Category Archives: Education

Active Learning for Active Minds: A Conversation with Learning Leaders

Assembled and edited by notetakers Professor Mie Augier and Maj Gen (Ret.) William F. Mullen, USMC

When General Alfred Gray articulated his vision for education (which resulted in, among other things, the establishment of Marine Corps University), he noted the importance of the topics central to educating agile minds – thinking and judgment rather than knowledge – as well as the process of learning: cultivating judgment through active learning approaches.1 Recent leaders have also noticed the importance of active learning approaches, and tried to nurture traits and skills that can help develop agile minds (and perhaps also agile organizations). The Commandant’s Planning Guidance, for instance, noted that while many of our schools are based in the industrial age model of “lecture, memorize facts, regurgitate facts”, we need instead an approach focused on “active, student centered learning.” As a result, greater emphasis needs to be placed on skills and attitudes such as critical and creative thinking, holistic problem solving, and lifelong learning – all of which are key aspects of education in the post industrial/cognitive age.

The discussion below features composite answers from five students who were part of a Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) elective course on Maneuver Warfare for the Mind: The Art and Science of Interdisciplinary Learning for warfighters.2 They share their thoughts on some topics relating to learning, the role of active learning, and their suggestions for improving how we educate learning leaders for the future. Their answers have been edited and condensed for this format.

Q: What were your experiences with active learning approaches and why do you find them useful?

A: One example from when I was in a squadron was that once a month we would read an article and talk about it. But we did not – as we have in this class – connect it much to our lives in our organizations. That [difference] is something I will bring back from this class. When I find an article that is relevant for my sailors to read, we will discuss how it connects to their job and organization.3 Learning with cases – or using examples as cases – also tends to cultivate more thinking and engagement than lectures, as it captures real world organizational dynamics relevant to warfighters. Importantly, examples or cases have ambiguity and ill-structured problems so learning is focused on the process of thinking and learning, not (just) the answers to the problems. Active learning approaches also usually invite students to think together and work in groups and teams, which engages not only cognitive but also social, emotional, and affective skills. 

Talking about active learning in class is not enough. There are examples of using the right words, but doing it through textbooks and PowerPoints risks reducing education to simply transferring information to be memorized. It is not that PowerPoint has no place in active learning approaches – to illustrate a question, a puzzle, or a paradox for example can be a great lead into a discussion to help develop a questioning attitude central to learning – but too much informational content on a slide can easily narrow creative and critical thinking (e.g. ‘is this what the teacher wants us to know/think’?), or efforts to memorize what is on the slides.

Memorization is not learning. Discussing the material, having smaller group discussions, and sometimes coming up with ideas to teach others, combined with some of the active learning approaches in the learning pyramid is true learning. Wargaming and force-on-force exercises are also active ways to learn, especially if they are unscripted. 

This learning pyramid shows how much understanding is retained with different approaches. (Author graphic)

In addition to the course’s delivery style, having it open to both resident and distance students makes the learning environment broader and more interdisciplinary. This speaks to the importance of enabling hybrid classes. There’s a richness to having students from different curricula and schools on campus as well as and outside of campus. 

Q: What difficulties or barriers to active learning have you experienced?

A: We read an article by Herbert Simon about learning occurring in students’ minds.4 This means also there is a different role for teachers. Students are the focus, but everything is still guided based on the readings and the questions posed by the instructors. Some of the best classes we had within the course were those that had almost self-generated momentum that arose out of the readings and initial questions.5 Doing that successfully can be hard to achieve if both students and teachers are new to active learning approaches. 

I have found some instructors have been very deliberate in bringing this approach into some of the courses, but most do not discuss, or ‘count’, the learning process as part of the learning being discussed and communicated. I think there is a lot of value in the process of discussion, in working together, and in bringing together different viewpoints. It helps achieve the kind of learning we talked about in Boyd’s conceptual spiral with the generation of novelty and synthesis being very important.6 That is very different from the memorization approach, and it encourages us to value thinking, reflection, and reframing as part of the learning process and as a way to develop new ideas. 

Mortimer Adler in his classic work on education (Reforming Education) mentions how the doctrinal approach to learning (present in industrial age approaches) indoctrinates knowledge and information (with no room for failures or errors). Textbooks that are often written from disciplinary silos reinforce this, creating a barrier to interdisciplinary learning and understanding. The alternative approach – the one more suitable for cultivating thinking and interdisciplinary learning skills – is dialectical; teaching students how to think through engagement and thinking through difficult and contradictory ideas and information. It also cultivates broader problem-solving skills instead of just those focused on a particular issue.

Teachers are not ‘instructors’ in the sense of transferring information or simply teaching a tool through which one can view (some part of) the world; but are themselves learners and interact in the discovery process of identifying, framing and reframing problems, thinking through hypotheses, etc. This is more difficult on both sides. Students have to get used to not having textbooks, checklists and rubrics for everything. And teachers have to be much more adaptive in their planning and execution and be able to lead discussions through problems and dialogue, not through power points. But both sides can really learn. In our domains (warfighters and warfighter organizations), an emphasis on two way street learning also helps ensure an interdisciplinary mindset and a focus on problems and issues relevant to warfighters and warfighter organizations.

Q: Were there any particular readings, or ideas, or themes, that you have felt have helped you as a learner?

A: Something that came to my mind was the discussion we had about a growth mindset and active learning as well as the neuroscience behind it, and what it means and why it is relevant for us. Underlying the growth mindset approach is the belief that we can always grow and improve as thinkers and learners. The importance of engaging in problem solving activities in class and the fact that this approach engages different pathways in the brain than when memorizing was very interesting. The need for a growth mindset in warfighters was demonstrated also. That discussion changed my outlook on a lot of things. It has also been found to have a positive effect on performance and motivation, thus helping to build intrinsic motivation essential to lifelong learning.7

I really enjoyed the scenario planning and counterfactuals discussions, those were different dimensions of learning, or complementary dimensions, to the discussions about the dynamics and mechanisms of individual and organizational level learning. When you add the aspect of learning from the future, and you use creative thinking to imagine those futures, you also learn to see history through counterfactuals, and how fiction can and cannot be used – that stuck with me (see e.g. Fiction | Center for International Maritime Security). Also, when we are trying to understand particular periods – e.g., the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s – the counterfactual thinking is interesting, that’s what I’m carrying with me. 

There was also a sense of learning from different mediums. We read books and articles (as well as a book about how to read books); but we also had podcasts and even the military reform testimony on C-SPAN that was useful in content and approach. That discussion showed that while we may think of that movement, the military reform movement, as one perspective, it really was a collection of individuals who shared some ideas but nevertheless were able to advance a movement, as Boyd mentioned. It was interesting to hear how some learn best from reading, some from audio books, some more visually, and we got ideas for how to increase our own learning skills. 

