Saturday, August 21, 2010

Want to read a thriller on 'training'?

Want to read a complete and thrilling book about training? Try The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey. Don’t be fooled by the title as the book tells you nothing about reading, books or even the real Afghanistan. It is, nevertheless, a book worth reading, as a soldier’s story. Intensely autobiographical, it describes, in detail, his training at Sandhurst, the boredom of the Balkans and Iraq, then the terror of his time in combat, in Afghanistan.

Obsolete mentality

Officer training in the British Army is stuck in a 19th century timewarp, as is arguably its army. Hennessey is honest enough to admit, at times, that his regiment is “stuck in the obsolete mentality of the Victorian era that was our heyday, so obsessed with pageantry and protocol”. He’s smart enough to see the need for tough training, modern enough to see through the antiquated bullshit and honest enough to admit that this model is not all it’s cracked up to be. He comes to love and admire the Afghan army he has to work with, “and fuck me if they hadn’t killed more Russians than we had ever seen”. The current operational model is unworkable, frenzied British regiments arrive and do six months with the Afghan army, who have to work with group after group of fresh British troops. Who’s doing the training here?

Sandhurst “Hogwarts with Guns”

But nothing is as anachronistic as the class-driven, officer training at Sandhurst. The “factory” that is Sandhurst, has a selection procedure that borders on the corrupt, rejecting able people and accepting some who “struggled severely to learn fundamental lessons”. He's scathing about the process, although he never really addresses the apartheid of the officer/men distinction in the British Army, glossing over the obvious snobbery in many, if not most, regiments. To be fair the social mix has changed considerably, but is still, literally 'old school'.

The training itself is a massively, immersive, physical experience punctuated by classroom and (oddly) videos – Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, A Bridge Too Far. I followed an Officer Training course at Shrivenham and found it laughably formulaic, with dull lectures and a pipeline of short-term memory experiences. As he says, the British army “stubbornly refuses to look round the corner, let alone into the future” with procurement a “Dickensian mess” buying the most expensive ships we’ve ever bough and no planes to go on them, and fighter jets that were obsolete before they were built.

Hennessey is well read and aware of the alternatives, having read The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith, Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, Michael Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence and Michael Rose’s Fighting for Peace. But he is annoyingly silent on analysis and alternatives

The Cold War framework of the course was one thing, having to polish the soles of your boots another. Then there was the huge effort put into guard duty and tourism in London. Playing Tin Soldiers and being soft-feathered in the expensive mess.

Now Hennessey is a good writer and his descriptive passages of the physical training are excellent. You feel the discomfort, hunger and pain, as well as the pedantry and pettiness. But he is ambivalent about its effectiveness, describing much of it as “irrelevant” and a “mere irritant”, “progress being made in spite of the training that was being done”. He ends this third of the book with a serious and n ominous saying, “Let no man’s ghost say, ‘I wish I had been better trained’.


Weeks of boredom, sunbathing, sit-ups, porn and still the pettiness; flip-flops and shorts were banned, even for guys coming in after 24 hour sweltering patrols. They watch more war than they fight; DVDs, PS3s, Xboxes, boxed sets watched in batches of five or more episodes at a time. It was fascinating that soldiers would play war games after coming in off patrol. Ipods are all pervasive, the sound of this war being rap rather than Nam’s rock. The surreal surroundings of the green Zone, full of steroid pumped contractors and mercenaries.


The book explodes into action as he narrates fire-fights, injuries, the madness of combat and tragically; death. Forget the sanitised BBC reports on yet another couple of ‘they look so young’ casualties in Afghanistan. This is the truth of often fruitless territorial gain through tragedy, territory that is soon lost again, all told in bloody and terrifying detail.

What’s odd in all this is the lack of reflection and analysis. He buckles under the psychological pressure of being loyal to his employer, rather than the truth. In truth, this is a book about how people are trained not to think but to do what they’re told. It’s written by what the Americans call a ‘warfighter’ describing ‘warfighting’. That’s what makes it so interesting. In a way the training works by producing people who fight, unaware of the alternatives.

