Learning in the army

This guest post comes from Lt Chad Barrigan, Learning Development Officer in the Army’s Educational and Training Services.

I’m an Education Officer in the Army. Like every teacher, we are faced with the eternal question about what our role is. Are we there to be a font of and dispenser of knowledge or are we there to exploit the knowledge of the students in the room? I find myself firmly in the latter camp and despair at the idea of teaching classes based off PowerPoint and research tasks. The problem we face is how do we get the same base level of knowledge across the class to actually be able to do a good exploitation activity?

I think I may have found a way to do this and it is a combination of using learning technology, scenario-based learning, motion graphic design, Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch and Star Trek in an exercise called Clarke’s Crisis (solely named so as to wind up a colleague.)

The grounding

Firstly, learning technology. Bold statement alert: I believe that the vast majority of e-Learning technology is poor and is no replacement for a teacher. However, one thing that e-Learning does allow us to do is create interactive digital content that can be used in conjunction with a teacher. By having all the content held in a digital form, the age of printing reams of paper each time you run an exercise is over. This makes the exercise completely portable, all you require is a smartphone/tablet and an internet connection. The plug-in that my exercise currently uses is H5P and is entirely free. A full explanation of what H5P can do can be found on my friend Rich MacLachlan’s blog here. An important thing to note at this stage is that the ubiquitous nature of technology in every aspect of our lives (apart from education) means that a significant barrier to learning is reduced by using technology that people use every day. Instead of walking into a classroom that has the same resources as twenty years ago, students get a similar experience to their day to day lives.

So, H5P (and many other pieces of learning technology) gives us the platform to enable students to assimilate content in a modern and familiar way to ensure that they have the knowledge in order to reach the level of analysis we require for our learning objectives.

Next to address is scenario-based learning. When done well, scenario-based learning is great. It gets people to ‘learn by doing’ and offers a whole range of exploitation activities afterwards. When done badly, scenario-based learning can push learners away – ‘why do I need to do this? I’m never going to be the Prime Minister’ is an oft-heard example. I find that is sometimes because the purposes of the activity have not been effectively communicated to the students. As opposed to ‘you are now the Prime Minister’ being the starting point for the activity – I prefer ‘this activity is designed to give you an overview of how X works’ you shouldn’t go into too much detail as this runs the risk of spoiling your exercise. However, giving the students clear direction on why they are doing something is always a good thing.

Next, motion graphic design. In my spare time I have been studying how to make video content. I find that some teachers do try to make video content for their students. Unfortunately, quite a lot of the time the quality of this content is, despite admirable effort and boundless enthusiasm, not at the same standard that people see day to day scrolling through social media and YouTube. Teachers who use other people’s videos often spend hours trying to find a video that gets close to saying what they need it to say. My solution is to create professional level (I hope, I’ll let you judge) content that can say exactly whatever I (or you) need it to say.

Finally, Bandersnatch. I have always enjoyed video games where actions that the player takes have a direct outcome on the story. Quite a lot of the time with scenario-based learning, I have found there is little consequence for decisions made. By creating a ‘choose your own adventure’ style scenario, decisions made by the participants have direct consequences. We also talk a lot about fear of failure in the military. This is where Star Trek comes in, similar to the Kobayashi Maru, Clarke’s Crisis does not have a happy ending and cannot be won. It is designed to all go wrong.

The activity

This is how the activity is designed to work. Before doing this activity, it is important that the students have a sufficient level of understanding of Defence and International Affairs. I call this DIA 101 and should include things like – what is a state, what are the features that make up a state, how national interests work and an understanding of the Treaty of Westphalia. Some teachers may prefer to this in a more traditional teaching manner, I plan on doing this prior to the lesson through the form of a video with interactive knowledge checks. However the teacher wants to approach it is fine, as long as the knowledge is there.

There are four iterations of the framework seen in the picture. Each iteration features a different bespoke crisis and each iteration sees the groups rotate which topic they research.

Firstly, students are given a central video brief in which the activity itself is explained and then they are straight into the activity. A background to the eponymous Mr Clarke is presented and his current role is as a Special Adviser to the Secretary of State of Defence. The first crisis is outlined, giving the students all the background information they need on the scenario – no further information is to be given to them about the scenario – and also gives them the three courses of action that they can choose from to attempt to solve the crisis: Hard Power Assets; Soft Power through the UN; and Soft Power through the Media.

Then on their computers/devices, each group loads up the ‘Clarke’s Crisis’ activity on H5P. Selects their syndicate and is presented with one of the following information videos: The UN; Hard Power; Soft Power; The Media.

Each video has questions at the end of them that the students answer, functioning as a knowledge check. Those with the UN, Hard Power and Soft Power videos are then asked to prepare a brief presentation giving three advantages and three disadvantages (or another exercise, this is entirely customisable) of following that approach for this crisis. Those with the Media are asked to listen to the other briefs and think how the Media could affect each of the advantages and disadvantages mentioned. This gets the students straight up to the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (which is what the learning verbs the Army uses are drawn from) – analyse and evaluate.

The group then comes together and votes to choose between the three options. They make their decision and a video showing the fallout of that decision is shown to them all.

It is important to note at this stage that the students only have the illusion of choice (this was to stop the number of videos I had to create growing exponentially) and that whichever choice they make, the same thing happens – with the exception of the last (fourth) iteration.

This works because of the roles in which Mr Clarke finds himself. He progresses from a SPAD, to a Junior Minister in the Government, to the Leader of the Opposition and finally the PM. For the first three iterations, his ability to control what happens is minimal – those above him actually make the decisions – so the same ‘bad’ thing happens in each crisis but the students have the illusion of choice. Finally, when he reaches PM his decision counts and different outcomes come from the decisions made.

At any of the discussion stages (following the advantages vs disadvantages briefs) the teacher can insert whatever exercises they wish. If they want to spend more time discussing something or introducing a new topic, this is where they can do it.

Following the fourth iteration, there is an open space for as much exploitation for the teacher to use as they see fit to address the learning points they are mandated to do.

The development

This exercise has given the students all the knowledge required for how the international system works, it has used technology to make it innovative and interesting, it shows the link between the theory and how things work in practice and the teacher has been able to exploit knowledge rather than dispense it. There are several areas for improvement that I have identified and I am very much looking forward to hearing other people’s input on the exercise.

One area I’d particularly like input on is how to get the students to apply knowledge from the information videos to the crisis to demonstrate their analytical ability. Although I feel doing a presentation listing advantages and disadvantages is a good method, I do worry if doing that four times is overkill and if there are better ways of doing it, perhaps using several different methods.

I feel that the elephant in the room with regards to the choices that they can make is the omission of smart power. I thought about ways of having it as an option but I felt that it would mean creating a long information video about smart power at the expense of explaining both hard and soft power. I currently plan on leading a discussion about smart power in the exploitation phase but would welcome opinions about better ways of implementing this.  

Another area is the actual content of the information videos and the crises themselves. This has very much been a one-man project so far, with none of the areas covered having much to do with my background as a professional musician with a degree in History focused on the Crusades! Any highlighting of glaring omissions or factual errors would be greatly appreciated.

Here is a link to the central videos that would be shown to the class

Here is a link to what the students themselves would work through on individual devices