In his “Invitation to the Pain of Learning” Adler discusses how we read and learn, which brought to me the importance of the questions we have in our minds when we read things, and how we bring particular articles and ideas together with other readings – which is synthesizing in Boyd’s terminology. That helps us build interdisciplinary understanding and range. Also, the importance of questions, and a questioning mindset – asking ourselves, what great questions did we ask? — is something we can bring in more too, and is much needed for warfighter and warfighter organizations today. For example, as we seek to understand competitors (in the great power competition context), we have to question whether we really understand them well and seek to learn more about how they think (not just observe what they do). 

Q: Have you had any moments outside of class where you have found this type of learning useful for you?

A: The first weeks, when we first started, I was in an integrated planning team and I was using concepts from this course to make changes for my team. So my job actually has tracked well with the course. I am not sure my ideas will be implemented, as organizations tend to resist change, but it resonated with me.

Another experience that I connected to this course was during a week of assessment, physical, oral interviews, evaluations – some challenging and some routine. The oral interviews were focused – what directly translated for me was the usefulness of reflection, self assessment, mentoring, giving and receiving mentoring, and being a lifelong learner. Those themes were very useful for me since the interviews focused on evaluating if people are really mentoring. 

There’s a timing issue too that turned out to make our discussions particularly relevant. What did we learn from Afghanistan? With all the talk about us being learning organizations and learning cultures, should we think about what that means after 20 years there? What does it mean for me? For our organizations? For how we talk and see ourselves as a learning organization? As a learning nation? Many of the mechanisms and dynamics of learning are applicable to us as individuals, organizations, and as a nation. They play out differently in different contexts but examining the fundamental mechanisms in difference contexts we live through is important. 

Even if Afghanistan is a failure, we can learn from it if we understand what happened; what went wrong; and reflect on our experiences.8 Learning from failure is not easy and involves overcoming individual and organizational barriers to seeing mistakes as mistakes in the first place; and to learn from them through reflection. Organizational leadership scholars have argued that willingness to talk about failures and mistakes and encouraging open discussion and questions is a useful first step. Cultivating a questioning attitude and ability to reflect are important steps towards being able to learn.

I also think this is a unique point in time not just in terms of the strategic environment, but organizationally too. In particular, the USMC is going through a massive shift with new guidance, new organizational documents (e.g. 2021 Force Design Annual Update; Talent Management 2030; MCDP 7; MCDP 1-4), etc. – is it really a learning organization? Does it have what it takes to adapt? This course also helped me understand why we are doing some of the things we are doing now.

The topic of learning is not just important for understanding how we learn as individuals so we can improve, but also organizationally. How do we build better learning organizations, better learning cultures?

Q: Do you have any suggestions you have to help us and our leaders move more fully beyond industrial age approaches? 

I almost think a class like this should be mandatory at NPS because there is so much of what we talk about – mentoring people, being a good leader, etc. – but we do not talk about the why’s or the learning processes behind things. We say things are important, but we don’t go into details of why. So I feel like discussing learning and applying it has been important in my professional development beyond and in addition to the particular learnings. 

We aren’t really told about the electives; some even have preloaded matrices. So maybe we can get better in making sure students are aware of the elective space they have and maybe make sure the descriptions relate to how the course is useful for us in our organizations. 

Where I am, our curriculum is a lot more flexible and we probably have more electives, but I have friends in some of the other curricula where in most— if not all— classes, they are given all the information, all the homework, very traditional, and then a test in the end – where students are mostly in receive mode. 

That also indicates the complementarity of approaches. In some domains with well-structured problems, that style of learning might work.9 Traditional learning also helps you baseline a lot of learning so it might be efficient to bring people through the system. But memorization is not learning– so it might be efficient, but not effective.

Instructors need to embrace active learning, too, and be able to teach it in the context of relevant problems, not just theories. We also need to hire the right teachers — you have to make sure they are comfortable teaching in active learning environments. Course designs are important too. Courses have to be developed by people who know how to use active learning in their fields. 

It also goes back to the fixed vs. grown mindset piece. Teachers need to be lifelong learners, too. Active learning is a two-way street. A growth mindset and lifelong learning implies that learning is continuous and valued both inside and outside our schools and educational institutions, in both students and teachers.

Along those lines, one thing, at least from a Naval Special Warfare perspective, is that there seems to be a deeper, maybe even ‘paradigmatic’ change happening. People used to go to educational institutions and they would almost be ‘checked out’ – people didn’t have to report anywhere; they could just play golf – they had a lot of downtime and there wasn’t really an intellectual emphasis. People would write a thesis that no one read, etc. 

That has shifted, at least in my community, so now the guys coming to NPS are given guidance about projects and direction towards operational impact. Before, people would come back after education and folks would say ‘I thought you got out’. But now, while at NPS, they are in continual communication with people in their community. So that makes the change more comprehensive in a way; with the learning mechanisms between the communities and the students adding to building learning organizations and learning cultures – that also helps build the intrinsic motivation we have talked about.

I see a culture-wide paradigm shift in attitudes towards learning and education. As the remaining industrial age proponents move out and retire, that could be really important. 

Q: Some of the discussions and readings we had were about mistakes and failures and the centrality of those in organizational adaptation. How do we learn to get better in allowing failures so we can learn from them?

A: The growth mindset piece really struck out to me. Task setbacks are necessary parts of the learning process. Without failures, we are unlikely to grow and learn. I am learning that lesson from my last command where we were not given the opportunity to fail. I got my job and got good at it and we were supposed to rotate but didn’t get to rotate since someone left. But I’m here as a junior officer and I am supposed to get opportunities to learn but there was no mentoring, no room for failure, so I know now the importance of giving others freedom, guidelines, and support, to fail.

I think we have to put people in positions where they know they will be allowed to fail – so incentivizing failures, and making it part of the process, even part of our classes, if necessary for learning. We had a discussion about how to build in failures in our organizations. We can build them into our courses and learning environments, too.

Closing thoughts

While active learning approaches are not new, the need to enable military professionals to think on their feet and have the mental agility to adjust to changing circumstances has never been more imperative. Technology is changing at the rapid rate and becoming both less expensive and more widely proliferated. Our potential opponents are already acting in areas referred to as the “gray zones” to get what they want without having to resort to armed conflict. In the event of armed conflict, those same potential opponents will not fight the way we would like them to, or that we have been training to for many years. They understand our strengths and weaknesses perhaps better than we do and will seek to fight as asymmetrically as possible. This is not something that is new either, but we seem to have more challenges adapting to the fight we are in when we do not encounter the type of fight we are prepared to engage in. This trend cannot continue, and it can only be overcome by educating thinking, continuously learning leaders who have the ability to interpret what is happening in front of them and make the necessary adjustments to fight appropriately in short order. 

Kevin “KP” Peaslee is a Contracting Officer (64P) in the United States Air Force. KP has 18 years of military experience ranging from Security Forces, Inspector General, and Acquisitions. Additionally, KP has a Master’s in Strategic Purchasing, a Master’s in Homeland Security, a Bachelor’s in Business Administration, and an Associate’s in Criminal Justice.

LT Benjamin P. Traylor, USN, is an Aerospace Maintenance Duty Officer, currently MMCO at VUP-19. Served as MCO/QAO for VAQ-133, IM 4/2 Division Officer on CVN-72. He has an MBA/Material logistics from NPS and a BS from Western Michigan University. 

