Enlisted Education Must Be More Than Training

Lieutenant Colonel Kyle G. Phillips, U.S. Marine Corps

Educating the Force in Leadership Theory

A recent study in the Journal of Leadership Education highlights the progressive approach that all organizations should take in leader development. The volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment in foreign areas of operation requires thinking leaders. In the article, “Moving Students to a Deeper Learning in Leadership,” the authors make a distinction between a surface approach to learning—characterized by memorization of facts, studying without reflecting on the meaning of the content, and treating course materials as unrelated bits of knowledge—and a deep approach to learning that seeks to transform knowledge by understanding the meaning behind the content. [2]

Current EPME programs take a surface approach, emphasizing memorization and recitation. Most of these courses also do not allow for failure as an option. Students are evaluated on content that almost always results in passing the course.

Deep approaches to learning relate ideas to past experiences informed by theory. Deep learners develop critical thinking skills so that the theory allows them to recognize the underlying patterns of what they experience. Deep approaches require time for students to expand their mental boundaries and comfort zones and provides opportunities to test out ideas and possibilities. They create spaces where action, failure, new action, and success—or failure—allow learners to develop new mental paths and patterns. In a deep learning environment, failure is seen as an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the experience and apply the lessons learned to the next challenge.

Theory + Experience = Mature, Adaptable Leader

To develop a sophisticated, intelligent, and lethal fighting force to face future threats, the force must evolve. Marines and the Marine Corps must spend the most valuable commodity—time—to develop leaders at the small unit level. The development of small unit leaders involves more than just rote memorization of technical manuals or repetition on training and readiness tasks within a military occupational specialty. Educating small unit leaders in leadership theory will result in a more creative, thoughtful, and capable warfighting instrument.

Leadership theory—when coupled with experience—produces a mature, adaptable leader who is ready to thrive in the VUCA environment. Without good theoretical grounding, young leaders may not learn the right lessons (in educational parlance, “make the right meanings”) following a significant experience. Professors Stover and Seemiller note that “[s]tudents who are using surface approaches [to learning] may have deeply ingrained misconceptions about effective learning strategies resulting in habits that are difficult to break.” [3] Both success and failure may be presumed to be the result of decisions the leader made, rather than the result of numerous factors, and in both cases incorrect lessons can be drawn. “Deep approach” leaders consciously evaluate instead how they approach leadership challenges. They reflect on both successes and failures, account for chance, external influences, and environmental factors and ultimately become more capable to face similar challenges in the future.

Educational Partnerships

Enlisted PME is now required for promotion for junior enlisted and non-commissioned officers. Condensed courses, limited time, and few opportunities to fail and learn, make current EPME curricula poor opportunities for the development of deep approaches to learning in leadership theory. Injecting deep approaches to learning into the existing EPME curricula would be one avenue to improve enlisted leader development, but the problem of time remains.

An alternative approach would be to create and leverage new educational partnerships, modeled on existing programs such as the enlisted professional development and enhancement working group (EPDEWG) within the Marine Corps University structure. Its charter is to “synchronize the efforts of key Marine Corps stakeholders to meet the Commandant’s intent to capitalize on the opportunities through which enlisted Marines may achieve the highest level of professionalism by focusing on education, specifically, the achievement of professional certifications and academic degrees.” [4] Civilian colleges and universities aggressively seek ways to provide service members with opportunities to further their education.

Improving current EPME while maximizing civilian education opportunities is the right approach to have a balanced system for the overall development of enlisted Marines. Understanding and embracing the difference between training—for skill development—and educating—for leadership development—will allow the Marine Corps to continue to be the flexible, adaptable, and lethal fighting force that the nation requires to win on the modern battlefield.

Lieutenant Colonel Phillips is the commanding officer of Headquarters and Support Battalion at the Marine Corps School of Infantry-East at Camp Lejeune. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views, policy, or positions of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or the United States Marine Corps.


[1] MCO 1553.1B paragraph 3.a.(1) and (2).

[2] Sheri Stover and Corey Seemiller, “Moving to Deeper Learning in Leadership,” Journal of Leadership Education. October 2017. Pages 40-42.

[3] Stover and Seemiller, page 48.

[4] Enlisted Professional Development and Enhancement Working Group (EWDEPG) Charter, accessed 6 November 2017; https://www.usmcu.edu/epde-working-group-charter

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