How do you prepare for an experience no one’s ever had? How do you train a whole team to tackle the unprecedented, let alone describe it, without relying on history? We often hear the purpose of education isn’t to produce checklist-savvy drones but “critical thinkers” with the power to solve yet-to-be-determined problems. On economist Steve Levitt’s People I (Mostly) Admire, neuroscientist and actress Mayim Bialik ascribed her election of homeschooling to the need for building “thinkers” instead of “regurgitators.” As a parent and teacher, I cite her premise often–preparing my children for adulthood relies more on enabling them to face the unknown than presenting facts and figures to repeat later. I’d rather they know how to research and solve novel problems, independently and with a team, than how to follow a procedure. As a nuclear operator, I don’t have the luxury of combat experience. The only nuclear weapons expended in combat were used by the United States against the Japanese in 1945; neither resembled the weapons we deploy today. The world isn’t the same as it was in the mid-20th century. So preparing to employ a system we haven’t had to use was (and is) the conundrum facing today’s operators–and a broader problem foremost in my mind as I think about Scott Young’s Ultralearning.
Scott Young is a writer who began his own “ultralearning” journey in 2012 with the “MIT Challenge.” Looking for ways to up his programming game, he took on MIT’s undergraduate computer science curriculum using the school’s OpenCourseWare platform. A leader in massive open online courses (MOOC), MIT offers a vast amount of video, study notes, and exam materials for students who cannot access the university by traditional means. In theory, you could devote four years of your personal time and pursue a degree–in content, if not in name–alongside MIT undergraduates. But Young wasn’t interested in burning so much time. So he completed the same feat in 12 months. Dispensing with general education and other elective classes, he started with the mathematical prerequisites and progressed at blazing speed through advanced programming, grading himself throughout. He finished as a proficient computer programmer but with none of the paperwork (i.e. diploma) to show for it. The story begets important questions about how we structure the education system and value credentials, both of which I will address in the future; neither of which are the subject of this post. What I’m interested in right now is how the lessons Young delivers from his and other ultralearner experiences can help leaders and their teams devise training programs that are at the same time efficient and highly effective in building “thinkers.”
“Read a step, do a step, eat a banana.” Wait, what? “You know, we’re missile monkeys.” Oh. This was my introduction to nuclear missile operations. Descended from the Cold War era’s Strategic Air Command, the Air Force’s senior echelon responsible for our community in the 2000s maintained a system that discouraged independent thinking, opting instead to condition operators as masters of “checklist discipline.” The unfortunate animal reference was meant to evoke images of simple minds following simple procedures literally, one step at a time, without deviation. Such devotion to proceduralism at the expense of intellectual curiosity took a toll on a the hundreds of young officers who otherwise put their uniforms on ready to think and lead creatively. As a student operator, I was paired with another student who shared my desire to do the job and know everything I could about the system. When faced with an unsatisfactory technical explanation, he and I both pressed our instructor and admitted we didn’t understand the concept. Her only response: “Don’t worry about it, you don’t need to know any more than that. Just follow the checklist.” The exchange was bad enough, yet was followed by a more stern warning from our primary instructor and class advisor that warned us about the perils of “not working well with others.” My partner and I were doomed in the career field if we kept asking questions. The units weren’t much better, subjecting operators to three monthly tests each 20-30 questions in length. All were multiple choice, designed to trick or trap, and together comprised almost 100% of your worth as an operator, officer, and ‘leader.’ The only incentive to study was to avoid one-on-one meetings with lieutenant colonels and colonels conditioned more by fear than inspiration (with some notable exceptions). There was no collective effort to learn more or be better. Those individuals who sought knowledge and more refined skills were the oddballs, scattered sets of bright eyes in a sea of hanging heads.
In a two-part article talking about vision, I described the opportunity our nuclear missile community had to remake its culture. Building new teams and programs was hard enough. But for those structures to survive, and succeed, we had to empower individual operators. We had to enable each one to own their development, their approach to learning and doing, their future. But how could we push operators to take control in a world where for so long we’d been told what to do and not to do and shown ‘the only way’ with little to no reflection?
As Young recounts several examples of ultralearning projects, he reminds readers that the “self-directed nature … shouldn’t convince you that learning is best done as an entirely solitary pursuit.” In every case he cites, the learner serves as teacher and student but is rarely alone in their quest. Language learners rely on native speakers to practice conversations and test their vocabularies. Performing artists and speakers seek new, varying audiences to test their material. Some may undertake parts of their ‘curriculum’ unbothered by others. But ultimately these people accomplish such audacious goals so they can better interact with others. Or work with a new team. Or build on a new idea. The apparent choice between the crowded classroom or one-person screen is a false dichotomy. What matters is how well the learner is engaged–why are they learning and what will they do with it after? The next question, which Young takes for granted, is whether they have the freedom to tailor the material to their own styles, pace, and personal circumstances? These are the questions formal education and corporate training usually miss. We aim to build programs for the “lowest common denominator” that we can execute with minimal effort and in the shortest amount of time. The result is a large pool of people exposed to some amount of information with sub-par retention and investment.
In the missile units, this was our reality for a long time. Our monthly academic sessions repeated slideshows year after year. In December, for instance, we always reviewed X, Y, and Z. So in December the next year, we’d talk about the same X, Y, and Z. Using the same PowerPoint slides. To break permanently from this pattern would take more than shifting slide-building responsibilities. We had to include a self-directed element to the program. When you hand the keys to each trainee or student, you meet each person where they are, not where you expect them to be. Ceding control also drives individual investment in the results, meaning everyone wants to succeed because it benefits themselves as much as the larger team.
Among the principles we harped on was the “crew commander-as-instructor.” In a two-person missile crew, the senior operator is responsible for everything that happens–similar to airline captains who are the pilots-in-command responsible for everyone and everything on their flight. We were explicit with our crew commanders: ‘you are your crew’s primary instructor and responsible for both your and your deputy’s (‘co-pilot’) training and performance.’ This our crews worked with instructors to build training events tailored to each operator’s needs. This was self-directed learning, supported by a team who ran the hardware and software behind the scenes. Our instructors knew how to use the simulator and could meet a crew’s requests with the benefit of historical performance data so they also knew where each operator needed work. The relationship was personality-driven in some ways, relying on both parties to invest in open communication and some compromise. But of all the expertise and motivation our instructors had, deferring to the crew commander was paramount. And had to be.
Driving self-directed learning where none had existed before is a hard task. Many who wished to lead and serve embraced the role and took on the challenge. Some scoffed at it, resisting in favor of the ‘traditional’ method where little work was needed to survive the job. As all of the ultralearners Young profiles figure out, not taking ownership of your educational journey dooms you to failure. Those who opted to lean back and “receive only” suffered in comparison to their peers who advanced their knowledge and skills at every opportunity, relished the chance to teach others, and jumped on the chance to take on difficult assignments. Putting the onus on the trainee, employee, team member creates stress and new pressures. Instructors felt it too, handling every crew commander’s unique response to new responsibilities and what they perceived as inconsistent expectations. This is why feedback is key and must be a two-way street. Some of our job titles had the word “instructor,” others didn’t. But that didn’t give us the right to run over someone else’s question, or request, or input. The value of training starts and finishes with the trainee. A trainee who sees an instructor invested in them is much more likely to take full ownership and push themselves forward. Learning is a two-way street, too. And the road never ends.