LCDR Morgan O’Neill has been serving within Naval Special Warfare since 1996 and continues to find new things to learn along every step of the way.

Major Leo Spaeder (USMC) currently serves as MAGTF Planner at Headquarters Marine Corps.

Major Matthew Tweedy, USMC, is an infantry officer who recently graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School.

The notetakers from the conversation were Professor Mie Augier and Maj Gen (Ret) William F. Mullen.


1 A discussion of some of the elements is here: Maneuver Warfare for the Mind, Educating for thinking and judgment ( A key historical document is Gen Gray’s memo, “Training and Education”, October 10, 1988, located in the Alfred M. Gray Collection, Box list Part 2, Box 6, Folder 12, Center for Marine Corps History, Quantico, Virginia.

2 The course (GB 4012) seeks to integrate key ideas in the interdisciplinary areas of the art and science of learning; concepts, mechanisms for individual and organizational learning, as well as learning from the past and the future, all with an eye towards applying these concepts to developing warfighters, warfighting organizations, and warfighting leaders. The discussion was typed by the note takes and edited for overlaps & readability. 

3 Making connections and building analogies between concepts, readings, and own life and organizations are themselves activities that can build greater cognitive flexibility.

4 Herbert A. Simon, “Problem Solving and Education”. In D.T. Tuma and F. Reif, Issues in Teaching and Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlhaum Associates, 1980. 

5 This insight is central to the approach to teaching judgment sometimes referred to as “discussion leadership” (see C.R. Christensen, D. Garvin and Ann Sweet, “Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership”. Harvard Business School Press)

6 A good article about Boyd’s conceptual spiral is available here: “John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life.”

7 Ng, Betsy, “The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation,” Brain Sciences 8, no. 2 (Jan. 2018). 

8 An example of a reflective paper integrating recent events with literature with education is Reflection on Failure By Major Matthew Tweedy, USMC (

9 Recent research has pointed out that active learning approaches are advantageous not only to teach ‘soft’ skills and behavioral science approaches; but also STEM topics (see, e.g. Freeman, Eddy, MC Donough, Smith, et al (2014): Archive Learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 

Featured Image: Students at NPS (Photo via Naval Postgraduate School)

Rethinking the Cryptologic Warfare Officer Pipeline

By Will Cavin

The Cryptologic Warfare Officer (CWO) community, like many other naval warfare communities, has a narrowly-defined career path for officers to successfully complete the requisite milestones to assume command. Unlike flight school for naval aviators or nuclear power school for submariners, cryptologic warfare officers receive a rudimentary overview of the broad cryptologic field before they begin their initial tour at a Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) collocated with a National Security Agency (NSA) site. Junior cryptologic warfare officers’ poor exposure to the incredibly broad field of cryptology and their limited insight into how signals intelligence supports the U.S. Navy fails to prepare them to serve in any meaningful role while completing their initial assignment at an NSA site. 

U.S. Navy cryptologic leaders need to send new ensigns to the fleet for their initial tour of duty to gain a broad understanding of the blue-water U.S. Navy, learn how signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic warfare are employed by naval units, and to ensure young officers develop a baseline knowledge to best leverage their operational experience in future support to NSA national missions. 

Importance of Early Exposure to the Maritime Navy

Historically, the CWO community believed that the Navy was best served by sending its new junior officers to work national missions at NSA sites to develop a broad understanding of cryptologic disciplines while gaining awareness of cutting-edge technologies that these junior officers could then bring to deployed forces in a follow-on “tactical” tour. However, signals intelligence, electronic warfare, and cyber operations have become increasingly specialized, making it more difficult for young officers to develop needed expertise in these three unique fields of study.

Without prior working experience in cryptology, new officers find themselves relegated to narrow-in-scope positions that often lack the technical challenges that Navy leaders hope will create subject matter expertise in their officer corps. Furthermore, without any actual experience with maritime forces, young cryptologists fail to recognize national mission capabilities or tool sets that could best be leveraged to support the Navy. 

This poor talent management is not a problem isolated to the cryptologic community. Talent management challenges span the Department of Defense due to ineffective evaluation systems used to measure performance and the poor placement of personnel to best maximize its talent. The cryptologic officer corps is uniquely positioned to make minor changes to greatly enhance its junior officers.

Navy Information Forces (NAVIFOR), the Type Commander for all of Navy cryptology, should adjust the traditional career pipeline for new CWOs by sending them to support deployable tactical naval units for their initial assignment. By serving a tour of duty directly supporting naval surface, subsurface, or air units, cryptologists would gain an understanding of how operational naval elements work and their different intelligence needs. 

Broad exposure to deployed forces provides fledgling CWOs with a unique perspective to carry to their follow-on assignment at an NSA site. Support for military operations, a primary mission set for the Intelligence Community, needs junior military officers that through tangible experience from prior assignments have the authority to explain both the intelligence needs and platform limitations of deployed military units. Having prior tactical experience provides CWOs a platform to inform their civilian intelligence analyst counterparts in how the national SIGINT apparatus can best support carrier strike groups, F/A-18 squadrons, and fast attack submarines.

The current CWO pipeline is a missed opportunity to support the warfighter because it strips first tour naval cryptologists of their most potentially valuable contribution to NSA’s joint environment, which is an ability to communicate the needs of deployed forces. 

Developing SIGINT and Electronic Warfare Expertise from Tactical Assignments

Thirty years ago, CWO leadership at NSA sites had the latitude to expose junior officers to a variety of national missions providing valuable hands-on experience for new officers to quickly develop a solid baseline in the cryptologic skillset. However in today’s construct, first-tour CWOs are expected to learn the theory of cryptology while supporting a single highly-specialized national mission. This silo of exposure limits the learning opportunities for young ensigns, and due to their lack of experience, young cryptologists are placed in largely administrative roles with little authority to support mission or to learn the complexities of cryptology. Thus, CWOs would benefit greatly from learning the basics of SIGINT and electronic warfare while attached to naval units in their initial assignment.

Through direct oversight of cryptologic elements attached to different naval units, CWOs would quickly learn the collection capabilities and limitations of various platforms. This early exposure would ensure that CWOs develop expertise and understand the warfighter’s perspective before working at an NSA field site alongside civilian intelligence analysts who spend their entire career working in national-level missions. Additionally, while completing tactical assignments these junior officers would develop much-needed experience in explaining the capabilities and importance of their mission set to the unrestricted line officers that their intelligence supports. 

In response to potential concerns of a young officer’s ability to assume responsibility for a cryptologic element with little to no experience, Navy senior enlisted personnel in the cryptologic element would provide the mentorship and guidance to young officers still learning the SIGINT and electronic warfare capabilities of their systems. This is much akin to the surface navy, which places new ensigns over divisions of sailors responsible for systems that are foreign to the young officer. Thus, young ensigns would complete a rich tour providing operational units with tactical cryptologic support while developing their own expertise through hands-on real-world application and overseeing the work of their sailors. These experiences would position them to successfully add value to NSA national mission sets with the ability to understand the capabilities and limitations of tactical naval units.

