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)

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