18 August 2014

The Responsibility of Learning

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on August 18, 2008.

I am an American Soldier.

My brief experience in the United States Army has been eye-opening. It strikes me with awe to think of the vast resources with which we are trained to fulfill our mission, and the professionalism with which most soldiers approach it. It has also given me plenty to think about in terms of learning.

Whether it's called "training," or "learning," the process is the same. What I get at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) depends upon the same fundamental principles as what a third-grader gets in his science lesson, or what a high school math teacher tries to give her students in a geometry lesson.

Given that an organizational goal is that its students learn some set of information, the entire responsibility of the affair rests on the organization. When students are learning, or don't meet the programmed outcomes, then at least one of the things designed to produce the outcome has failed. In standards-based teaching system, instruction is planned from the end goal. Each instructional unit is designed to bridge the gap that exists between students' abilities and the standard ability.

For example, if I want to teach someone how to create a header in MS Word, and I plan the instruction, then I would expect anyone who received my instruction to be able to create a header. If the student attempted to follow my instruction and couldn't create the header, then some part of my instruction was faulty. There is no other way around it.

Teachers have a hard time coming to grips with this reality. They want to attribute all of the gaps in learning to students. True, some student behaviors contribute to a lack of learning, but instruction can resolve such a lack.

The military instructors at DINFOS need to learn the lesson even more. If a certain instructional strategy consistently has bad reviews and results in poor knowledge acquisition, then it should be abandoned. When do teachers continue to put their faith in methods that yield such dismal results?

17 August 2014

American and Afghan Alike—Honoring the Fallen

Pashtun names-- a dozen or so this week-- blare across the screen.

They represent personnel of the Afghan National Army, National Police force, and local police who have died in duty during the last few d
ays. I could pronounce some of the names if I tried, but I don't recognize any of them.

Still, they are my comrades. A two-star general, the one who commands all ISAF troops in southern Afghanistan, orders us to stand as we pay our respects. We honor the fallen of ISAF-- including American troops-- if there are any.

One American has died in our regional command this month. That means Afghans are taking the brunt of the insurgency. And while a dead American Soldier will always be a harder loss to bear than one from another country, Afghan KIAs (killed in action) are recognized as a sacrifice just as sacrosanct. 

The presentation that announces the troop deaths reads,
Soldiers do not fight because they hate what's in front of them. They fight because they love what's behind them. 
I can't pretend that American Soldiers would admit to loving Afghanistan enough to die for its freedom. But some of them have died, and all of us know the risk. And here we are.

We will soon leave, and these Afghan patriots who are fighting barbarism will continue to fight. To those back home who say that Afghanistan is a hopeless cause, I say you should meet some of the people who are willing to lay down their lives for a more civilized future. They have hope.

I haven't met many of them. But I have seen their names. I know what they did. And yes, I honor them.

12 August 2014

The Curse of Thoroughness: When Army Leaders Can't Get Things Done

The following originally appeared in the blog, "Musings of a Factotum" on January 27, 2009, under the title, "Is the Army Effective?

I was a Truck Commander today. That’s a glorified way of saying that I sat in the passenger seat while my buddy drove the Humvee from the dispatch lot to our working area.

We had been assigned a vehicle, but the only one available was a tactical Humvee. With any tactical vehicle come too many rules and restrictions. You need a ground guide to move in and out of parking lots, Kevlar helmets must be worn by all vehicle occupants, and drivers need to place blocks and drip pans whenever shutting down. So even though we are only driving the truck on paved roads in a one-mile radius at no more than 18 miles per hour, we are burdened with all these inefficiencies.

I understand that the United States Army is not designed to run with ruthless drive for profits. But the mentality of thoroughness translates into other areas. It took several man-hours to get the vehicle signed over to us. Two Specialists, a Sergeant First Class, a Major, and a civilian contractor all had their hands in the transaction. What productive items of business could at least some of these soldiers been engaged in?

There is no such thing as “military efficiency.” The U.S. Army is not efficient. It is thorough. Thoroughness can serve us well, but should it be the highest priority?

How many bright, talented people are stifled in the military because they are forced to comply with endless regulations and redundancies? In the world of the Army, even these people, as smart as they may be, end up as mindless automatons, more worried about compliance and approval from their superiors than about getting a job done right.

Frustration is the call word, even among these people. Everyone in the Army loves to say express how screwed up it is. One high-ranking officer told me not too long ago, “You need to become an officer so you can fix this.”

“You’re an officer!,” I shouted in my mind. It seems everyone can see how fouled up the system is, but no one sees how screwed up it is in their own area of responsibility, and nobody wants to tell their superiors that the way we’ve been doing it doesn't make sense.