Tactical Cryptologic Competency Creates the Informed Leaders that NSA Needs

Finally, officers that complete an initial tactical assignment will have gained expertise needed to recognize NSA tool sets and emerging capabilities that can directly benefit tactical platforms. Under the current structure, new cryptologists lack the maritime experience to know which national capabilities can benefit deployed units. By altering the career progression path, officers will have the experience to know the limitations and needs of various naval platforms. In an era where over half of naval officers will separate from active-duty before completing eight years of service, the Navy must ensure it does not waste an entire tour of duty “developing” their junior officers. By reordering the career progression path and providing a clear understanding of the goals for each tour of duty, the cryptologic officer corps can best prepare its junior officers to not simply complete their expected responsibilities, but charge them to work alongside intelligence analysts to actively improve national support to deployed naval forces.

The current cryptologic warfare officer pipeline represents an outdated model in which senior officers had the flexibility to expose their new ensigns to diverse mission sets and applications of SIGINT during their initial tour, ensuring they developed a wide understanding of cryptology. In the increasingly specialized modern intelligence environment, NAVIFOR must adjust its career progression pipeline to ensure its young officers can provide better support to deployed forces. By exposing cryptologic warfare officers to the maritime navy as well as the practical application of SIGINT, they are better prepared to effectively assume leadership roles at NSA or other national SIGINT efforts. An additional outcome of this recommendation is that as CWOs continue in their career, the reorganization of the tactical assignment frees junior officers to specialize in one of the cryptologic disciplines, a growing need in today’s increasingly technical world. 

Lieutenant Will Cavin is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer in Washington, DC. He has completed assignments at the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade and served as an EP-3E Special Evaluator in Bahrain. He is passionate about the mental health of servicemembers and served as a Suicide Prevention Advocate. He graduated with merit from the United States Naval Academy.


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Karpf, B. (2019). Train navy officers for cyber lethality. Proceedings145(2). Retrieved from

Kuzma, R., Shaw, I., Danelly, Z., & Calcagno, D. (2018). Good will hunting: The strategic threat of poor talent management. War on the Rocks. Retrieved from

Schultz, B. (2020, May 31). Coaching trees (NSGA kunia 2002-2004). Station Hypo. Retrieved from

Snodgrass, G. (2014). Keep a weather eye on the horizon: A navy officer retention study. Naval War College Review67(4), 64–90. Retrieved from

Talbot, A. (2020). Truth #3: Division officers must learn to “see the future.” Proceedings146(5). Retrieved from proceedings/2020/may/truth-3-division-officers-must-learn-see-future

Featured image:  An EP-3E Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System (ARIES) II, assigned to the “World Watchers” of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (VQ-1), transits over the East China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo )

Lifelong Student-Centered Learning: A PME Paradigm for Honing Our Intellectual Edge

By Dr. Mie Augier, Maj Sean F. X. Barrett, and MajGen William F. Mullen, III (ret.)

Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen remain our most important resource for prevailing in long-term competition. We will remain the world’s preeminent naval force through recruitment, education, training, and retention of diverse active, reserve, and civilian talent. Transforming our learning model for the 21st century will enable us to adapt and achieve decisive advantage in complex, rapidly changing operating environments. –Advantage at Sea1

The recently published Advantage at Sea, a Tri-Service Maritime Strategy signed by the Chiefs of the three Naval Services, provides guidance for prioritizing threats, integrating, and modernizing in order to prevail across the competition continuum. The strategy emphasizes the importance of training and education for developing an integrated all-domain naval force. Given the change, complexity, and uncertainty inherent in the security environment, Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen must develop the intellectual agility to adapt to rapid change and emerging threats and shape the organizations they lead.

This necessitates changing the industrial age training and education paradigm for Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen by placing a greater emphasis on skills such as creative, critical, and innovative thinking; holistic problem solving; and, lifelong learning. Doing so implies not only the need for comprehensive changes to current curricula, teaching materials, and methodologies, but also placing a greater emphasis on informal education and self-study as a lifelong professional duty. 

Today, discussions concerning military training and education include explicit calls for changing the industrial age paradigm to a post-industrial age one, as well as considerations of the kinds of training and education appropriate for the post-industrial age, including moving beyond the “lecture, memorize facts, regurgitate facts on command” model to one focused on cultivating growth mindsets.2

It is important, first, however, to recognize the tremendous progress that has already been made at U.S. professional military education (PME) schools, while acknowledging the work that remains to be done throughout the training and education continuum. Secondly, it is worth noting that paradigm change is difficult because it entails rejecting an otherwise well-established paradigm and substituting a new one, and paradigms by their very nature tend to reinforce themselves and are not intended to generate novelty.3 The industrial age training and education paradigm holds schools, educational institutions, and academic textbooks at the center of the “universe.”4 Today’s security environment, however, demands a new student-centered, outcomes-based approach that is lifelong and continuous. Learning must be valued and evaluated both in and out of schoolhouses to systematically produce the intellectually agile leaders needed to compete.

In this article, we seek to build on our previous conversation, which touched on the skills and attitudes that are important in a post-industrial age, as well as some barriers to cultivating and implementing the mechanisms central to this paradigm change. We also integrate elements of our understanding of paradigms and organizational change with research in learning, education, cognitive science, and individual and organizational decision making to discuss a few interrelated issues that are central to developing a 21st century approach to training and education. 

The Industrial and Post-Industrial Ages

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Winston Churchill5

The Naval Services’ industrial age approach to training, education, organization, and manpower, among other things, has its foundation in Taylorism, the concept of breaking down complex production sequences into simple, sequenced, and standardized tasks. People are trained to be interchangeable parts to maximize efficiencies associated with solving fixed problems in stable environments. Taylorism was cutting edge management science at the turn of the 20th century, leading President William McKinley to appoint Elihu Root as Secretary of War in 1899 “to bring ‘modern business practices’ to the ‘backward’ War Department.”6 In the mid-1950s, this trend towards organizing for large-scale, stable problems was exacerbated as additional tools and techniques such as strategic planning and financial management were developed and employed to measure progress and efficiencies in solving known problems.

Applying known tools to known problems made sense in a relatively stable and predictable world. Such a paradigm gradually reinforced itself over time, not only in the U.S. military’s organizations, but also in its training and education institutions and approaches to learning. While PME schools have made great strides, the challenge is that military occupational specialty (MOS) training schools are still largely based on this outdated and ineffective approach, which undermines the ability to produce the leaders we need as a matter of course rather than by exception. 

One result of this industrial age approach is that education in particular is viewed as episodic and undertaken only when required. Even worse, in the profession of arms, attending a PME school is oftentimes viewed as a break from the operating forces or pressure cooker supporting establishment tours that comprise the normal career path. For some, it is also merely a “check in the box” for promotion purposes and not viewed as a serious educational endeavor requiring one’s best effort. Additionally, due to negative educational experiences earlier in their careers, warfighters oftentimes lack the intrinsic desire to better educate themselves and instead believe they are already smart enough, leading them to partake in educational endeavors only when forced to do so, and then only at the minimum level of effort required to graduate.

