Can civilians learn from the military about learning?

On the same day that the British education secretary, Michael Gove, announced an initiative to encourage ex-military personnel to become primary and secondary teachers,the Centre for Policy Studies proposed a free school in Manchester that would be staffed entirely by former servicemen and women.

Gove’s announcement isn’t new: his department’s White Paper on schools in November 2010, which introduced the controversial ‘English Baccalaureate’ concept of a core set of GCSEs, had already mentioned sponsoring the tuition fees of ex-Forces graduates entering teacher training and investigating whether Forces non-graduates could take accelerated degrees.

The CPS’s brochure on the Phoenix School may fall on open ears at the Department  for Education: the authors criticise Labour’s early-years intervention programmes (Every Child Matters and Sure Start). Tempting fate, they argue that their solution, which ‘will categorically reject the concept of moral relativism’ and ‘the charade of “personalised learning”‘, will support the government’s policy of moral restoration:

And, as a beneficial side-effect, the next time that riots break out in Britain, we should expect that few, if any, participants come from such schools.

The proposal has come in for sustained ridicule: as with any free school, which is allowed to employ unqualified teachers, why should non-specialist teachers be in schools? What place does the demeanour of the archetypal regimental sergeant-major have in a contemporary classroom? Is this really where the 2,000 Army and RAF personnel made redundant yesterday are expected to go?

But is there anything civilians could learn from the military about learning?

The military is a complex organisation that supplies its own version of much of the infrastructure in civilian society: transport, mail, telecommunications, media, food supply. The British Army’s recruitment website advertises ‘over 140 different jobs’; its US equivalent talks about more than 150. Fewer soldiers serve in the ‘combat arms’ (infantry and cavalry) than in ‘combat support’ (Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Intelligence) or ‘combat service support’ arms.

‘Combat service support’ designates the functions furthest away from the primary infantry/cavalry business of closing with and killing the enemy – mechanics, medics, logistics and many back office functions, including education and training.

Soldiers in these corps deploy to front lines, of course, either in their own units or on individual postings: Army educators with language skills, for instance, tend to be the first to volunteer for operational language training and deployment as ‘military colloquial speakers’ on six-month tours.

If an army contains so many professional dispositions, what makes a soldier? Rachel Woodward and K Neil Jenkings have argued in a recent issue of Sociology that soldiers express their military identities ‘with reference to the specificities of their professional skills’. Sometimes, but not always, those skills are in the disciplined use of force:

The military, according to the classic (Weberian) definition, is the state-sanctioned body with the authority to use lethal force. The exercise of lethal force defines military personnel as such. Our interviewees fleshed out that idea by talking about the constitution and expression of their military identities with reference to the specificities of their professional skills. For some, these skills were clearly identifiable as military tasks: accuracy in marksmanship, for example, or surveillance and observation skills, or the deployment of technical knowledge in the act of patrolling hostile urban areas.

Yet, they find, other soldiers base their soldier-ness in mastery of skills that aren’t to do with force (being first to put down heavy-duty electronic cables; survival and endurance outdoors; performing complex marching band manoeuvres). Military identity lies in the specifics, such as technical knowledge of military equipment and being able to operate in difficult or dangerous conditions where civilians would not work:

The skills of vehicle repair and rescue could be seen as similar to those required in civilian mechanic occupations. What was significant to this interviewee was the possession of not just technical skills but also an aptitude and willingness, specific to the military, to use such skills in extreme and hostile environments, for the sake of a wider military objective. So even when individual skills may be generic, and held by civilians, their application is not.

During my research on international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’ve met a number of soldiers from one of the less well known military populations, Army educators. The Educational and Training Services, which had existed as a separate corps between 1845 and 1992, deal with adult learning, basic skills training, staff development and needs analysis for the Army’s 110,000 soldiers. Among the enlisted personnel will be soldiers who have enlisted with few or no formal qualifications. ETS officers aim to equip them to take GCSEs and vocational qualifications, and ‘lifelong learning’ is even a selling point in Army recruitment material today.

Following Woodward and Jenkings, we could expect the ‘military’ in military education to rest in what you teach, how you teach, and where you teach it. Military language training for operations (the short courses that produce ‘colloquial speakers’ with basic competence in selected areas) differs from the civilian classroom in many ways. Courses emphasise military vocabulary and use authentic military texts for reading and listening practice; scenario-based learning, where students apply their language knowledge to situations based on recent operational experience, is the norm. Practical classes are often held outdoors and are reinforced when the language students take part in field exercises. No matter how difficult British society believes language learning to be, soldiers with very few formal qualifications have been able to learn entirely new languages (Bosnian/Serbian, Arabic, Pashto) to a usable colloquial standard through military educators’ training methods.

The civilian education system rarely taps into military ideas about education. In 1995, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a report on what east European language needs the United Kingdom would have after the fall of communism and the crisis in former Yugoslavia. The report contained contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not the Ministry of Defence, which had decades’ experience in teaching Russian and had been teaching and using ‘Serbo-Croatian’ on operations ever since 1992.

Being a military educator does not map into success or comfort in school teaching. Far from it. One of the educators I met had entered school teaching after leaving the Army in the mid-1990s only to find the environment conflicted so badly with their previous experiences that they moved out of the profession.

Yet might there be a reserve of knowledge in the military about alternative teaching methods for students who learn best through doing, outdoor learning, or teaching a functional level of basic skills to people who have disengaged from formal education?

There might; but this is not what the debate is about.

Instead, the government initiative to encourage former soldiers into teaching is being launched within a frame of discipline: increasing ‘male role models’ in schools and reducing bureaucracy that deters teachers restraining students with physical force. Gove’s undertone is a retraditionalisation of society to restore adult and legitimate authority, using the August riots as proof of a moral collapse. Only a body with masculine power and military training, he implies, can provide the necessary discipline and physicality.

There is a conversation about learning that the military, and military educators in particular, might be able to take part in. We are not having it yet.

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