At Basic Training, when I thought twice about executing a command that sounded mistaken, my drill sergeant told me not to second guess myself. As I noted then, even when you’re right, you look like an ass if you’re the only one.

That truism holds in the everyday institutional army. It is much easier to hide behind caution smothered in ineffectiveness, then to tread into open ground of risky newness, where the potential of figuring out better ways to do things lurk.

The Army is effective at being a behemoth of an organization, and can run itself for the sake of running itself.

Epilogue: I have become very aware in the years since I wrote this piece just how much the Army can change. It is a remarkably forward-thinking organization, in many ways. But in too many ways it is weighed down by the fear of getting things wrong. A professor of mine once noted that the military should be the most experimental organization, but very often it is the least. I have two theories as to why. One is rank, and the other is manning, though the two are connected. By rank I refer to the tendency of those in charge of executing operations to defer to seniors who, by their very seniority, tend to be more conservative and traditional. By manning I mean that those who get into senior positions are the very people who reaffirm Army culture and practice. Leadership positions are always internal hires. I wonder how the military would respond to some leadership from outside the comabt sectore. Hmmm... that gives me an idea...

10 August 2014

My Army Weight Loss Secret

The following originally appeared on the site, "Suite 101" in 2008.

The United States Army has taught me quite a bit about losing weight and staying fit. At Basic Combat Training, six things led to serious weight loss.

Before I turned my body over to Uncle Sam, I weighed just this side of 200 pounds. I was officially overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which uses a Body Mass Index (BMI) to gauge weight category. 

Without getting into the specifics of how BMI is calculated, and why it is an effective tool for measuring healthy weight levels, I had too much body fat for my height. According to the CDC scale, a healthy weight level is between 18 and 25 BMI. I was out of bounds.

Six months later I was more than 20 pounds trimmer, at a satisfactory 22 BMI, and feeling great. What was my secret? I joined the Army. Now I certainly don’t expect anybody to join the Army simply to lose weight. There are, however, several things one can do to mimic the fitness and weight loss routine that the Army Basic Training provided for me.

Exercise in the morning
The cornerstone of the BCT fitness program is morning exercises. Six days a week I was on the Physical Training field for Army “PT.” It wasn’t difficult, simple calisthenics and a three-mile run on Wednesdays.

The main advantage of our exercise routine for me was its timing. Jeanie Lerche Davis of WebMD writes, in “Lose Weight With Morning Exercise,” that morning exercise helps the body develop a better routine, which affects sleep patterns and the body’s ability to lose weight. Even if you don’t do a full workout every day, regular morning exercise is a key component of an effective weight loss program.

Maintain sleep patterns
Regular sleep has also been linked to weight loss. At BCT, we were in the rack at 9:00 every night, and up by 4:00 am. While on the minimal side of the seven to eight hours suggested by most experts, the regularity made up for the dearth. My body knew when it was supposed to be working, and it got going at the same time every day. 4:00 am is too early for me as a civilian, but the routine is the important part. Under sleeping and oversleeping could hinder your weight loss.

Keep meals regular and proportioned
At BCT we ate three squares a day. The meals came at regular times, and were balanced and healthy. My biggest meal was breakfast, and I ate as much as I could, following the advice of a professional trainer I had met before shipping to Basic: “eat like a king for breakfast, like a prince for lunch, and like a peasant for dinner.” The first meal sustained me through the hardest part of my work day, and lunch maintained my energy level. Dinner was just enough to keep me from going hungry, and without a full stomach my body slept better without having to metabolize much until the next morning.

Get full in the morning
A smoothie, a bowl of cereal, and some toast should do the trick. If you’re on the  go, a couple of bananas and a breakfast sandwich with plenty of milk or juice could fill you up. It’s hard to do, but your body will thank you for it, and you’ll have more energy, be more productive throughout the day, and eat a lot less for your other meals.

Stay active throughout the day
Another important aspect of my Army experience was our constant activity. We were ever on the go: walking, carrying, marching, and cleaning. The bottom line is that we stayed busy. My body was always burning calories.

This is an easy thing for anyone to do. You don’t have to put yourself through a grueling workout. Do some yard work, clean the garage, straighten up the house, walk around the block. Just get off the couch or away from the computer a little more than usual.

Drink lots of water
If there is one thing I heard more than anything thing else, it was, “Drink water!” Our BCT leaders understood the importance of proper hydration for good health. Not only did adequate—on the generous side—water kept me from feeling hungry, it helped my body’s metabolism work smoothly.

Studies have shown that those who drink more water tend to lose more weight. Just about anybody can apply these five principles to a moderate weight loss plan. Do it the Army way and lose weight now!