Industrial Age Post-Industrial Age
Characteristics of Larger Environment and Problems Confronted – Stable, well structured

– Changes slow and incremental

– Rapid change

– Wicked, ill structured 

– Changes blur boundaries between organizations, industries 

Central Aspects of Organization and Leadership – Large hierarchies, functional organizational structures

– Management of standard operating procedures and processes

– Decentralized, decomposed organizational structures

– Emphasis on resources (including human), competencies, and capabilities

– Agility built in to enable and facilitate organizational learning and adaptation 

Skills and Attitudes Critical to Learning and Leading – Knowledge (static)

– Functional (and individual) learning of facts, knowledge, and how to immediately use, measure, and control

– Fixed intelligence mindset enough

– Understanding (dynamic) of both knowledge and changing contexts, as well as how to interpret knowledge in different situations

– Holistic problem solving, strategic and critical thinking, imagination, active open-mindedness, and judgment

– Growth mindset needed

– Intellectual preparedness and ability for lifelong learning

Learning Types and the Role of Teachers  – Schoolhouse, passive learning

– Receive and memorize data teachers transmit 

– Instructional learning and lectures

– Test and forget 

– Doctrinal approach to learning

– Lifelong, active learning

– Dialogues, discussions

– Two-way learning between teachers and students 

– Teachers as mentors/coaches

– Dialectic approach

Educational Materials and Approaches  – Textbooks confined to disciplinary silos 

– Rote memorization 

– Static learning goals and procedures to control activities 

– Learning measured by tests

– Cases, simulations, wargames, and problem-posing approaches

– Learning goals are constantly revised and updated; best practices are explored and created

– Learning practiced through reflections and self-reflections

Civic Engagement  – Not really a focus – Fostered through critical thinking (i.e., enabling understanding others), we-leadership, and small group discussions

Table 1. Industrial Age Versus Post-Industrial Age Characteristics.

Table 1 provides an overview of some of the dimensions differentiating the industrial and post-industrial ages to help inform efforts to change the industrial age training and education paradigm.7 In particular, we focus on clarifying some dimensions of these differences, including the concepts relevant to learning, as well as fostering lifelong learning, active minds, and a sense of value beyond oneself. Several key themes differentiating the industrial and post-industrial ages that are relevant to training and education include the following:

From tools to thinking. Specific tools and techniques are adequate for solving structured, repetitive, known problems, but ambiguity, uncertainty, and ill-structured problems require intellectual agility, creativity, and the ability to think critically, rather than purposely overlooking or oversimplifying aspects of problems to fit prescribed solutions. Nobel Laureate Herb Simon cautioned, “What we must avoid above all is designing technologically sophisticated hammers and then wandering around to find nails that we can hit with them.”8 Rather, the prevalence and rapidity of change necessitates leaders who can take integrative, pluralistic approaches and make connections across disciplines, domains of knowledge, and methodologies. Leaders must not only be able to learn new tools quickly to adapt to the changing environment, but also understand when and how to employ them, as well as when to drop them entirely, if needed.

From knowledge to understanding. The wicked, ill-structured, and interdependent problems of the post-industrial age demand leaders who can think holistically and in an interdisciplinary manner in order to identify and understand the deep structure of a problem before they try to solve it. While important, knowledge is mostly static and needs to be paired with imagination, creativity, intuition, and improvisation in order to enrich understanding. Knowledge by itself, Alfred North Whitehead observes, “does not keep any better than fish.”9 Practicing problem formulation (and re-formulation), active open-mindedness, and purposely focusing one’s attention outside one’s domain of expertise can help nurture this imagination that enriches understanding and the ability not only to adapt to changes in the environment, but also to anticipate them.10

From memorization to learning. Warfighters are confronted with situations clouded by ambiguity and uncertainty in which they must make decisions when facing time and information constraints. Developing the intellectual agility to make these decisions and transfer knowledge across domains or apply it to entirely new and unforeseen situations or problems is enabled by first learning how to think, not what to think. The current industrial age training and education paradigm, however, is based on “the fallacy of rote memorization.” Simon explains, “Rote memorization, as we know all too well, produces the ability to repeat back memorized material but not the ability to use it in solving problems.”11 

From school-centric to student-centric learning. In the industrial era, schools were the central institution in education, and administrators developed procedures and mechanisms to enhance and measure the efficiency with which schools could transmit information to students. Learning was thus, by necessity, passive and objectives static. In the post-industrial age, the focus must shift to students and their learning, which must be active and lifelong. 

Post-Industrial, Student-Centric Training and Education 

After thinking about the trends and changes outlined above, we can start piecing together some key elements of what is needed for post-industrial age training and education. In particular, critical thinking enables leaders to widen their apertures and question information presented to them in the pursuit of ground truth. “Questions,” Ian Leslie explains, “weaponize curiosity, turning it into a tool for changing behaviors.”12 A questioning attitude enhances leaders’ understanding of the world around them while instilling in them the notion they will never know everything and thus must embark on a lifelong pursuit of wisdom. The ability to think critically and the curiosity underlying it must be cultivated and driven by a quest for knowledge and understanding, especially of questions with no definitive answer.13 The following considerations are relevant to this post-industrial, student-centered paradigm: 

Educating active minds. Mortimer Adler distinguishes between the doctrinal and dialectal approaches to learning, which embody the industrial and post-industrial ages, respectively. The doctrinal approach effectively indoctrinates and attempts to imbue students with as much truth (and no errors) as possible, and the textbooks upon which this approach relies simply reinforce disciplinary silos. In the industrial age paradigm, teachers and educational institutions are viewed as the principal causes of learning, and students are expected to passively absorb information without any real understanding of it. In contrast, the aim of the dialectical approach is teaching students how to think and pursue truth. In post-industrial age training and education, students must be taught to identify, engage, and sort through contradictions and contradictory ideas. Teachers aid students through this learning discovery process by helping them ask questions, identify problems, think through hypotheses, and so on.14 It is cooperative and inculcates a desire in students to adopt a growth mindset, seek an ever-increasing understanding of great ideas and issues, and pursue lifelong learning for their own betterment.

