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LandPeople and Leadership

From Educational Indifference to Enhanced PME

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‘I expect all ranks to get ready, train hard and engage… This is our moment. Seize it.’

~ CGS1

Professional Military Education (PME) is missing a crucial link: a cultural awareness and inclusion of educational principles and characteristics of adult learners.  Traditional PME fails to take full advantage of how knowledge is best delivered, embedded, recalled, developed, and applied contextually for adults.  Military professionals need PME to overcome the threat of intellectual stagnation otherwise we will allow our intellectual agility to plateau or worse, decline.  Defence needs to reawaken its critical consciousness and nurture and support radical learning.  Yet, traditional PME isn’t disruptive2 or challenging3 enough.  The vast majority of it doesn’t incorporate methods and practices necessary to meet the intellectual challenges of warfare.  For our people to maintain success on operations, to reduce risk, and to maximise our effectiveness; we need Enhanced PME (EPME).

We often hear rhetorical echoes around innovation, agility, adaptability, and so on.  It is our people who will drive these, they will always be our key strength.  The British Army, for example, claims to be ‘committed to its path of [a] continual adaption, modernisation and development of its people’.4  Yet, there’s a status quo feel to how PME is delivered in lecture theatres, classrooms, training wings, and exercises.  A low level of awareness of its importance and why PME must be a whole-career endeavour is also prevalent.  Consider your previous PME; how many people took notes, actively listened, or were actively engaged?  Have any of your units been able to reap the rewards of a culture of quality development?  Importantly, individuals are not solely blameworthy here.  Educational apathy is the symptom of a systematic problem.

Educational methods and approaches have barely changed in the eighteen years I have served.  Discourse around PME amongst defence scholars and military thinkers has fervently endured since its peak in the 1990s.5  PME has almost exclusively been educator-centred: one person speaking and others listening.  Furthermore, it isn’t only the delivery methods of PME that is of concern.  There is also an endemic lack of commitment6 from the majority7 of learners.  Without rethinking how we deliver PME we run the risk of a glacial change in the rhetoric-to-progress gap (more on this to follow).  To explore suboptimal methods and approaches to PME, and how to counter it, I will set out five characteristics of adult learners8 and four principles of adult education9 (henceforth andragogy) as presented by Malcolm Knowles10 to help shape and define EPME. 

PME should prepare us for unpredictable and unknowable situations, this is after all the basis of Defence’s intellectual agility.  What we do not want, then, is people attending PME activities and the majority of the audience walking away with a poor understanding of the topic.  A civilian professor in a lecture hall delivering a 60 minute talk on Constructivism should, among other things, provide ‘alternative explanations and insights’11 for events occurring in the world.  It should be impactful and meaningful for all learners.  The same educational considerations equally apply to a junior leader’s lesson on freezing cold injuries and anything else in between.

‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ 

~ Henry Ford

Traditional PME overlooks the fact that it is being delivered to thinking adults.  Educators, instructors, and speakers hold the authority during most of our PME activities; learners are there to receive and understand rather than question, be critical of, or often to discuss outside of set parameters.  Therefore, PME does not structurally encourage challenge against the relevant themes of the day and its efficacy is suboptimal.

We need to ask ourselves whether PME can enhance our model of fighting power meaningfully and at pace, now.  We must not wait to be forced to do so.  There is, of course, an argument that we do a great job at PME.  I suspect many of you are thinking it now.  And yet, it is worth looking at it the other way around.  Maybe the ‘world-beating military education and training’12 we offer, in the UK and overseas, does a good job despite the barriers we create along the way?


Learners, especially in the profession of arms, need to be encouraged to think for themselves.  With infrequent exceptions such as focus groups and workshops delivered by experienced, high quality, and impartial professional facilitators; the vast majority of our PME models itself on the teacher-dominant form of instruction known as pedagogy13 as seen below. 

A basic diagram showing Pedagogy with an educator and learners
Pedagogy: The educator delivers knowledge to learners

Traditional PME uses the art and science of teaching children that you will be familiar with.  The educator receives all of the attention and maintains authority to lead all learning.  However, pedagogy does not account for the developmental differences that adults present upon gaining social, family, life, and professional experiences.  Nor does it adequately account for their increased academic knowledge.  It also struggles with accessibility for ‘educational difficulties’,14 and is labour and resource intensive around ‘invisible disabilities’.15  Unlike andragogy (below), pedagogy also risks generating ‘tension, resentment, and resistance in learners’.16  Adult learners need to feel like they are being treated like adults, including at the subconscious level, and they need a true sense of belonging if they are going to commit to and engage with PME.

A basic diagram depicting Andragogy between an educator and learners
Andragogy: The educator becomes a facilitator or resource to learning

Worryingly, traditional PME methods place learners into a submissive, or following, role which leads to a dependency on the educator.  This is problematic.  We need our people to be familiar with autonomy, to think critically, and to be comfortable with thinking independently.  If we want our people to adopt a mission command approach to their daily lives, in all professional settings, we need to bring it into the classroom.  Unity of outcomes, risk acceptance, freedom to act, trust, mutual understanding; these matter in PME too.

‘Rather than only seeing symptoms, adults should be able to see beneath to the actual root causes of the problem. Once they understand the root causes, they can appropriately react.’