One could argue that this is the whole point, as it is the politicians that need to decide on policy. On the other hand he starts by reflecting on the anachronistic nature of the training but doesn’t relate it well to the tasks at hand. To be fair he’s being true to himself and his mates, not the war. A sign that he has been indoctrinated is his use of an army of acronyms, which infiltrated everyday speech in the military. For non military readers this can be infuriating as the book has a next to useless glossary.

Other Iraq/Afghanistan books

Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs by Lewis page is a superb analysis of hopeless procurement and waste in the military. He has a go at all three services showing the top-heavy structures, wasted expenditure on headquarters, pointless frigates, artillery, aircraft and tanks.

If you want to about the ‘real’ Afghanistan, I’d recommend Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, his walk from west to east across the country in the depths of winter, experiencing the extremes of hostility and hospitality. Afghanistan, is not really a country, explains Stewart, and needs a deep cultural understanding, before parachuting in crude military or NGO solutions.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City is a depressing account of Baghdad’s green zone, where Muslims are forced to serve pork and “we have no French fries here sir, only freedom fries”. It’s a shocking description of US personnel, the majority of who had never been outside of the US before this posting (they had to get their first passport). A street-cop mentality where appointments were made on political credentials not competence.

My own favourite is Signal Catastrophe, the story of the catastrophic second Afghan war in 1842, where the British invaded, then left having been defeated by the complexities of the culture and idiotic, aristocratic leadership. This one will end in exactly the same way. Plus ca change.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

North Korea - educational holocaust

I was one protagonist in a ‘knives out’ debate at Online Educa against Aric Sigman, on whether technology harms the mind or not. What surprised me the most about Aric’s opening slide of some smiling North Korean children, was the fact that he praised the North Korean system of education for its structured approach to learning, free from the interference of technology. Oh yeah?

Nothing To Envy

Well, this year has seen the publication of ‘Nothing To Envy’ by Barbara Demick, which just happens to feature, as its main subject, a defected teacher from North Korea. It’s a harrowing but worthwhile read, showing that education is not always an intrinsic good. In countries where religious fanatics or dictators who promote religious adulation, set the educational agenda, education is the tool by which people are enslaved in mind and body. Kim Il-sung modelled himself on Stalin and the Japanese Emperor, instilling a crude form of Confuscian Communism that saw him as God and his son as the son of God.

There is a legal obligation to have a portrait of the great leader in your home, and even a law that it must be regularly cleaned, enforced by spot-checks. Indoctrination also takes place in collective farms and factories, with regular indoctrination sessions. All enforced by a network of ‘snitches’. But it is in the schools that the real mind-games are executed, with chilling efficiency.

North Korean schools

Above the blackboard, all classroom s have double portraits of the Great Leader and his son. Each school has a separate room, a shrine to the Great Leader, where children must take off their shoes to enter and speak in hushed tones. This religious devotion has been extended to his son, who demanded that another room to be built, as his shrine.

Books are rare photocopied things , barely legible and often copied by hand (by parents) if the children needed to study at home, even paper is incredibly scarce. The title of the book comes from a song that all Korean children know by heart ‘We Have Nothing to Envy in the World’. This is only true by virtue of them knowing little or nothing about the rest of the world. The country and its beliefs are a closed system, with no internet.


Kim Il-sung’s Theses on Socialist Education is the guiding manifesto, with political and ideological education at its core. Children learn by repeating key passages and phrases by heart. All other subjects are taught through propaganda related to the Great Leader. For example, in maths, “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many are singing in total?” Or the even more absurd, “Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers? One song, taught to primary school kids is called “Shoot the Yankee Bastards!


Mi-ran, the main subject of the book, trained to be a teacher but even her training was a story of horrific suffering, with students living in accommodation with no heating and little food. A curious aspect of teacher training was the compulsory need to learn the accordion, regarded by the authorities as a portable and suitably stirring instrument for collective celebration. Malnutrition was rife. In the end she defected after not being paid and seeing the terrible suffering of the children she taught, and this is all recent.


The real tragedy, as told by this teacher, was the malnourishment, starvation and deaths among the children. Over just three years enrolment in her class dropped from 50 to 15, through famine. She saw them get listless, bring no lunch because they had no food, their stomachs extend, then disappear, never to return. The system, propagated through propaganda-driven education was killing the nation and its children.