Learning and learning approaches. Today’s students are different than those in previous generations, so a student-centric approach to instruction must correspondingly adapt in order to foster a culture of continuous learning. Determining how individual students learn best and the pace at which they learn, and then tailoring their learning experience accordingly, is vastly more effective than the “one-size-fits-all,” industrial age approach to learning that placed a heavy emphasis on known problems for which providing students with specific tools for solving them proved adequate. Additionally, incorporating active learning approaches, such as historical case studies, sand table or map exercises, tactical decision games, terrain walks, or tactical exercises without troops, across the training and education continuum will benefit MOS training schools, and not simply PME schools. Active learning approaches focus on problem solving and making decisions rather than simply remembering information or theorizing. Students must be encouraged to think independently, practice making decisions, and learn from mistakes along the way if they are to develop the judgment needed to take intelligent initiative.15 Active learning presupposes that learning has to occur in—and transform—the minds of students.16

Building creative thinking. Today’s strategic documents and the rhetoric of many senior leaders emphasize the importance of innovation, which unfortunately, all too often leads to the misunderstanding that technology can solve any problem. As a result, leaders overlook the need for warfighters who can think critically and creatively and develop ways to incorporate and effectively employ these new technologies. Creative thinking can and should be taught in conjunction with subject matter content. Students must have enough domain-specific knowledge to have something about which to think creatively, but some useful guidelines for encouraging creativity include posing questions or problems that have more than one response, asking students for multiple solutions to open-ended prompts and to think through their implications and implementation, group work, solving analogies, and identifying novel relationships between two or more seemingly unrelated ideas.17

Learning leaders. To truly embrace a culture of lifelong learning, leaders must set the example, embody the warrior-scholar motif, and inspire junior warfighters to embark on a lifetime of learning themselves. Learning and professional self-study must be expectations. Implementing a student-centric 21st century approach to learning at MOS schools (and even boot camp) can help mitigate some of the negative educational experiences warfighters might experience early in their careers that turn them off to learning, but to be truly lifelong and continuous, leaders, especially senior officers, need to engage their junior warfighters, demonstrate the humility to learn from them, participate in activities with them, and empower them to experiment and learn from mistakes. 

 Obstacles to Change and Closing Thoughts

This article has discussed some central aspects of industrial age training and education, as well as the elements of what is needed to transition to a post-industrial age paradigm. Without understanding the differences and the mechanisms by which the industrial age paradigm reinforces itself, the ongoing (and needed) transformation of the training and education paradigm will necessarily remain incomplete. The U.S. military has made great progress implementing student-centered learning in its PME institutions, but the same changes must be implemented across the training and education continuum, especially at MOS training schools. 

To do so, military educators must focus on what students take with them after graduation and how it changes their thinking, not on the process that pushed them through to graduation. Bureaucracy and the formal school inspection process are the biggest obstacles to cultivating and implementing these changes since they simply reinforce the industrial age training and education paradigm.

As a result, on August 26, 2019, Major General William F. Mullen III, then Commanding General, U.S Marine Corps Training and Education Command, published a memorandum, “Training and Education Command Authority to Experiment With New Learning Practices Policy,” to grant “to Formal Learning Centers (FLCs) the authorities necessary to experiment with new learning practices with respect to innovative curriculum design, development, and delivery.”18 He granted commanders a pass on those aspects of the formal inspection process that no longer applied due to the experimental changes they had implemented. Some commanders embraced the ability to experiment and, for example, loaded curriculum onto tablets so Marines could make their way through training at their own pace with the aid of staff and avoid the long periods in which they would have otherwise been awaiting training. Marines responded to being granted flexibility and responsibility, and those in MOS training reached the operating forces more quickly and with the same (or more) knowledge and skills than the industrial age approach would have otherwise provided them. It placed the focus on what the graduates understood and retained rather than on the process.

Change is never easy since there are always antibodies to change in any organization. However, just as a paradigm change in the understanding of the solar system was once needed, today’s military requires a paradigm change for training and education that addresses the totality of the training and education continuum, including the self-reinforcing obstacles to change.19 This will require a lot of hard work and leadership, but as the Naval Service Chiefs identified in Advantage at Sea, the threats China and Russia pose to global peace and prosperity demand nothing less.

Dr. Mie Augier is a Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI) and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Maj Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD, is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion. He has previously deployed in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, Enduring Freedom-Philippines, and Inherent Resolve.

MajGen William F. Mullen, III, USMC, retired after 34 years as an infantry officer. Among his many assignments, he served 3 tours in Iraq, and as a General Officer, was the President of U.S. Marine Corps University and Commanding General of Education Command. He is also the co-author of Fallujah Redux, which was published in 2014 by the USNI Press. MajGen Mullen retired on Oct 1, 2020 and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado. He also recently started as Professor of Practice at the Naval Postgraduate School (Graduate School of Defense Management).


[1] U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All-Domain Naval Power (Washington, DC: 2020), 22.

[2] See, for example, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War: The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education & Talent Management, (Washington, DC: 2020); Department of the Navy, Education for Seapower (Washington, DC: 2019); Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019).

[3] The notion of paradigms—a set of shared fundamental beliefs, concepts, ideas, models, theories, and practices accepted by communities of scholars and practitioners in a given era—is often associated with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Regarding the self-reinforcing nature of paradigms, Kuhn explains, “Normal science consists in the actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved by extending the knowledge of those facts that the paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by increasing the extent of the match between those facts and the paradigm’s predictions, and by further articulation of the paradigm itself.” Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50th Anniversary Edition (The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 24.

[4] Thomas Kuhn’s first book, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, documents the paradigm change from the geocentric to heliocentric model of the universe. We need an analogous paradigm change from focusing on school-centered processes to student-centered learning in order to develop a 21st century approach to training and education. 

[5] UK Parliament, “Churchill and the Commons Chamber,” accessed March 6, 2021, 

[6] As quoted in Don Vandergriff, Personnel Reform and Military Effectiveness (Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2015), 7.

[7] The table draws on and extends thoughts in, among others, Al Gray and Paul Otte, The Conflicted Leader and Vantage Leadership (Columbus, OH: Franklin University Press, 2006); Mie Augier and Sean F. X. Barrett, “Learning for Seapower: Cognitive Skills for the Post-Industrial Era,” Marine Corps Gazette 104, no. 11 (Nov. 2020): 25-31; Commanding General, Training and Education Command to Distribution List, “TECOM Commander’s Guidance,” July 18, 2018.

[8] Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346. 

[9] Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1929), 98.

[10] Herb Simon, for example, notes, “Problem formulating is itself a problem solving task.” Herbert A. Simon, Problem Formulation and Alternative Generation in the Decision Making Process, Technical Report AIP 43, (Arlington, VA: Office of Naval Research, 1988), 7. Unfortunately, we are prone to rush to identify solutions rather than taking the time to understand a given problem. Active open-mindedness entails treating forecasts as hypotheses we actively seek to disprove. 

[11] Herbert A. Simon, “Problem Solving and Education,” in Issues in Teaching and Research, eds. D. T. Tuma and F. Reif (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1980), 87.

[12] Ian Leslie, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 98.

[13] Leslie differentiates between diversive and epistemic curiosity. He defines diversive curiosity as an “attraction to everything novel” and epistemic curiosity as a “deeper, more disciplined, and effort type of curiosity.” He also differentiates between puzzles (e.g., how many or where questions) and mysteries (e.g., how or why). We tend to be attracted to puzzles, since they can be definitively answered, whereas mysteries are more complex and intractable. Finding the key piece of information that enables us to solve a puzzle quenches our curiosity, but curiosity inspired by mysteries is deeper and longer lived. Leslie, xx, 47-49.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine Van Doren (New York: Collier Books and Macmillan Publishing Company),––a4.size.pdf, 5-9.

