Thirty years ago last Summer, I left school. Looking back, the young Barney headed into the world with a superfluity of arrogance, a fistful of A Levels, and an almost complete lack of common sense; the truth is, if I met him I’m not sure I’d like him much. At school, I was a dreadfully conservative teenager, more at home in the 1950s than the 1980s, in love with books, Rugby, and several of my lovely classmates! This conservatism manifested itself, in academic terms at least, as an enthusiasm for coaching rather than learning. I saw success in the wider world as a process of collecting, and the things I most like to collect were qualifications. In collecting certificates, I preferred to be shown how to pass an exam rather than understanding the subject I was studying. It was only when I began my Masters that I realised that while coaching could extract a decent pass, learning and understanding were essential for excellence.
A couple of days ago, I was privileged to meet Dr Peter Johnston, the Head of Collections, Research, and Academic Access at the National Army Museum, and whilst there enjoyed a tour of that fantastic institution. Before the tour, we discussed some of the learning opportunities the Museum is scoping for serving personnel, and the service the Museum currently provides to the British Army, Regular and Reserve. Chief among the opportunities, I think, is the offer to units of free consultation, tailored tours, and study facilities for Study Days. Units that visit the Museum don’t simply get to wander around a museum studying a chronology of Army history, they are guided thematically and, if they use the museum’s free services, can be guided to look at how the Army dealt with the problems of the past, many of which rhyme with the problems of today. An example which Peter pointed out was cultural awareness; the British Army has a rich history of learning to understand other cultures in pursuit of its mission and the Museum can demonstrate our predecessors solutions through artefacts and explain the importance of cultural understanding. There is no exam, no certificate, this is a learning opportunity and it is free.
In today’s Army we are perhaps programmed to expect certification, to be spoon-fed learning, and to believe that learning experiences are costly. Last Summer, I helped to plan and deliver a Battlefield Study for Educational and Training Services (South) delivered at virtually no cost in Hampshire and Berkshire. The cost to attendees was nothing but their time and in return they got to extract lessons for today from the Battle of Cheriton and the Second Battle of Newbury. The point of this? Quality professional military education need not be either expensive, overseas, or bottle-fed. The attendees did much of the learning for themselves and my role was merely to explain concepts and orientate the group in the 1644 landscape. No one was being coached for exam success, everyone was learning. This is also the key strength of the War Talks programme, it is broad-based, does not aim to deliver certification, and is completely free. In the last two years we have delivered almost thirty talks, all have which have been free, on subjects as wide-ranging as leadership, encountering children in twenty-first century warfare, and the threat represented by Putin’s Russia to name but few.
The benefit of these sorts of informal professional military education would have been lost on the young Barney; there was no exam, no qualification, and no medal. The NAM offer, the battlefield study, the War Talks programme, and the increasing number of other PME opportunities offer learning, not coaching to pass an exam. If you want to encourage excellence in learning and understanding in your unit, don’t worry about the cost or the lack of a certificate, think about doing it for free. The best things in life are free.
All the very best,
P.S Get your Units to the National Army Museum, and tell Peter I said Hello!!