For Aric, it’s just another PowerPoint slide, for the people of North Korea it’s an engineered, educational holocaust.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gates on learning

Bill Gates has some interesting things to say about the future of education in this video. All in all, I agree with what he says, with some additions.


Gates: K12 school is designed to baby-sit kids while adults get on with their jobs/lives. So he doesn’t see much change here, apart from home schooling which is still only 3/4% of provision. In fact, success in schools seems to be on even more schooling and immersion, namely longer school days, summer catch-up.

He’s fundamentally right here, in that the system will remain intact for a long time. However, he short changes the idea that technology may allow us to get better results without simply adding to the length of the school day. The answer to poor schooling has always been more schooling – but do we really want to inflict this on children? I’d say the answer is better schooling. It is not possible to do this through better teaching, curriculum change, revolutionising the concept of homework, vocational recognition, reducing costs through technology?


Gates: Feedback, discussion, video etc make technology an increasingly sophisticated method of learning.

Absolutely, we are nowhere near realising the potential of a) what we’ve already got, b) what’s available for free, c) increasing the productivity of educational institutions through the use of technology to manage and deliver learning.


Gates: Universities/Colleges need to be less place based. A $200,000 education is too expensive, inefficient, outdated and increasingly hard to get. Only technology can get this cost down to, not $20,000 but $2000.

Too true. The tyranny of time and location plague our system and have raised the costs to unsustainable levels. There’s far too many (mostly empty) buildings, far too many 2nd and 3rd rate researchers far too many poor teachers and far too little access to good content and real critical thinking tools and opportunities.


Gates: No room for innovation in the standard system. Some experimentation but should be about 20 times as much.

This is his most profound point and the one that poses the greatest problem. The belief set, structures and funding methods mitigate AGAINST change and INNOVATION. Vice Chancellors settle, not for leadership, but maintaining the status quo. In the UK, as I was told by a retired Vice Chancellor, it’s chasing an OBE, CBE or knighthood by not rocking the boat.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Google Goggles – mind goggling application

We’re reaching a tipping point in mobile technology where the apps on your phone are better than the apps on your computer. One knockout application (killer apps are passe), and the one with massive potential in education and training, is Google Goggles. It’s a visual search tool on your phone. No more typing or voicing in your request – just point and click.

Point your camera at any object in the real world; a building, landmark, object, painting, business card, shop, food, car, plant, animal etc. Google will shoot back an identification, explanation or further details and links.

Google Goggles and learning

Let’s take this one step further. Imagine a world where, whenever you’re stuck on a problem, a tricky maths problem, balancing a chemical equation, identifying a tree from its leaves, translating an awkward word or phrase in a Shakespeare play, translating a word or phrase from another language, getting a word for an object in a foreign language, the painter of a painting. In the future this applications has the potential to provide help whenever there is something in the real or represented world that you can point to. This is the phone as performance support.

It’s a window into a future where performance support will be linked to just pointing your phone. Want to know what chess move to make – point and click. Want to know where to plant that plant you’ve just bought, how to repair that hole in your wall, set up that electronic device you’ve just bought? Point and click.

Android as teacher

The next level is not the provision of learning experiences directly related to that object. Rather than provide the direct answer or short solution, there may be a mode where you get tutored support or suggestions on how to get the right answer. The phone as a supportive teacher.

It's an application that has so many uses for both learner and teacher.

Android v Apple

Apple may have won the immediate battle but Android will win the war. Android’s an operating system not a proprietary device. It opens up the market and opportunities, not close them down. This is good for education and learning. The projections for iPhone growth are good, but for the Android they’re better. It’s that old adage about being second in a market being better. The development community is huge and code is written in Java. And with App Inventor, the Android market opens up application development to a much wider community that serious coders.


This is a related augmented reality app that provides layers of useful information over any real scene you point your phone at. Layar is useful for details about locations as well as information on nearest tube stations and so on.


I'm working on an app called Beer Goggles - you take a photo of yourself or anyone you know. It first makes them a little thinner, then younger, then more physically attractive with every new snap.