By David Crozier, Command Communications
Since the development of the Primary Leadership Course in the late 1970s, the way to train potential junior leaders has been as regimented as the way Soldiers how to fire their weapons. Teaching consisted of instructors imparting step-by-step procedures of how to’s without the why’s and consequences of failure to achieve mission success. A normal 2-hour block of instruction consisted of “Death by PowerPoint”. With the newly redesigned Basic Leader Course, now being taught using the Experiential Learning Method at every NCO Academy, that paradigm is a thing of the past.
“I think today’s course is more on target and more in line with what adult learning should be and that is backed up by educational theory,” Theresa “Tess” Spagna, BLC course manager, Directorate Curriculum Development, NCO Leadership Center of Excellence, said. “The Experiential Learning Model is not facilitator-centric, it’s student-centric and research shows that if [students] are engaged, if they are responsible for their learning, they retain it.”
Spagna said that is exactly what the redesigned BLC does – education in a collaborative, safe, environment where students are able to open up to one another and discuss things.
“They are learning things and find things on their own. Facilitators are there to guide them in the right direction,” she said. “It’s like the old saying, we are no longer the sage on the stage, we are the guide on the side.”
Focused on the six Leader Core Competencies of Readiness, Leadership, Training Management, Communications, Operations, and Program Management, the redesigned Basic Leader Course is designed to build leader and trainer skills needed to lead a team-size element; while providing the foundation for further development along the Professional Military Education learning continuum. Spagna who has been on the ground floor of the redesigned course and its implementation, said the BLC of today is far better than the old lecture-style of instruction.
“I think we have a much better product for our customer which is the promotable E4. Before you were going to a leadership course with all these PowerPoint slides and you are not going to take it all in. I have seen as many as 80 slides. That’s a lot to just throw at somebody with no collaboration,” she said referring to the former method of instruction. “I believe we are at the pinnacle of what adult learning is and we are providing them with a superior product. We are not just training Soldiers, we are educating them.”
The BLC is a 22-academic day course consisting of 169 academic hours taught in four phases. It begins with Foundations phase where the students receive a course overview, learn about group dynamics, are introduced to Physical Readiness Training (PRT), drill and ceremonies, critical thinking and problem solving, effective listening, written communication, training management and conduct training, and take the Army Physical Fitness Test.
“In Foundations they are given an overview of how the course is going to take place, everyone of the topic areas, what the lesson is,” she said. “They get everything they need to know to make them successful. Foundations sets the tone. Then you have the Leadership phase.”
The Leadership phase teaches the students about the Army’s Leadership Requirements Model, public speaking, counseling, Army Values, Ethics, integration of Soldier 2020, legal responsibilities and limits of NCO authority, followership and servant leader fundamentals, and team building and conflict management.
“The Leadership Phase, thats where we go into the Leadership Requirements Model and learn about the attributes and the competencies of what we want leaders to have and reflect,” Manglona said. “Then they go into the Readiness Phase.”
In this phase students are taught mission orders and troop leading procedures, Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program, Soldier readiness, resiliency, and command supply discipline.
“This phase deals with resiliency, how to take resiliency out to the force,” she said. “We are giving them resources, command supply discipline, stewardship of the profession and steward of the resources that the profession uses.”
In the final phase, the Assessment Phase, the students write their end of course essays which includes two 500-word reflective essays and turn in a SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program) essay. All assessments, some are executed during the Leadership and Readiness phases, are done through observation of their written essays and communication, public speaking, conducting training, and leadership abilities. There competency-based assessments are no multiple-choice tests.
“Multiple choice is really a 50/50 game. If you have four answers you get rid of the one that is definitely not it. You get rid of the other one you know is not it which leaves you with a 50/50 shot. And when you are done you File 13 it,” she said. “With this course they are actually writing about their different leadership topics; they are doing compare and contrast essays regarding servant leadership and followership; they are teaching individuals PRT. In my opinion, the greatest part of this is that at the very end of the course is the essay about everything they have learned – writing, speaking, coaching, mentoring – all the things they learned. It is not just about the GPA, it is about what was important to them, what did they learn and experience.”
For those who teach BLC at the NCO academies, the change in both instruction and student participation is dramatic.
“I can tell you from previously attending the old course – WLC – and also having been a facilitator for the former BLC, it has changed dramatically,” Sgt. 1st Class Jeffery Delay, chief of training at the Fort Bliss NCO Academy said. “When I say dramatically, it is the way we facilitate and educate our students. Now our students are learners and we are using that learner-centric environment.”
Delay said the students are taught skills to help them think more clearly, more critical, and the students become more agile when it comes to answering questions regarding problem solving.
“Students are allowed to share and collaborate within the classroom. It is no longer the days where I am going to tell you how to learn,” he said. “Now it is you understanding what you are learning and being able to learn from each other, not just the facilitator.”
The facilitation part, Delay said, is only about 20 percent of just that, facilitators asking questions to create discussion among the students.
“The big difference before was we were telling students how they were going to learn, and it was I am going to do this because you are telling me this is what I need to do,” Delay said. “Now I am being able to discover for myself or share that experience I have. So as a facilitator it was hard to change from being what we called an instructor back then, to facilitator today, to know how to actually guide the students in discussion.”
Staff Sgt. Raymond Furr, Quality Assurance NCO for the Fort Bliss NCO Academy, likened the changed in style of instruction and course design to an awakening – going from a do as I say instruction to a collaborative learning environment.
“I would say it is an awakening of the knowledge they have. Because if you look at it from the student viewpoint, from all the feedback we are getting, a lot of the information we are presenting to this current generation of Soldiers, and yes some have college experience and have written essays, but with the old BLC and Warrior Leader Course, you were seen and not heard. Everything was battle drills,” he said. “Now we are asking this generation of Soldiers to reconceptualize everything which is a big deal. In talking with the Soldiers, it was almost like system overload for them with the concepts.”
Furr said the facilitators are doing an excellent job of transforming the students into critical thinkers, trainers.
“The Soldiers you have now are going to take this back to their units. They are going to start implementing what they learned, and they are going to start developing their Soldiers,” he said. “By FY20 we are going to have Soldiers coming to the course with a clear understanding of what to expect.”
Delay said the Soldiers of today are institutionalized in the old way of learning – do it because I told you to do it.
“There is an institutional culture in the way they deliver training. If we can get the units to transform how they deliver their Sergeants Time training, their Warrior Tasks and how they are conducting their classes, then the Soldiers will already be open to the Experiential Learning style,” he said. “At BLC there are no longer Skill Level I tasks being taught. This is Skill Level II course. So, when they leave this institution they already have the knowledge, skills and attributes to go back and be trainers. There is no more learning a task that I should have learned in my unit.”
Furr said with the redesigned BLC, there no longer is students falling asleep at their computers, or I am not interested, and I am not retaining anything. With the new BLC students get involved and mature as future leaders.
“At the beginning of the course we get the ones who don’t talk or have anything to say or maybe isn’t at the highest speaking or articulation level,” he said. “By the end of the course that Soldier is in the middle of the conversation because the [facilitators and their peers] developed them. Now they know how to talk to people. The maturity level in just 22 days – I think we are producing more critical thinkers, but more mature younger leaders to put back out in the force.”
Spagna said students come to the course with knowledge through their experiences in and out of the Army that applies to leadership. The course helps them to bring that knowledge forward.
“It’s neat to watch them have these conversations in class and they come to the knowledge themselves,” she said. “The light bulb just pops.”