[15] A case, for example, “provokes in the reader the need to decide what is going on, what the situation really is, or what the problems are—and what can and should be done.” Kenneth Andrews, The Case Method of Teaching Human Relations and Administration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951), 60.

[16] See, for example, Herbert A. Simon, “What We Know About Learning,” Journal of Engineering Education 87, no. 4 (Oct. 1998): 346. Simon explains, “You can do anything you like in the classroom or elsewhere—you can stand on your head—it doesn’t make a whit of difference unless it causes a change in behavior of your students. Learning takes place in the minds of students and nowhere else, and the effectiveness of teachers lies in what they can induce students to do.”

[17] Emma Gregory, et al., “Building Creative Thinking in the Classroom: From Research to Practice,” International Journal of Educational Research 62 (2013): 43-50.

[18] Commanding General (CG), Training and Education Command to CG, Training Command; CG, Education Command; CG, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island; CG, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego; CG, Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, “Training and Education Command Authority to Experiment With New Learning Practices Policy,” August 26, 2019. 

[19] For example, school accreditation requirements limit options available for implementing changes in PME institutions, and quotas at MOS training schools exacerbate an excessively short-term focus on producing the required number of graduates—even potentially at the expense of their long-term development. Epstein notes that excessive hint-giving (the proverbial “foot stompers”) may help a student pass a test but at the expense of long-term progress. See David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 85-90.

Featured Image: U.S. Marine Corps infantry squad leaders assigned to School of Infantry West, Detachment Hawaii, move to their next position during the Advanced Infantry Course (AIC) aboard Kahuku Training Area, Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Optimizing the Warfighter’s Intellectual Capacity: The ROI of Military Education and Research

By Dr. Johnathan Mun

Gray Hulls and Gray Matter

Technology alone is not a capability. It requires people with the know-how to use it. At a time when great power competition is accelerating access to new technologies that can be employed by able minds to gain an advantage, the U.S. Navy is cutting its higher education funding in favor of platforms. The Fiscal Year 2022 budget request released on May 28, 2021, which includes cuts to the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), and U.S. Naval War College (NWC) by 20%, down from $615M to $498M—pennies in the big scheme of defense budgets, but a high opportunity cost.1 

This article attempts to shed some light on the value propositions and return on investment (ROI) of military education and research. Education and research are inextricably linked in that both aspects contribute to the value add of the warfighter of the future. The intangible value of military education is significant in developing skills in leadership; critical, creative, and strategic thinking; and quick tactical decision-making for junior and senior officers. In particular, as opposed to civilian universities, a military-oriented curriculum taught by faculty members with military-based academic and research backgrounds or special military knowledge allows the transfer of institutional knowledge and expertise to the students, as well as the development of deep intellectual capital in our defense-focused faculty. Strategic, tactical, and innovative changes and challenges in the future will require the continuous education of the joint forces to maintain a competitive advantage over our current and future adversaries.

The value of education and research has always been a simple concept to understand but one that is fairly difficult to measure. Generally, higher education adds significant value to the individual, both in terms of future economic returns through better and higher-paying jobs and in terms of incalculable and intangible values such as the deepening of one’s knowledge and perspective and the enrichment of one’s experience of the world. The literature is filled with descriptions of qualitative social benefits of higher education.2 The cost is relatively easy to calculate (particularly for parents of private school and college students). Contact the local private colleges’ admissions or financial aid departments for a good wake-up call. However, the complete ROI for education is difficult to quantify economically and mathematically. And determining the value of highly specialized education such as military graduate education and research makes the value problem even more complex.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) sends many of its mid-level officers (mostly O-2 to O-4 levels) to graduate programs to obtain graduate and advanced degrees or technical skills and nontechnical competencies that are highly valued in their respective billets. Sending a military officer to a 1.5–2-year graduate program costs upwards of $250,000 plus the opportunity cost of lost services. A doctoral program costs upwards of $500,000 per officer, plus their respective soft opportunity costs for being away for 3–4 years. The question is whether the benefits of such education are indeed more significant than the cost incurred by the DOD.

The U.S. Navy invests over $3.3B across the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) at NPS, NWC, and civilian schools.3 In the past, the ROI in sending officers to such in-residence on-campus education programs has been measured, to some degree, by retention or years of service beyond the education and requisite years of payback service. The assumption is that these officers will apply the knowledge and skills learned in their respective billets or positions. Retaining our warfighting top talent and broadening their skill sets with the strategic and critical thinking attributes honed by these educational and research programs help build an officer corps that would be more capable of executing the DOD’s strategy and enhancing American national security posture. The future demands leaders who possess both the knowledge and the moral capacity to decide and act, and education is the key.4 A 21st-century education for U.S. military forces is vital to national security.

This current article is a short executive summary of the detailed technical research sponsored by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) Naval Research Program by the author, which looked at various novel ways (stochastic forecasting, artificial intelligence and machine learning, data science analytics, and advanced simulation analytics) to value the monetary ROI of military education and research activities.5 Although the intangible and qualitative aspects of military education are significant, our research focused on the more quantitative measure of ROI.

What’s the State of the Art?

In considering the importance of education and its associated costs, previous research indicated that the overall benefits and ROI to the Navy from graduate education could be measured, given certain assumptions.6 The report analyzes the political landscape, military policies, and guidance on education and continues with a highly simplistic set of assumptions to generate said ROI. This indicates that even detailed studies fall short of determining an adequately robust ROI measure for military education. Such previous research reinforces the fact that ROI determination in military education and research is not an easy undertaking. Therefore, our research did not evaluate the efficacy of the political status or policy deliberations but focused on a singular goal: determining a set of potentially viable methodologies and techniques from which a robust ROI for military education and research can be triangulated and ultimately determined. 

Challenges in Computing ROI in Military Education and Research

A decision maker’s primary responsibility is how to decide which investment alternatives provide the greatest return with the least risk of loss. In civilian organizations, numerous methods and models assist with these decisions. But in military and government agencies, these methods often fall short because typical governmental and military investments do not provide for a monetary return.7 In other words, the government is not in the business of selling goods and services. Instead, it provides intangible returns such as national defense, public safety, goodwill, and other public goods that are difficult, but not impossible, to quantify.8 Scholarly research into assessing the ROI of complete military education and research is lacking or, at least at the time of writing, insufficient and unsatisfying. 

The DOD sends its officers to graduate-level institutions each year to obtain advanced degrees primarily to fill positions in their services whose duties require the knowledge and skills gained in graduate school. Furthermore, the benefits of a graduate education extend beyond the specific assignment for which the officer was educated, applying to subsequent assignments. For fully funded education, the service must pay not only the cost of the education but also the pay and allowances associated with an officer’s billet allocated for education as well as assume the opportunity cost of the missing officer’s services, and that same officer will also have to forgo any experience that might have been gained while he or she is in school. Evaluating the quantitative effects of a graduate education poses multiple challenges. DOD educational policy suggests broader, more extensive use of graduate education than simply filling billets that have been determined to require it.9 The question, therefore, is whether the benefit gained from a graduate military education is worth the cost. 

