war on the rocks

A Modest Proposal for Improving Assessment in Professional Military Education

February 22, 2019

Each spring, the U.S. Army War College hosts an athletic competition at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, in which senior-service military colleges send teams to compete in soccer, softball, cycling, tennis, and other sports. The college that wins this competition takes home the Jim Thorpe Trophy and has bragging rights until the next spring.

Why couldn’t the same be done for strategy? I propose that American and (eventually) partner-nation military colleges compete in an intellectual variant of the Jim Thorpe sports competition. Imagine senior-service schools participating in a strategy formulation competition, wherein each college sends a small team (five to 10 students), with individual laptops at hand, to produce a strategy to confront a real-world challenge.

This proposal’s animating idea is that strategy is performance. The test of any pedagogical approach aiming to cultivate strategic competence is whether it can improve how practitioners do strategy. Hence, the scholarly texts military students read and the practices teachers encourage in the classroom must improve how well students formulate strategy and, more generally, confront intractable problems. A competition would emphasize the fact that strategy, as it pertains to national security and military problems, requires integrating scholarly substance and practical skill.

Unlike most graduate students in civilian programs, a military graduate student pursues knowledge specifically to enhance the efficacy and ethics of military intervention via well-crafted strategies and plans. These students must discover ways to fold the scholarship they learn into the performance of strategy formulation and military planning. In my teaching, I have emphasized that strategy entails the skilled performance of perspective-taking or, simply, research; argumentation about the appropriate ends an organization should pursue; causal literacy, which requires reconciling reductive, X-leads-to-Y causal claims with the world’s complexity; and the coalition-building necessary to make one’s hard-won portfolio of recommendations win out in a competitive decision-making space.

A competition would bring to the fore the fact that strategy formulation is always a form of collective action: It entails multiple persons and organizations with contrasting interests pursuing, with varying degrees of alacrity, a common aim. Put otherwise, strategy formulation is a team sport comprising an array of domestic, international, civilian, military, and local actors.  Of course, practitioners will often engage in formulating strategy as part of a core group; e.g., a four-star general’s circle of advisors and planners or a president’s core group of trusted consultants. But any intervention requires the cooperation of others outside of the core group, whether that other is an executive department or agency, a group of key legislative leaders, a nation-state’s or international organization’s leaders, a military organization’s staff, or those partner military forces arrayed alongside one’s own troops.

Despite the inevitable tensions that will arise, there is good reason to embrace strategy formulation as a group practice. No one person is smart enough to fully grasp the dynamics at play associated with the relevant institutions, organizations, and environments. Group work permits the integration of multiple scholarly and practical perspectives. Moreover, collaborative work mitigates the influence of ever-present biases that behavioral economists have taught us so much about. Finally, group work is conducive to creativity, with discussion and engagement giving rise to ideas and initiatives that did not exist in any one person’s mind when he or she walked into the room.

For each of these reasons, military educators should portray strategy as collective action in the classroom. Yet today, the U.S. Army War College centers its principal assessments on the individual student. Students receive individual grades on their writing, their spoken contributions to a seminar discussion, and — as a pinnacle event — their oral comprehensive examination, which is a test of how to recall and apply, in cursory fashion, concepts learned in the classroom to a real-world scenario. Although there are rare instances of group work throughout the academic year, it is individual performance and evaluation that shape the students’ experience and assessment.

These modes of evaluation have little to do with actual strategic performance. The student’s individual oral examination is nothing other than a test of recall and synthetic understanding of curricular material; it is not a test of strategic performance that culminates in the design, creation, or development of a research-driven, farsighted strategy. The Army War College and other senior-service colleges are meant to be spaces wherein our military cultivates strategic thinking. Are strategy formulation and strategic thinking best assessed via assessments of a student’s spoken contribution, individual writing, and synthetic understanding during an oral examination?

If senior-service colleges are serious about cultivating competent strategic practitioners, leaders should consider whether dominant pedagogical and assessment practices, focused on the individual student, are the best way to do this. Military educators should explore a pivot to problem-based learning as a routine classroom practice (what I have elsewhere called a workshop), wherein students confront on a daily basis real organizational, institutional, and geographic challenges. The classroom as workshop would help to integrate established and cutting-edge scholarship with established and cutting-edge practices of strategy formulation and planning.

