent the week learning various teaching methods through experiential learning, which flips the traditional method military students are used to. Most training today follows the “crawl, walk, run” theory all service members are familiar with. Students are generally expected to complete reading assignments, sit through a PowerPoint lecture, and then finally conduct field training to reinforce what they have learned.

The seminar exposed students to new methods by putting the practical exercises first. For example, the seminar uses several Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) to encourage students to rapidly develop a plan for a military problem presented by the facilitators. TDGs can be created for nearly any kind of a situation, but this course mostly used actual battlefield problems like how to capture a bridge or defeat an enemy force entrenched on a hilltop. While working through these problems, the students are exposed to such concepts as Mission Command and the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act decision cycle, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle.
It is only after the practical exercises that they receive reading assignments about those concepts. Because they’ve encountered them during the exercises, the concepts become more tangible. The OODA Loop, for instance, explains an individual’s or an organization’s decision-making process. It is a difficult concept to truly understand, but it becomes easier when one first sees how it works and then reads about it. The idea is to give them a moment of discovery, that “Ah ha!” moment. Success using such methods is to have a student say, “So, that’s what you call that,” while reading.

Don is making use of several powerful learning methodologies in his Adaptive Leadership philosophy – and I saying “learning” and not “teaching” because Don has properly put the emphasis on the student actively thinking and doing rather than on passively listening to a lecture or discussion. Lecture has a place in education, to explain or to set the student up for new learning experiences, but it should be used sparingly and in short bursts of time when the instructor has carefully set up a “teachable moment”. By having the students doing active problem solving first, they come to Vandergriff armed with their own questions, eager to have feedback.

The use of games are also a very powerful learning tool, perhaps one of the most effective because the situational learning. tends to be transferrable rather than be compartmentalized and isolated information. The right kind of decision games are serious practice for life. This was noted by RAND social scientists way back during the early days of the Cold War:

“The gamers argued that insights arose from immersion in play. In 1956 Joseph Goldstein noted that the war game demonstrated ‘ the organic nature of complex relationships’ that daily transactions obscured.War-gaming gripped its participants, whipping up the convulsions of diplomacy ‘ more forcefully…than could be experienced through lectures or books’.”

” A team from the Social Science Division [ at RAND ] posed a number of questions which they hoped the unfoldig month of gaming would resolve. Chief among them was whether gaming could be used as a forecasting technique ‘ for sharpening our estimates of the probable consequences of policies pursued by various governments’. Would gaming spark “political inventiveness“, and more importantly, how did it compare to conventional policy analysis? Did gaming uncover problems that might otherwise be neglected? And invoking the emerging touchstone of intuition, did the experience impart to policy analysts and researchers “ a heightened sensitivity to problems of political strategy and policy consequences?”

  Sharon Ghamari- Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn

Back to the article:

….Vandergriff’s teaching method incorporates recent research into adult learning, designed “to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress.” This creates a situation where the students learn from one another. Unlike most other military classes, the ASLTE teachers use very few PowerPoint presentations. They also end up speaking far less than the students themselves.

Vandergriff ran the class through the first TDG and led the discussion afterward. From that point forward, students took turns leading the class through After Action Reviews. Students gained confidence in leading such an exercise while the rest of the class bounced ideas off each other. The interactive nature of this kept the entire class engaged and gave all of them ownership of their own learning.

The concept of ownership was a consistent theme throughout the seminar. According to Vandergriff, a good teacher “works to make his students better than himself and encourages them to take ownership of their development, to make them life-long learners.”

Here Don is making use of the social pressure and reinforcement of a Peer to Peer (P2P) dynamic to maintain maximum student engagement while having them practice critical intellectual reflection, something that is a vital constituent of a professional culture of learning. A true professional embraces an honest discussion of ideas and both accepts and gives critical feedback on performance in hopes of learning and improving.

Read more regarding Don Vandergriff’s adaptive leadership methods here and here.

Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

Friday, December 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]

Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

Let’s begin here:


There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts


    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Dawn and Decadence, Innovation, & The Face of Battle — top 3

    Friday, October 4th, 2013

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun

    In a year where I’ve not been able to read as much as normal and with 89 days remaining in 2013, these three titles are the best so far. I’m not finished with Dawn, but it seems like the late Professor Barzun is an old friend (here is a video from 2010). Barzun’s opus was published when he was 93 and was almost ten years in the making. Dawn has been sitting on my shelves for four or five years and I’d started it two or three times only to get bogged down and lose interest. Well over half way finished and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading this title for years to come (co-blogger Lynn Rees reports he’s read it four times). Barzun’s scope covers the gamut: religion, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, philosophy, and the aristocracy/life at court. Since many of these topics are interconnected he uses an ingenious method to assist the reader in keeping up. He uses this: (<page number)(page number>) to direct the reader to something previously discussed or something he will cover later. In the text, he will recommend “the book to read is” “the book to browse is” in brackets. I’ve found this method distracting as I’ve read three books he referenced since I started… Barzun also provides generous lift quotes in the margins to give the reader a flavor for a particular writer or idea/example. If the book had a traditional bibliography, I dare say it would cover a couple hundred pages–at least. Dawn has been a pleasure I’ve been taking in small doses and am in no hurry to finish. This is the best book of the genre that I’ve read.

    Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting Morison

    Elting Morison’s Men, Machines is reviewed at Amazon by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “purely and simply one of the best books ever written on the process of innovation and the interaction of technology, culture, systems, and individual personalities.” I could not agree more. Morison’s book is a collection of essays dealing with change and man’s inherit but paradoxical reaction to it:

    Yet, if human beings are attached to the known, to the realm of things as they are, they also, regrettably for their peace of mind, are incessantly attracted to the unknown and things as they might be. As Ecclesiastes glumly pointed out, men persist in disordering their settled ways and beliefs by seeing out many inventions…Change has always been a constant in human affairs…

    From gunnery at sea to 19th Century railroads, Morison provides illustration after illustration of man, his institutions, and the almost universal resistance of both to change. Morison observes of inventors (real “disruptive thinkers’) [this was written in the early 1950’s]:

    I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women.

    Morison devotes one essay to the characteristics and ills of a “bureau.” He describes the difficulty of getting anything accomplished within an average bureaucracy—largely because bureaucrats live for process and harmony. He says:

    Taken together, a set of regulations provides a pattern of behavior for the energies bureaus are set up to regulate….Regulations are a way of keeping a system of energies working in harmony and balance…First it is easier to make a regulation than to abolish it.

    Morison’s eighth and concluding essay provide Some Proposals for dealing with change and newness—in a word, solutions to many of the problems identified earlier. That said, only the most dedicated reader will complete the seventh (and longest) chapter, according the Morison, originally intended to be a book about the history of 19th Century American railroad innovation. Overall, I concur with Speaker Gingrich and highly recommend this title.

    The Face of Battle, by John Keegan

    A title needing no introduction at Zenpundit, I’ll only offer this title as one of the best books of the genre I’ve read. Keegan covers three battles across 500 years of history, Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme. In each, he brings alive the battlefield and provides the conditions faced by combatants—often up close and personal. Keegan’s scholarship, insight, and importantly, his humility in addressing a topic he admittedly had no first hand experience make this a must read for anyone in the profession of arms, and recommended for anyone seeking more insight into how we fight.

    That’s a wrap, be back soon! 

    Love, Death, and Jihad by Pen and Sword

    Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — with Wagner and Abu Dujana as examples, the cognitive sting here is in the tail — the power of a double image to engage both emotion and insight ]

    Love and death.


    The human mind thinks in parallelisms and oppositions.

    My lords, if you would hear a high tale of love and of death, here is that of Tristan and Queen Iseult; how to their full joy, but to their sorrow also, they loved each other, and how at last they died of that love together upon one day; she by him and he by her.

    Thus begins Bédier‘s version of The Romance of Tristan & Iseult as Hilaire Belloc presents it in its classic English form. The parallel there, between love and death, is found also in Freud’s binary opposition of Eros and Thanatos, which he suggests in Civilization and Its Discontents:

    The name libido can again be used to denote the manifestations of the power of Eros in contradistinction to the energy of the death instinct.

    and in Wagner’s Liebestod — by way of returning to Tristan and Iseult:


    Likewise, there’s a parallelism between jihad by pen (jihad bil qalam) and by sword (jihad bil saif) — shown in Abu Dujana al-Khurasani‘s move from writing on the forums to martyrdom in Khost — which al-Awlaki phrases in terms of ink and blood in eulogizing Sayyid Qutb in Constants on the Path of Jihad:

    We see that in our contemporary times with people like Syed Qutb. He wrote with ink and his own blood. People like Shaykh Abdullah Azzam and Shaykh Yusuf al ‘Uyayree. They wrote amazing books, and after they died it was as if Allah made their soul enter their words to make it alive; it gives their words a new life

    and which appears, contrariwise, in the hadith — considered weak by some and cherished by others:

    The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr


    Which brings me to my own parallelism of the day — a parallelism between two uses of graphical similarities, to convey powerful messages:

    The upper panel shows a Yardley‘s lipstick ad that I must have seen forty years ago on the London Underground — it stunned me then, and it stuns me today to have rediscovered it on the net — which I have long thought of as a brilliant illustration of “rhyme” in images.

    And the lower panel? It’s the parallelism between jihad bil qalam with jihad bil saif, extended into the cyber realm. Again, a powerful image, because when two items “rhyme” in some way that’a apparent to us, there’s an instinctive summoning of all that they mean to us close to the surface of consciousness, and other aspects of their relatedness can then become clear to us in a flash of insight.


    Here’s the full Yardley’s ad, still very much as I remember it from so long ago:


    Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

    To Lexington Green and James Bennett, for finishing their new book, America 3.0 – due out (I think) in 2013 published by Encounter Books.

    A political vision for an era desperately short on imagination and needing statecraft of inspiration.

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