~ Steve Graham17

There are many debates around PME, Dr Mike Clark’s article states ‘PME must help military professionals attain and develop the knowledge and skills required for their profession’.18  In further agreement with Clark, PME is far more than the sum of its descriptive parts. Steve Maguire’s article also calls for a ‘more intelligent customer’ and a ‘clearly defined purpose linked to professional outcomes’.19  Sophy Antrobus and Hannah West call for a significant increase in diversity and creativity for a true ‘critical spirit’ within PME.20  They present a formidable argument in which ‘…military education is failing to develop fully the critical thinking assets of future leaders’.21  But, to yield tangible progress from PME we first need to know how

How and What: Enhanced Professional Military Education

EPME should be seen as a continuum between pedagogy and andragogy.  Andragogy is not a substitute for pedagogy, it is instead supplemental.  There are some learning activities that necessitate traditional methods: where direct instruction is either an absolute requirement, where andragogy is simply unnecessary, or when delivering to a very large audience.  Having said that, assumptions about the people undertaking PME must include andragogy to have an optimal impact on them.  Malcolm Knowles presented five characteristics of adult learners22 which, importantly, differ from child learners:

A basic diagram showing Knowles’ Five Characteristics Of Adult Learners
Knowles’ Five Characteristics Of Adult Learners

This isn’t about reinventing the wheel, and there are further evolutionary steps beyond an andragogy:pedagogy continuum.  This is about optimising our learning.  People are hardwired to ‘learn and use exploration, hypothesis testing, all senses, experience, mimicry, reflection, context, and memories’.23  EPME is a meaningful way to take full advantage of this.

In addition to the characteristics above, Knowles also provided four principles of andragogy,24 which should be taken into account when delivering EPME:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is process-centred rather than content-oriented.

EPME is an evolutionary step.  However, it will come as no surprise that everybody needs to get comfortable being uncomfortable in the way they teach and learn.  We must focus on the andragogy:pedagogy continuum in everything that we do around PME.  And if we fail to take the five characteristics and four principles above into consideration, the impact of our PME will be suboptimal, wasteful, and inconsistent with our organisational goals.


Critical thinking, visionary and disruptive discussions, decision-making efficiency, fluency, and speed; the intellectual agility wish list goes on.  It need not be a wish list.  To date, PME has been doing an adequate job.  But it could improve and therefore it should.  We want our people to be able to critically explore, and meaningfully understand, knowledge and concepts while applying them contextually.  Others are using pedagogical strategies,25 we need more than that if we want to win. 

Our intellectual agility will determine the likelihood of us getting it right when that matters the most, and PME matters more than Defence gives credit for.  If embedded and encouraged as a part of our intellectual development, the long term effect of EPME could be profound.  It is a scalable way to develop our intellectual capacity at pace. We know how to do it, and why it is important for Defence, we just need to take a leap of faith.


Phil has an interest in the lived experience of service personnel, much of his focus is on ground level leadership, followership, retention, and personnel development. He holds a Masters in Education with a leadership and management specialisation, and an Honours Degree in History.


  1. RUSI (2022) CGS Speech at Land Warfare Conference [Transcript]. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/speeches/chief-the-general-staff-speech-at-rusi-land-warfare-conference
  2. Coffey, A. ‘An Insight into British Army Innovation’, brite Innovation Review; Issue 22, Summer 2020
  3. Reed, J. ‘The PME Ashes’, The Cove, August 2019
  4. MOD. ‘The Army on a Page’, available at https://www.army.mod.uk/umbraco/Surface/Download/Get/7998, August 2018
  5. See “Professional Military Education” in the tool from Google Ngram site: https://books.google.com/ngrams
  6. Reflected in the starting sentence, ‘Education is dull’, of “Standard Learning Credits: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sports Coach?”, thearmyleader.co.uk, n.d.
  7. See ‘Take-up of education and training opportunities’ in Ashcroft, M. ‘Veterans’ Transition Review’, 2014
  8. Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Texas: Gulf Publishing
  9. Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  10. Famed for adopting the term andragogy, although it was first coined elsewhere.
  11. Theys, S. (2018). ‘Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory’. E-International Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/72842
  12. MOD (2018) ‘Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence’. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/931705/ModernisingDefenceProgramme_report_2018_FINAL.pdf
  13. Peel, A. “pedagogy”. Encyclopedia Britannica, October 2020
  14. Nelson, C. and Harper, V. (2006): ‘A Pedagogy of Difficulty: Preparing Teachers To Understand and Integrate Complexity in Teaching and Learning’, Teacher Education Quarterly
  15. Nicole Matthews (2009) Teaching the ‘invisible’ disabled students in the classroom: disclosure, inclusion and the social model of disability, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:3, 229-239, DOI: 10.1080/13562510902898809
  16. Knowles, The adult learner: A neglected species
  17. Graham, S. (2017). A Simple, Easy Guide to Andragogy. Michigan: Lifelong Learning Matters
  18. Clark, M. ‘What Is PME Anyway?’ Wavell Room, 4 August 2020
  19. Maguire, S. ‘Professional Military Education Needs Reform. Here’s Why and What to Do’, Wavell Room, 13 October 2021
  20. Antrobus, S. and West, H. (2022): ‘This Is All Very Academic’: Critical Thinking in Professional Military Education, The RUSI Journal, DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2022.2112521
  21. Ibid., p. 3.
  22. Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species
  23. Agonács, N., & Matos, J. F. (2019). Heutagogy and self-determined learning: a review of the published literature on the application and implementation of the theory. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 34(3), 223-240.
  24. Knowles, Andragogy in Action
  25. Juhary, A. (2015). Understanding Military Pedagogy. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 186. 1255-1261. DOI: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.104

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