Several past studies of individuals with privately funded education such as an MBA or other technical master’s degree show that they earn an average rate of return of at least 46% more than a bachelor’s degree in a 2008 study… and the ROI ranges between 27% to 36% for an MBA.10 However, applying a similar methodology would not work well within the DOD because the U.S. military’s human resource environment is such that it is a closed internal and hierarchical structure. For instance, an officer’s pay is based on his or her rank and years of service, regardless of educational background. It can be argued that higher education may result in higher efficiency and productivity, thereby increasing the speed of promotions, but these are relatively difficult to quantify. An alternate approach might be to consider the years of service beyond the time the education was received. This amounts to the value of retention: how much the military can save in costs by having a higher retention and reutilization rate than by having to educate a new officer to replace a billet due to attrition. Nonetheless, using comparables, traditional financial metrics can be applied to determine the ROI of education and research. 

Research Methodology

In our research, multiple technical approaches were applied. More traditional ROI methods such as knowledge utilization, frequency and impact of knowledge used, statistical significance comparisons between the less and more educated cohorts’ productivity and output, as well as the economics of a person’s working life were computed. These were also combined with more advanced analytics such as Integrated Risk Management techniques where Monte Carlo simulations and stochastic forecasting were applied to determine the uncertainty of knowledge gained and used, the lifetime economics of the graduate, combined with data science and pattern recognition with artificial intelligence and machine learning methods. Models like multivariate autoregressive unequal variance heteroskedastic general linear models were applied.11 We applied said analytics to determine the ROI of NPS and NPS-based Acquisition Research Program (ARP), a program established in 2003 that delivers warfighter-focused research that informs and improves acquisition policy and practice.12 

In addition, intangible and intrinsic value exists in military education and research but cannot be readily quantified in any standard ROI calculations. In nonmilitary college education in the private sector, higher education brings with it various intangible value-add (e.g., diversification and innovation of the economy, increased wages, and lowered crime rate). However, the intangible value of military education is different. The military is a closed vertical society. A survey of past naval students at NPS, NWC, and USNA indicated that approximately 96% agreed that formal education was extremely useful or very useful in their naval careers. The study found that military personnel have more positive perceptions of their institutions than civilian personnel. Our research results support this point of view. 

Key Conclusions

In the research performed, the ROI for military-based research has significant qualitative intangible worth and quantitative economic ROI using secondary data. The ROI ranged from 240%–600% for various military research programs. For example, using standard industry best practices and a specific case study, we concluded that the average conservative ROI for the ARP to be approximately 304%. In the analysis of the ROI of the NPS education programs, we found that from the point of view of the DOD, for every dollar invested in NPS education, the benefits return anywhere between 5.7 and 7.7 times the investment, which represents expected ROIs between 469% and 673%. These ROI values are minuscule compared to the holistic, intangible, and qualitative value of a military graduate university to the DOD. The global average for DOD education and research, on average, provides the government an ROI of approximately 485%. This is a favorable ratio rarely achieved in most DOD programs. Follow-on research can, of course, be applied to further calibrate the analytical models.

The basic fighting unit in the U.S. Navy is more than a ship’s hull, weapons, and systems, it is the Sailors that crew and fight the ship. Training only prepares the warfighter to deal with the known factors of conflict at sea (e.g., the importance of good seamanship), but education prepares warfighters to deal with the unknown factors (e.g., effective decision-making in risk-fraught rapidly changing circumstances). Well-educated warfighters create significant value-add and make up lethal and effective combat-ready units for the future.13

To echo the words of retired Admiral Henry Mauz (former Commander of U.S. Atlantic Fleet, U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Naval Forces Central Command), “My NPS education did more for my career than all of my other degrees combined. It taught me how to make the hard decisions under time pressure with insufficient information using the analytical decision-making I learned here.”14

To conclude, we feel that the goal of the research in creating actionable intelligence for decision makers using an objective, valid, and defensible quantitative measure of a subjective value was achieved. Institutions like NPS should be valued as capabilities to optimize, not costs to minimize, and it deserves further attention from senior leadership on how the DOD can leverage NPS, NWC, and USNA for their comparative and competitive advantages.

Dr. Johnathan Mun is a specialist in advanced decision analytics, quantitative risk modeling, strategic flexibility real options, predictive modeling, and portfolio optimization. He is currently a Professor of Research at the Naval Postgraduate School. By the numbers, he has authored 32 books; holds 22 patents and patents pending; created 12 software applications in advanced decision analytics; and has written over a hundred technical notes, journal articles, and white papers. He is currently the CEO of Real Options Valuation, Inc., and his prior positions include vice president of Analytics at Oracle/Crystal Ball and a senior manager at KPMG Consulting. Dr. Mun holds a PhD in Finance and Economics from Lehigh University, an MBA and MS from Nova Southeastern University, and a BS in Physics and Biology from the University of Miami. He is also a chartered holder of the CQRM (Certified in Quantitative Risk Management), FRM (Certified in Financial Risk Management), CRA (Certified Risk Analyst), and others. 

Acknowledgment: The author would like to thank RADM James B. Greene (USN, Retired) for his invaluable insight and inputs. RADM Greene was a surface warfare officer during his Navy career and was the founding Chair of the Acquisition Research Program at Naval Postgraduate School.


[1] Navy Times. Website accessed at

[2] Additionally, a cursory search on the Internet reveals that education correlates with lower crime rates, a better quality of life, and higher participation in volunteer work, and, therefore, creates intellectual and economic value to society. Some studies may also tell you that it can lead to longer lifespans.

[3] The Naval Postgraduate School is located in Monterey, California, and the U.S. Naval War College is located in Newport, Rhode Island. Department of the Navy (2018, December). Education for Seapower E4S Report. Website accessed at

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mun, J. (2020). Return on Investment in Naval Education and Research. OPNAV Naval Research Program. Website accessed at

[6] Kamarck, K. N., Thie, H. J., Adelson, M., & Krull, H. (2010). Evaluating Navy’s funded graduate education program. A return-on-investment framework. Santa Monica, California: RAND National Defense Research Institute.

[7] Mun, J. (2016). Real Options Analysis (Third Edition). Dublin, CA: Thomson-Shore and ROV Press.

[8] Oswalt, I., Cooley, T., Waite, W., Waite, E., Gordon, S., Severinghaus, R., & Lightner, G. (2011). Calculating return on investment for US Department of Defense modeling and simulation. Defense Acquisition University, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Retrieved from

[9] Kamarck et al. (2010).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mun, J. (2021). Quantitative Research Methods (Second Edition). Dublin, CA: ROV Press.

[12] ARP research connects military and civilian acquisition professionals, policymakers in DoD and Congress, industry, and acquisition researchers from a range of federal and independent institutions. At NPS, ARP supports 60–80 graduate student research projects each year. See: 

[13] U.S. Marine Corps, Learning (MCDP7). Website accessed at

[14] Website accessed at 

Featured Image: 364 Naval Postgraduate Students graduate in a June 2021 ceremony. (Photo via Naval Postgraduate School)