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The Adult Learning Model and the Tactical Leader

The Adult Learning Model and the Tactical Leader

If you're a military professional, you've probably felt it - frustration and a growing sense of urgency about the lack of focus in your self-study, professional growth, and development. Perhaps you suspected gaps in your knowledge and experience base or had not established development goals to focus your efforts on bridging those gaps. Yet, your world is awash with professional books, papers, articles and blogs that demand your attention. Simply put, you feel like you are swimming aimlessly but also in danger of drowning.

For years, I also experienced this frustration. Imagine my relief when I stumbled across a framework that brought focus and clarity to my individual development planning.[1] The Adult Learning Model (ALM), also known as the Four Stages of Learning, defines four levels of learning:

Level 1 - Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know what you don’t know.

Level 2 - Conscious Incompetence – You have become aware of what you don’t know.

Level 3 - Conscious Competence – Through study or training, you’ve gained some experience and skill, but it requires focus and energy.

Level 4 - Unconscious Competence – You have developed mastery of a particular skill, such that performing it becomes second nature.

So how might ALM apply to the tactical leader? Let’s look at a common individual-level task, requesting indirect fire support, through the lens of ALM to better understand the model:

Prior to military service, you may have understood that artillery and mortars existed, but might not have understood that a forward observer can request fire support. This is unconscious incompetence. Placed on the modern battlefield, you would likely try to fight and accomplish your mission with the weapon systems immediately available to you, such as your rifle or grenades, unaware of how to request and employ artillery or mortars. This is Level 1, or Unconscious Incompetence.

During initial entry training, you might have learned that you can call for fire and employ indirect fires to support your maneuver, but lacked the knowledge to do so. You became conscious of your incompetence. This is Level 2, or Conscious Incompetence.

Later, after accumulating several hours in the Call for Fire Trainer (CFFT) or during your first several field exercises, you are capable of calling for fire, though you may frequently refer to a reference card to remember a standardized call for fire format or to enter data into a digital entry device correctly. Further, you may struggle with understanding the various techniques for area adjustment. While you are capable of performing the task to standard, it requires intense focus and energy. This is Level 3, or Conscious Competence.

After months of training, you find yourself at a CTC or in combat, calling for fire while maneuvering. The ability to request and serve as an observer for indirect fires is second nature to you. This is mastery. This is Level 4, or Unconscious Competence.

It is easy to discern the similarities between the US Army’s methodology for assessing proficiency [U (Untrained), P (Needs Practice), and T (Trained)] in Mission Essential Task Lists and collective tasks. Figure 1 illustrates the how the ALM and the US Army’s assessment methodology might closely align.

Figure 1 – Comparison of Adult Learning Model and US Army methodology for assessing proficiency in individual and collective tasks

Figure 1 – Comparison of Adult Learning Model and US Army methodology for assessing proficiency in individual and collective tasks

Study of the ALM reinforced my understanding of the US Army’s doctrinal approach to training units and developing leaders and provided me a framework for analyzing my own knowledge and experience gaps. Armed with this powerful concept, I could review my evaluations, multi-source assessment, after action reviews, and doctrinal references such as STP 17-19, Officer Foundation Standards for Armor Company-grade Officers, Volumes 1 and 2, to begin mapping out my strengths and weaknesses in terms on conscious competency. It became a tremendously valuable exercise to inform and focus my self-development plans. While the Adult Learning Model didn't provide me a map that I could follow to achieve mastery in my craft, it did help me visualize the point from which I'd be starting my journey.

To grow and develop as a tactical leader, it is essential to not only understand your own strengths and weaknesses, but understand in which level of the ALM they may exist. Tactical leaders might benefit greatly if they took the time to consider their own skills and capabilities through the lens of the ALM.

Questions for Consideration:

1.    What professional skills and tasks are required of you in your current assignment?

2.    How would assess your levels of competence in each of these tasks and skills?

3.    What is your plan to increase your level of competence in key areas such that you achieve a level of mastery, or unconscious competence?

[1] Jared Tendler, The Mental Game of Poker: Proven Strategies for Improving Tilt Control, Confidence, Motivation, Coping with Variance and More, (Digital eBook produced by Kimberly A. Hitchens, 2011).

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