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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The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists.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.

Sunday surprise: House of Cards meets monks and sexy riot grrls

Sunday, October 11th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering if the same mind (Beau Willimon?) suggested both? ]

Two very different modes of factual reality found their ways into the fictional world of House of Cards, Season 3, American version, and I found the two choices pretty interesting. I’ve recently found clips relating to both on YouTube, so here they are for your consideration:

Pussy Riot:


Tibetan monks:

Taking those two choices together is a bit like juxtaposing Gregorian chant and punk rock — which, come to think of it, is pretty close to what I was getting at in my first ever Riot Grrls post, Pussy Riot, Holy Foolishness and Monk Punk.


Contemplation and activism — poles apart, or one the mainspring for the other?

Papal skipping

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — politics and the pope — but you could go straight to Thomas Merton on contemplation, right at the end, and skip the rest ]

After a busy week, I have seven or eight unfinished ZP pieces to polish up and post — here’s the first.


SPEC papal skipping


  • Think Progress, Catholic Congressman Will Skip Papal Address To Congress, Cites Climate Change
  • Good magazine, Pope Francis to Skip Lunch With Congressmen, Will Eat With DC’s Homeless Community Instead
  • **

    Also skipped:

    Alito, Breyer, Kagan, Scalia, and Thomas skip papal address to Congress

    Notably absent were Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, all of whom are Catholic. Also absent were Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who are Jewish.


    NPR saw fit to post The 10 Most Political Moments In Pope Francis’ Address To Congress:

  • Embracing John Kerry
  • A call to rise above polarization
  • A call for the country to open its arms to immigrants and refugees
  • A reminder on abortion
  • Strongly advocating for abolishing the death penalty
  • Poverty and the necessity of ‘distribution of wealth’
  • Business should be about ‘service to the common good’
  • Calling on Congress to act on climate change
  • Anti­war message and a call to stop arms trade
  • importance of family and marriage
  • Note also, from WaPo.. “The Jesuits refer to him as a mixture of a desert saint and Machiavelli.”


    As for myself, I particularly liked #2, the “call to rise above polarization”:

    Francis warned against the “temptation” of “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” .. He also noted one his heroes, American Thomas Merton, whom Francis said had “the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”

    It is hard to say which party Pope Francis would chose under the rubric “Whoever is not with me is against me” now popular in Congress.


    And what, finally, of Thomas Merton himself? Who is this Trappist monk the Pope mentions?

    I had the good fortune to correspond briefly with Fr Merton while I was still an undergraduate at Oxford in 1964, more than a half century ago, and he was kind enough to say of my letter “It makes me feel somehow I am in contact with the human race”. His response can be found in Road To Joy: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To New And Old Friends.

    Here’s the voice of Thomas Merton, speaking of the central practice of his life — central, too, I would suggest, to the politics of this Pope:

    My latest for Lapido: renewing the power of holiness?

    Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — The Dalai Lama and the Pope: two saints, sorta, astride a supposedly secular world ]

    Pope Francis & Dalai Lama 602
    HH Pope Francis, HH the Dalai Lama. Photos: Jeffrey Bruno, Christopher (CC BY SA 2.0)

    My latest post for LapidoMedia is titled The Dalai Lama and the Pope: renewing the power of holiness. It begins:

    TWO figures of undoubted moral stature now dominate world affairs. Each of them is a religious leader. Each is known by the title His Holiness, but seems to wear the title lightly.

    For neither of them is virtue a lost ideal, neither is morality a private matter.

    Each preaches compassion, consideration for the poor, spirituality above materialism, and the care of the natural world.

    What do these two men have in common, that distinguishes their voices from those of other office holders and persons of power and influence?

    Certainly, each has been featured in Rolling Stone, which indicates their popular appeal.

    Each one’s office has a long pedigree, and each just might be the last of his kind. Perhaps there’s a clue there.

    It concludes with:

    First contemplation, then action: this is the secret uniting heart, mind and hand which gives these two figures their appeal and stature.

    And the need to join together to combat climate change is one arena in which these two men are in strong agreement.

    The Guardian reports from Glastonbury, ‘The Dalai Lama has endorsed the pope’s radical message on climate change and called on fellow religious leaders to “speak out about current affairs which affect the future of mankind.”’

    The Pope writes, ‘The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development.”

    Where will these two religious figures – moral icons of our age – lead our arrogantly secular world?

    To raead the whole thing, visit the Lapidoedia site.

    Ups and downs of the Catholic Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

    Friday, July 17th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — bearing in mind that ups and downs are transitory, and the eternal remains eternal ]

    In what was effectively a DoubleQuote in my terminology (see note below), Gregory DiPippo at the New Liturgical Movement blog today juxtaposed two articles about the Dominican Order of Friars. One had to do with a downswing in vocations to the Order, the other with an upswing.


    Fra Angelico


    First, the downswing: “the shortage of vocations in the order of Saint Dominic has reached dramatic levels.” Sandro Magister writes in San Marco Must Not Die:

    The fathers of the province of St. Catherine of Siena met again in chapter at the end of last May and reiterated to the superior general the request to suppress the convent of San Marco.

    If that were to happen, in the cloisters and in the cells wondrously frescoed by Fra Angelico (see above the Annunciation, from 1442) there would no longer be any friar to pray. From the library designed by Michelozzo, the first library of the modern era open to the public, the robes of the learned would disappear. What has been for centuries a cenacle of men of letters, artists, bishops, saints, would give way to a trivial guest house.

    The Masses in the church attached to the defunct convent would be officiated by someone from outside: from the not-distant convent of Santa Maria Novella, the only Dominican convent that would remain open in Florence.

    Second, the reverse: “The man who sets aside his personal dreams to more perfectly subject himself to God is not primarily saying ‘no’ to the world, but saying ‘yes’ to a renewed life with God.” The Dominican Dominic Bouck writes in First Things:

    After the ordination of eight of our brothers, there are over fifty of us studying for the priesthood or preparing to live life as a consecrated brother, about to be joined by fifteen more on July 25.

    Among those roughly 75 men are lawyers, a medical doctor, a congressional staffer, professional musicians, a radio host, several PhDs and professors, a particle physicist from Stanford, a former Google employee, a dean of admissions at a medical school, Ivy Leaguers, Golden Domers, and more who were successful in the world, but sought a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and desired to serve his people.


    It would be a tragedy for the Dominicans to close down their convent at San Marco, “as if the Franciscan friars were to decide to close the convent of Assisi” as Magister says — and in counterpoint, I’m heartened to receive news of an increased interest in the contemplative life here in the US.

    A note for Fr Augustine Thompson, OP, who writes for the NLM bog and is the author of the standard work on St Dominic’s brother friar, brother founder and friend, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography: my DoubleQuotes format is a format for the juxtaposition of ideas, based on Hermann Hesse’s concept of the Glass Bead Game, and philosophical kin, to my mind at least, with Peter Abelard‘s Sic et Non.

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