Learning How to Learn – The switch from training to education and the life-long learner?

The Army builds its intellectual capital in peace and spends it in war

Colonel William L. Hauser [1]


I don’t know of a soldier who does not want to be fitter, smarter and more capable of facing the challenges that Army presents. But this desire in itself is not without challenges.

As soldiers, we quickly learn the importance of physical fitness and we also know that there are ample advisors in the work place and during PT sessions to tell us how to run faster, run further or lift heavy things.

But, how do we ensure we are in peak mental condition to face challenges? How do we build on our ability to solve problems or make decisions? When do we learn how to learn? As trainees, when do we switch from training to education armed with the cognitive skills to allow us to engage in life-long learning?

We commence the journey of transforming from civilian to soldier at Kapooka. From the moment we step off the bus we are exposed to Army’s military instructors ‘fire hosing’ us with directions, procedures and tabulated data. We become conditioned to take in waves of information with little time to reflect and prioritise our thoughts and regurgitate facts at a moments notice. Our initial time in training sets the conditions we expect for the rest of our careers.

My experience

It is suggested that education in the Army encompasses professional military education, tertiary education and other courses undertaken for professional development. It is continuous and runs the course of a career.[2]

I have attended dozens of courses with success; but with varying degrees of contentment. The normal promotion pathway included Corps and all Corps training and dove-tailed between, specialist training for trade and ‘train the trainer’ packages. Each course or training venture aimed to prepare me for more senior positions as a non-commissioned officer and warrant officer. A fundamental component of all of these courses was being taught the skills and techniques on how to instruct others. But time spent on how people learn was limited or appeared non-existent. This was a significant oversight considering the time spent developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes of our military instructors regardless of calling or future postings. While we all received training on being instructors, I cannot at any point think of a time when I reflected on my own learning to the point I understood implicitly why I was being instructed a certain way and how I was supposed to act as a trainee.

As we ascend the soldier ranks the course journey becomes less ‘blue print’ style of a 40 minute lesson followed by a 10 minute break, to a more flexible learning environment. The latter, often referred to as an ‘adult learning environment’, allows for more discussion, interaction and lateral thinking. Unfortunately for me, exposure to this style did not occur until my final promotion course to become a Regimental Sergeant Major. While I think the traits of this more flexible style were present in some instructors, the culture of soldier training prevented its use as an acceptable method and more commonly the ‘blue print’ default setting was assumed.

Some years later I was presented the opportunity to be one of eight Regimental Sergeant Majors to attend the Australian Command and Staff College. Eventually, I came to see it as one of the most rewarding learning experiences of my career. Since then, and in a light-hearted way, I have described it as ‘Army’s human experiment’ on Regimental soldiers.

But before I recognised the experience as a rewarding one, my challenge was to learn how to be a student, and ‘learn how to learn’ in a completely unfamiliar environment. This form of education was something the soldier training continuum had not prepared me for. I was challenged by 90 minute presentations from university lecturers and military staff, who were experts in their fields, but appeared to present without scripts and seemingly without adhering to a set format. They encouraged free thought and opinion, and offered no ‘DS solution’. They pointed us towards numerous texts that were waiting for us in the college library, but no ‘knock’ on the lectern to indicate an important piece of information that one may need to recall for an exam later. This was not the soldier way I had grown accustomed to.

Whilst I had experienced subtle changes in the senior soldier courses like the open dialogue during lessons between instructor and trainee to create a more conducive learning experience, the rigid adherence to a time table removed any flexibility in catering for the learner’s needs. My Staff College experience was more agile. The scaffolding that lay around a day of lectures was able to be shifted to personalise the learning for individuals as well as small groups. But learning in this environment depended on my motivation and intellectual ability to make sense of what I was being told.

The literacy skills gained on my Subject 3 education courses from the early 90’s had been extremely valuable and provided a brief switch from training to education, but had faded with time. The reading, researching and analysing I made time for in the workplace was not for professional military education or even pleasure. But rather reading chunks of text from training pamphlets and policies in search of a solution to a particular work place predicament.

Nurturing our soldiers

The Australian Army seeks to be a Learning Organisation and invests heavily in training and education. At any given time, Army and in turn the learning audience will have at least four different generational profiles within its workforce, all shaped by their own experiences and expectations, with no one set of aspirations or expectations likely to dominate.[3] For soldiers, the value of professional military education and pursuit of tertiary endeavours have become prominent in recent years and are being increasingly acknowledged as significant components of life-long learning which complement the customary suite of Army training courses. But I am not entirely convinced that we have empowered soldiers to take ownership of the learning experience by equipping them with the skills to be confident learners.

There is a greater reliance on technology and a rush to jump onboard with new practices in the learning environment. This presents an abundance of study material and learning options to the user through digital means. There is a surge in the use of social media to share ideas and generate professional discussion on contemporary issues. A novice writer is able to present their thoughts to a vast audience and at a speed that is unimaginable. In recent months, I have watched with great curiosity discussions on emerging capability between soldiers and generals via Twitter, a situation I would never have imagined possible a few years ago which breaks our current ingrained paradigms.

While younger soldiers have grown up immersed in ‘technology-rich’ environments, we should not assume that this also means they possess the required digital literacy skills to learn. The skilled use of a gaming platform does not necessarily translate to understanding the power of smart devices and computers, or being able to find, capture and evaluate information, or to engage in online communities. The American Library Association defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills”.[4] This reinforces the requirement to be digitally literate which includes the mastery of traditional literacy skills.


Whilst I survived my training and education experience, our aim should be to ‘thrive’ not simply ‘survive’. Individuals should feel motivated to learn and feed off each other to improve, but also be mindful of our diverse human resources and how we best learn.

Like the idea that doctrine is always in draft even after it is released to the organisation. It is a living document to be continuously developed and adapted by the organisation. A soldier is always a student. They do not stop learning at the end of a course; they build on what they’ve learned when released back to a unit. They should be reacquainted to a learning environment within their units. This is where commanders at every level from corporal upwards act as instructors, and Commanding Officers are for lack of a better word the ‘Chief Instructor’ of their units. We all need to be alert to the prospect that every individual will have different expectations and motivations to learn.

Life-long learning should be taking the trainee who is able to apply standard solutions to predictable circumstances, to equipping the student who is able to assimilate more quickly and with greater understanding; capable of dealing with complex problems in unfamiliar contexts.

About the author

WO1 Ken Bullman is the Command Sergeant Major Training and Doctrine at Forces Command for the Australian Army. Follow @CSMTrgArmy.


[1] Colonel Hauser was the ‘father’ of the US Army’s Officer Personnel Management Systems.

[2] Unpublished Army Learning System Strategy 2017.

[3] Ryan Review April 2016.

[4] digilitreport_1_22_13.pdf. Accessed 19 April 2017

One thought on “Learning How to Learn – The switch from training to education and the life-long learner?

  1. A great article , reflecting the attitude and professionalism WO1Bullman brought to Staff College in 2010 ( Along with his ACSC Classmate , RSM-A Don Spinks . I think it is about time we fully re- integrated select WO1 into ACSC.

Comments are closed.