The next question that arises is how to evaluate group problem-solving efforts. My colleague at the Army War College, Dr. Megan Hennessey, and I are attempting to answer this question, aiming to go beyond the mere evaluation of students’ individual attributes (open-mindedness, intellectual humility, curiosity, etc.) and these attributes’ manifestation in group dynamics (a robust exchange of views, the questioning of assumptions, the avoidance of groupthink, etc.). Individual attributes and group dynamics certainly matter. But these do not equate to substantively good strategies, just as individually talented athletes and musicians still require directed group-level training and practice to excel as a sports team and orchestra. The question Hennessey and I are asking is a substantive one about the degree to which a group is able to produce research-driven, ethical recommendations to real-world problems that are creative yet feasible.

Assessments of individual attributes and group dynamics fail to capture the empirical and normative dimensions of strategy formulation, which arise only through research-driven group work. Students of strategy must engage in empirical investigations into a problem’s causes and the likely effects of potential national security interventions. They must also engage in normative debate about what U.S. national-security aims should be, which includes addressing the ethical dimensions of various economic and military measures. Some groups will do better than others in these investigations and debates. Commanders, strategists, lead planners, and military educators should want to know why one group of practitioners is better at problem-solving than another. Unfortunately, we have not observed much curiosity along this front.

Our provisional research focus is to anthropologize the military classroom. Hennessey and I aim to look closely at the habits and practices students exhibit as they engage in sustained problem-solving exercises. Our presumption is that by studying numerous groups over time, we can begin to discern why some groups are better at doing strategic work than others. We welcome other scholarly approaches that might help evaluate how well students working together engage with research, craft rich understandings of an intractable situation, display ethical sophistication, and craft thoughtful interventions quickly and proficiently enough to apply to real-world work. The aim is to be able to compare multiple groups engaged in problem-based exercises to discern why some groups outperform others in the practice of strategy formulation.

A strategy formulation competition would help jump-start this inquiry. I advocate for an annual strategy planning competition among any military-education institutions that wish to participate, whether domestic or foreign. Such a competition, akin to the  Jim Thorpe sports contest, would prompt America’s service and joint schools to adopt new ways of writing curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

Each team would create a strategy using nothing other than open-source documents and the resources available in a classroom (whiteboards, projectors, printers, etc.). These groups would confront a problem specified in one of the geographic combatant commander’s posture statements to Congress related to a major power (Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran), violent extremism, transnational criminal organizations, human flows, or another area.  Each team’s strategy would include a description of the relevant environments (domestic, international, regional, or local), a list of political and strategic objectives, a list of proposed interventions and the causal assumptions that underpin them, a detailed description of the military instrument’s contribution to the strategy, and an engagement plan to win over domestic and international stakeholders whose assent is necessary to bring the strategy to fruition. Each team would deliver a short briefing and a portfolio of analyses laying out these elements. The judges would include current and retired flag officers, current and former policymakers, pedagogical experts, and other interested scholars, federal agency representatives, and analysts.

From this competition, those who superintend military education would gain deeper insights into whether the curriculum is on target, (whether modes of instruction are optimal, and — perhaps most importantly — whether the recipients of senior-service college graduates — flag officers and policymakers — are satisfied with what graduates are delivering.

This is why I propose asking external evaluators — the Kori Schakes, Nadia Schadlows, Nora Bensahels, David Barnos, and Jason Dempseys of the world — to observe and proffer candid evaluations of how well these groups perform. The deans, provosts, commandants, and presidents of military schools should seek out those persons who routinely critique, in tough but constructive ways, American strategic performance as these persons — and others — routinely do. Some of these men and women are former military personnel with thoughtful vantage points. Some are national security scholars, while others have served in high-level government positions. Such persons’ participation in a strategy-formulation competition would raise the stakes for students and educators alike and, in so doing, suggest fruitful ways to improve curricular and pedagogical practices. These types of civil-military interactions in the professional military education classroom that seeks to teach strategy as a collective real-world exercise would, however discomfiting, pay significant dividends for the future of strategy formulation.

 

 

Celestino Perez, Jr. is an active-duty colonel in the U.S. Army. He is an Army strategist who teaches national security strategy and policy at the U.S. Army War College. A distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army War College, he is trained as a political theorist with an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University-Bloomington.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook