Turning the Crank

Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)
Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)

I needed a vehicle for discussing military science. I wanted a game. My learners were of various ranks, responsibilities, and of different levels of English. My class was already “gamified” to the extent my trainees were used to language-learning games. The above shows how I used to teach my Operational English course before employing EMGs. At the time I was working at two expeditionary headquarters: one a for an armored brigade the other being a division joint command. For the former I used MAJ Holdridge’s excellent TacOps; the latter employed the “simple” operational warfare simulator used by CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, called Decisive Action. At brigade, I invented a low- to mid-intensity conflict very loosely based on their AO around Mitrovica, Kosovo. At division, I simply ported whatever unclassified NATO exercise CONOPs they were working on into the game engine.

Initially, neither course admitted for command decision on the part of the learners. Both were simply used as events generators to guide between two and four weeks of teaching. Learner objectives included, but were not limited to, familiarization with NATO briefing formats, US/NATO OPORD and FRAGO formats, all the associated technical lexis, improved listening comprehension, note taking, and accent reduction. On my side, all I needed was a script to feed into the game engines.

A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)
A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)

Verisimilitude and immersion count with military audiences. Both games I used come from professional military circles so more than half the battle was won. For the uninitiated, this means more than developing a basic understanding of the functions of various units, of how force may be employed on the modern battlefield but learning aspects of presentation in terms of semiology and cartography. It is a big conceptual hurdle for some students to play games in a language class, so paying attention to these touches really helps them get over it. (On top of this, I found that my overview of military operations sometimes exceeded that of some reservists and NCOs, so there was the added benefit of transmitting what one general I worked for termed “military culture”.) As a civilian trainer, you want your trainees to know they’re in good hands. And, should you make a mistake about some aspect of technical esoterica, you want the smarter people in the room to gently correct you. One hopes, at least, they are reassured that you cared enough to try to get it right.

Those of you already familiar with EMGs will note that my method is already fairly close to the way matrix games are played. That is, students invent or try to invent facts and feed them into a situation in expectation of changing that situation. The difference here is that I did not ask the students to represent separate interests. Rather, they were all playing themselves in their professional roles. Thus officers and NCOs who worked in logistics invented “logistics facts” and dealt only with problems within their specialization. This marries nicely with their actual functions, of course, and I was happy to provide an opportunity for each specialization to practice its particular argot. Working this way was satisfactory, but not dynamic. Groups of students put their situational briefings together, gave them, and asked and answered questions of the other groups. The method worked. The students turned the crank, got their briefing practice, and learned a good deal. But how to make the course deliver more than simple validation of competence? And how to reduce the overhead incurred with computer simulations?


11 May 2016: In response to an off-site query about the flowchart at the top of this post:

This represents the structure of one two-hour class given daily or twice a week for 8-20 military EFL students drawn from the various staff sections of divisional and brigade headquarters.

Beginning at the left, class usually began with a situation report (SITREP) written by the instructor summarizing the outcome of the previous course’s decision brief. The SITREP served as a platform for very structured practice of previously-taught points of grammar, the introduction of new lexis, an opportunity for paired cross-dictation.

Trainees then broke into groups or pairs according to specialization to invent facts to add to their section’s upcoming situation briefing. Discussion was in English, but the objective was to feed one or two perfect sentences into the situation brief. As this interaction was among students the instructor was free to float to groups needing guidance but also enabled him to plant new information about the situation as desired. (The goal was simply to be able to write a short brief and deliver it orally, but a note-taking aspect was added; new, unheard-of facts were thus became part of the challenge to good note taking.)

The situation briefing phase was conducted according to a formal NATO format, respecting sequence, and a rather rigid presentation style (familiarization with such formats is a major factor in non-native speakers’ comprehension). This phase was meant as guided speaking practice and to allow weaker trainees to model their briefs on more experiences and/or stronger speakers. Sometimes it was the case that a young NCO, recently graduated from high school, might be more at ease in the language than the senior officer for whom they worked. Careful attention must be paid to such pairings, as formal distance between officers and NCOs varies and must always be respected.

The decision brief was not a formal NATO decision brief but rather an occasion for open practice. The guiding question was “What should the general do?”  This question fell flat in courses where there were many junior NCOs, as there is a great deal of jeopardy in such discussions. The instructor adapted to the situation by having the class invent a fictive general from a NATO joint command of another nationality. (The instructory humbly proposed his own family name.) The goal here was at least ten minutes of unguided speaking but the instructor would let this run as long as possible.

The final phase of the class was paired or group work among trainees of the same section, who would come together to write a fragmentary order (FRAGO) carrying out the decisions of their fictive general. This was often conducted under time pressure, a common constraint in the working lives of staff officers, and gave the instructor more than enough leads for the subsequent class SITREP as well as providing him with a written check on language learned that day.

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