What the Army Taught Me About Teaching

Every year, the Army recruits, at great expense, tens of thousands of young men and women. Given the costs of recruitment (and the dearth of eligible recruits), the Army cannot afford to lose many of these new soldiers. Army training is designed to take recruits who may know nothing about military life, discipline, or maneuvers, and mold them into warriors. Likewise, my task is to mold nascent scholars out of the under-performing, ill-prepared students who frequently show up in my community college classroom. I’ve found three Army practices most useful: making expectations explicit, the “crawl-walk-run” methodology, and formal evaluation of training. —Martha Kinney

The military has a fairly simple evaluation scale — “go” or “no go.”  In practice, that means means “success” or “do it again.”  When I teach writing for the internet, one sequence of assignments culminates in the students having to create a website (a series of interconnected web pages with appropriately credited images) according to my specifications, in the space of a single class period. I gave very general guidelines — “A client who loves the color green and who is obsessed with cheese.”  Obviously the point of that exercise is not polished prose, but rather a knowledge of the HTML-authoring tools, CSS, filepaths, and basic online courtesy (giving credit where credit is due).

A student in my basic composition class who misplaces a quotation mark can still get partial credit, since I can still read the rest of the paragraph despite the technical error. But a student who misplaces a quotation mark when creating a hyperlink might create a technical error that prevents users from getting to the rest of the site’s content.  So I recognize the need to walk students through the whole process carefully, even though I typically get at least a few students who are already accomplished web authors, who might find this process tedious. (I’ll have to let them start working ahead if they do well on the authoring exercise.)

I’m glad Kinney acknowledged that the army teaching model is not designed to foster creativity, but there are certain basic skills –not just HTML authorship but also peer-critiquing, close reading, and literary critical analysis — that have a technical component with very specific requirements. Students who haven’t mastered those technical requirements can be extremely frustrated when they notice their end result doesn’t meet the advanced requirements (where creativity is more important).