The Applied Learning of War

The hands-on approach of the U.S. Naval War College prepares students to learn faster and retain the information longer.

A stately brick building sits on the shore of a body of water.
The U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island (Kate Flock / The Hechinger Report)

NEWPORT, Rhode Island—Two massive fleets of warships stare each other down in a storm-tossed South Philippine Sea.

After being buffeted by a night-long typhoon, one is deprived of its air support and must improvise a way of using submarines to inch ahead and scout out where the other side is hiding over a vast area of 900 nautical miles.

It’s a stressful clash of strategy and patience in a potentially deadly crisis—one that, after three days of improvisation and occasionally tumultuous debate among the two command staffs, ends in stalemate.

It’s also a form of learning that research suggests is faster, more effective, and longer-lasting than hours-long monologues in crowded lecture halls or classrooms.

This engagement is being conducted not off the Philippines, but under a wall-sized map of the world at Sims Hall, a onetime barracks whose tile floor has been transformed into a giant game board for what serves as the final exam of a course at the U.S. Naval War College about the basics of fighting at sea.

The students are 13 officers from the U.S., Chilean, and other navies who have come to hone their knowledge at this little-noticed, 130-year-old campus behind a guarded security gate on an island in Narragansett Bay. The enemy? Their instructors.

The two “fleets” consist of blue and red plastic beer cups and paper plates. Each tile represents 10 square miles. The challenges—including the weather—are real and unpredictable, based on actual sea conditions.

And the provost here, a former engineering dean at Dartmouth and president of Rollins College, says variations on war games such as this one could speed up and improve the ways civilian institutions teach at a time when students are taking longer and longer to earn degrees in fields that are rapidly evolving.

A group of men walks around a large room with a giant world map on the wall. Plastic cups rest upside down on the floor around the room.
Students at the U.S. Naval War College use plastic cups to simulate a “battle” in the South Philippines Sea. (U.S. Navy)

“It’s really trying to develop a mindset that re-envisions education by action,” said Provost Lewis Duncan, whose office is behind a corridor along which hang the life-sized portraits of the college’s past presidents, resplendent in their Navy uniforms

Duncan likens education to modern-day technology, as something that needs to be constantly updated. For the last 500 years, he said, “You went to a university and got an education that was supposed to serve you for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be working for much longer. Education is becoming more like the smartphone or the laptop—not something you buy and expect to last for the next few decades. But that’s not the way we teach.”

Instead, he said, civilian universities offer lectures and courses “that we don’t remember anything from, or what we do remember could fit on a 3-by-5 index card. Was that an effective use of your time?”

A civilian himself who began in his post two years ago, Duncan has since pushed to incorporate war games, simulations, and role-playing—already long a part of the Naval War College’s curriculum, but never used as widely as they are now—into just about everything that’s taught there.

“The very best way of learning something is to do it,” he said. “This is applied learning that will stay with our students much longer than the esoteric stuff.”

At the Naval War College, which serves as a professional-development school for military officers, this includes having students play the roles of leaders of hypothetical countries contending with such hypothetical predicaments as regional tensions, refugees, and piracy.

“Those are the kinds of things that you remember,” Duncan said.

New research supports the educational value of role playing.

Lectures deliver what could be called “just-in-case” learning—knowing things that students may or may not ever need. Simulations provide what Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls “just-in-time” learning. And he said just-in-time learning, if done well, is quicker.

“With just-in-case learning, you’re going back, because you’ve forgotten so much of what you’ve gotten in lectures,” Dede said. But just-in-time gaming and simulations are “part of a larger trend toward active forms of learning as opposed to passive forms of learning.”

Physics could be hammered home by having students adjust the angle of a simulated cannon to hit an object in the distance. Some Dartmouth students, in a program called Great Issues, “solve” international problems. The Beer Game, at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is a simulation in which students handle the production, marketing, and distribution of cases of beer, winning points for meeting customer demands and losing points for backlogs or delays, as a way of understanding supply chains; this is so effective that it’s been adopted by companies worldwide as a training tool.

“You don’t really learn what’s hard about, say, running a brewery until you have to run one,” said Captain Jeff Cares, who directed the War College game in Sims Hall. “The idea is for the essence of whatever the underlying knowledge is to be played out in the game.”

It’s the military that has so far most embraced the idea of high-velocity learning—the term comes from the book The High-Velocity Edge by Steven Spear—to speed up the process of imparting information. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson has made it one of four parts of his report, “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.”

“It’s not just learning—it’s learning faster than we’re learning today, so we can solve the problems we have faster, so we can go on to the next problem,” said Vice Admiral Tom Moore, head of the Navy Sea Systems Command, which conducts sea trials for new Navy ships at a time when the delivery schedule has been accelerated.

It’s also not just happening in the Navy; the Naval War College accepts service members from all the branches. But within the military, the Navy has become the most enthusiastic advocate.

Students in civilian universities, meanwhile, are taking a longer time to complete their degree programs. It now takes an average of 3.3 years for them to earn two-year associate’s degrees and 5.1 years to finish four-year bachelor’s degrees, the National Student Clearinghouse reports. This increases costs, delays graduation, and postpones career earnings.

But Duncan said he’s equally concerned about the effectiveness of learning as he is about the pace.

A man poses for a portrait.
Lewis Duncan, the provost of the U.S. Naval War College (Kate Flock / The Hechinger Report)

“We’re in a system that was designed a century ago or more, based on the economy of that time, which was an industrial economy, so people were prepared to go out and work on an assembly line,” he said. “What you mainly needed to do was to be diligent and follow instructions. Today we have a global innovation-based knowledge economy. And the things you need to do are things like being creative and collaborating. But the inertia is still in the system from the prior model.”

Still, Dede said, games and simulations won’t help everyone.

“Potentially it’s faster, but not for all students,” he said. Some, offered the chance to learn in this way, “may well finish and develop a high level of outcomes more quickly than sitting through one-size-fits-all lectures. On the other hand, if it’s a difficult topic for you, no matter how it’s taught—whether it’s lectures, whether it’s games, and you struggle to figure it out—this can actually take longer.”

At the War College, however, it’s full steam ahead.

“The pace of change is so rapid that you have to continuously be reinventing yourself, not just by squeezing more into the years that you’re in college, but by learning how to face challenges in your everyday life so that you identify problems, you find solutions, you test them, and then you share them,” Duncan said.“It’s as if education becomes part of your everyday biorhythm.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.