The authors of Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 7 Learning (MCDP 7) have established a doctrine on learning for the Marine Corps. This feat deserves praise, and MCDP 7 has much to offer Marines. For example, it addresses current issues found within Training and Education Command, such as the obsolete “training versus education” argument, and it reinforces principles found in other Marine Corps publications. Most important, MCDP 7 validates the need for and value of a philosophy of learning. Nonetheless, MCDP 7 can be improved. Indeed, MCDP 7 delivers only a partial philosophy of learning. Therefore, we offer the following critique in the hope that it moves the Marine Corps to develop a more complete philosophy of learning and revise MCDP 7.
MCDP 7’s Purpose: A Philosophy of Learning
In the foreword to MCDP 7, Commandant David H. Berger asserts that the manual will “describe the Marine Corps’ learning philosophy and explain why learning is critically important to the profession of arms.” MCDP 7 stops short of delivering on that promise, however, because it lacks the applied science, research, and philosophy of the field of adult learning. And there are more than 40 years’ worth of research in the field of adult learning that could provide Marines with the intellectual tools to think through problems encountered in the profession of arms.
MCDP 7 identifies its purpose as creating “a culture of continuous learning and professional competence that yields adaptive leaders capable of successfully conducting maneuver warfare in complex, uncertain, and chaotic environments.” This is a strong justification for the creation of such a doctrinal publication. But in the succeeding pages, MCDP 7 does not provide convincing arguments to support or achieve its purpose of preparing Marines to fight. The manual should provide Marines with a framework—beyond previous conceptions of learning—that allows them to apply it to their context in preparing themselves and others for military operations.
Instead, MCDP 7 spends much of its time on less important areas, such as encouraging Marines to remember things because circumstances may not always allow them to digitally search for information. This is a prudent warning, but MCDP 7 misses an opportunity to provide Marines with insight into cognition and memory or resources for empowering themselves to recall information in action. MCDP 7 offers other superficial tips, concepts, and misleading discussions on learning, when it should instead provide Marines with concepts of how they can develop their capacity to practice warfare in complex, uncertain, and chaotic environments, a few of which are discussed below.
Topics for Consideration
Marine Corps doctrine should provide every Marine, from the newest private to the most senior general, with a practical philosophy they can draw on in war and peace. It should challenge Marines to practice and embody its concepts throughout their lives, in and out of uniform. In many areas, MCDP 7 lacks the depth to do this. For instance, it contains dangerously few definitions for the concepts it introduces, which severely handicaps any discussions on learning. Why is this dangerous? Because the lack of clarity in the definitions misinforms Marines, thereby creating a flimsy foundation from which to build themselves as lifelong learners. Marines are already referencing MCDP 7 as the Marine Corps’ central authority on learning; however, the publication’s shortfalls make it unreliable.
Consider seven of these shortfalls.
In some places, MCDP 7 inadvertently offers outright misinformation. For example:
Science has also identified that individuals and teams have differences in the way they learn, with varying sensory preferences for learning, competencies, and strengths. These differences are essential components of the learning process and can be useful knowledge for structuring or engaging in learning events to that learning is more effective.
The passage refers to learning styles. In one of the rare times MCDP 7 cites peer-reviewed adult learning literature, the cited article actually contradicts the passage in question. According to research, tailoring one’s teaching to a student’s preferred learning style does not make learning more effective. This misinformation about learning styles is not limited to MCDP 7; it is mentioned in other important publications on learning. Marine instructors who do outside research on the topic react with shock and disbelief, because they find that much of existing practice rests on false premises.
- The publication defines critical thinking as “the reflective part of . . . reasoning. Critical thinking skills include inference, evaluation, interpretation, and explanation.” This is oversimplified. It leave a false sense of a person’s capacity to think clearly when instead most thinking instead remains biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or even prejudiced. Schools purport to teach critical thinking and instructors tell Marines to think critically without providing a measure of what thinking critically actually means. Critical thinking has seemingly devolved to mean novel, creative, or just plain good thinking, but critical thinking is anything but a natural or innate ability.
- MCDP 7 asserts that the “most effective instructors use the coach-teach-mentor approach to provide learners with constructive feedback.” This implies that the best instructors simultaneously exercise three distinct roles with their learners. But, in fact, each of these functions vary in activity, effort, time, and outcome in relation to the organization and learner. MCDP 7 makes no meaningful distinction among the roles, and—to complicate things further—the other Marine Corps publication that discusses these roles, Marine Corps Training Publication 6-10B Marine Corps Values, misrepresents coaching as a subskill of mentoring.
- The document simplistically defines experiential learning as to learn by doing. If MCDP 1 stated that the concept of maneuver warfare requires practitioners to always avoid surfaces and seek out gaps, that would be a similar oversimplification. A well-known, better definition describes experiential learning as a process of making meaning from or grasping and transforming experience. That is, learning occurs not from the doing, but in the reflection on that experience. As with the complex topic of maneuver warfare, adult learning scholars debate and create different definitions for experiential learning. Marines must ask the questions: How do we know learning actually occurred from our experiences, and was it the right learning?
- MCDP 7 frequently references “self-directed learning.” However, the extrinsic motivation of “encouraging and holding Marines accountable for [it]” may not directly result in or sustain professional curiosity about it among Marines. MCDP 7 should use published research to refine its definition to mean either 1) a goal of instruction to instill in learners, 2) a process for a learner to follow, or 3) a characteristic of the learner that one could measure. Developing lifelong learners through extrinsic means seems similar to teaching fitness and nutrition by providing people with personal trainers and private chefs and then wondering why the individuals did not continue the regimen after the trainers and cooks departed.
- The publication insists that “leaders also recognize that we are not an expert in every topic (i.e., self-assessment).”Although this appropriately warns Marines to avoid intellectual arrogance, the self-assessment example misses a crucial point, in that it fails to make Marines aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias that leads to difficulties in recognizing our own incompetence (that is, the less expert you are at something, the harder it is for you to recognize that you are not an expert). MCDP 7 also compounds this failure by stating that when “a Marine begins to feel more confident, it is because he or she is closing the gaps between their goals and their actual capabilities.” On the contrary, confidence sometimes indicates that the individual remains a novice, while genuine experts recognize their own shortcomings and deficiencies.
- Marines may unintentionally leave MCDP 7 with the lesson that they should study topics only directly related to their profession. The overuse of the word “profession” and its related forms—“professional,” “professionally,” or “professionalism”—sends the wrong message, since the document neglects to define or use the concept of the professional consistently. As a result, MCDP 7 encourages Marines to narrowly view professional content and learning opportunities. It fails to provide a complete picture of what professional curiosity and development should look like, and how Marines and the Marine Corps would benefit from more diversity of thought, study, and practice. A hyper focus on narrowly (or undefined) professional learning over the cultivation of curiosity could lead to “cloning,” the tendency toward seeking new leaders identical to old ones, a danger that organizations are susceptible to without concerted efforts.
Toward a Complete Philosophy of Learning
It took courage for the Marine Corps and MCDP 7’s authors to produce this doctrine. It signifies the first steps toward establishing a valid philosophy of learning. The philosophy of MCDP 7 will permeate through all that the Marine Corps and Marines do. In a future article, we will propose our own conceptual framework for MCDP 7, one that focuses on developing the professional competence and capacity of Marines and their ability to learn through the complexity and uncertainty of today. Our three-part framework will include Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune’s concept of the teacher-scholar relationship, maneuver warfare, and learning in adulthood that will, we hope, provide Marines with a more complete philosophy of learning.