FORT BLISS, Texas. -- In January, Training and Doctrine Command released the U.S. Army Learning Concept for 2015. It established a learner-centric education model that "blurs the lines" between operational assignments and military schooling while emphasizing a life-long learning continuum.

This new learning concept was further refined by the School of Advanced Leadership and Tactics (SALT) at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with the development of the Mid-Grade Learning Continuum for 2015 concept, which covers the continuum of learning from first lieutenant through promotable captains.

According to the CGSC website, SALT's mission is "to provide officer continuing education towards developing the Scholar-Warrior-Leader for mid-grade leaders from first lieutenant to selection for major. The result is mastery of branch-specific technical and tactical skills, staff processes in battalions and brigades, direct leadership and command competencies, and initial broadening opportunities."

TRADOC plans to revamp mid-grade officer education over the next four years by bringing classroom education for captains to their home station.

TRADOC school houses have dispatched instructors to Fort Bliss, home of the 1st Armored Division, for the Captains Career Course -- Common Core Proof of Principle.

"We're excited to have the proof of principle at Fort Bliss," said Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss commanding general. "Our officers from divisional, training and medical units have an opportunity to receive first-class education during the day and return to their homes at night."

This brand-new, eight-week course is designed to teach captains leadership, critical thinking, and competencies they will need for company command and battalion or brigade staff positions. Students are placed in a "Temporary Duty for Education" status; they are freed from all duties at their parent unit for the duration of the course. A unique aspect of the course is the only six hours of in-class "contact" time. Two hours from the traditional eight-hour class day are reserved for the students to allow time for their reflection, reading and writing.

SGLs: the key to quality instruction

In 2010, TRADOC and the Combined Arms Center commanding generals directed a study of the 15 different Captains Career Courses to assess the performance of the schools as the Army was decisively engaged in multiple contingency operations.

According to the Report of Findings and Recommendations 2010 U.S. Army Captains Career Course Study, one of the tenets for a successful CCC is high-quality small-group leaders, or SGLs, who are the "best and brightest" of the Officer Corps.

Been there, done that.

That cliché describes the professional background of the SGLs for the Captains Career Course -- Common Core Proof of Principle at Fort Bliss. Their students benefit.

The nine officers -- majors and senior captains -- who facilitate leader-centric discussion at the Fort Bliss Common Core PoP collectively have 128 years of military experience including 24 years of command and key development positions.

The Common Core phase of the Captains Career Course is a multi-branch, small-group seminar designed to stimulate students to internalize their experiences and learn in a peer-to-peer, adult-learning environment. This education is based on military doctrine and relies on small-group leaders to guide discussion and add relevance to each student's typical four to five years of service.

"The Army assigns Captains Career Course small-group leaders based on their exceptional performance in leadership positions, combat experiences and communications skills. These assignments are competitive and challenging; we recognize the critical importance of sending our best officers to prepare junior captains for company command and key staff positions," said Col. Robert Doerer, director, Officer Personnel Management Directorate, U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

The SGLs at Fort Bliss average three deployments per officer, including hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Pakistan. All have deployed in key development positions.

The SGLs must be certified before teaching in the classroom. First, the SGLs are taught how to facilitate in an adult learning environment at their branch schools in accordance with TRADOC directives. All the Common Core PoP instructors received an additional two weeks of certification on the new curriculum at Fort Leavenworth. Finally, they spent a week at Fort Bliss refining lesson plans before the course start date.

Many field-grade officers, commissioned prior to the mid-1990s, will recall their first institutional training with mixed branches was during the Combined Arms Staff Services School conducted over six weeks at Fort Leavenworth.

The CCC Common Core conducted at Regional Learning Centers -- located at U.S. Army Forces Command and overseas locations -- brings new opportunities for professional bonds and shared-growth by including students from all branches. The 25 students at the Fort Bliss Common Core PoP represent 16 branches and functional areas. Students will attend branch-specific schools within 120 days of completing the Common Core.

The instructors also benefit from the cross-branch collaboration.

"I've improved my ability to facilitate discussion by watching small-group leaders from the other Captains Career Courses," said Capt. Marlow Taylor, an SGL from the Military Intelligence School. "We share our best practices from each branch school and are able to feed off each other's style. Iron sharpens iron."

A new facet of the Common Core PoP is halving the load of students from a typical 16-to-1 student/instructor ratio by placing two SGLs per small group. During periods of "contact" learning, the primary instructor teaches while the assistant instructor watches the students, records observations and chimes in as necessary.

"We get greater continuity of instruction by splitting classroom time," said Maj. Sean Keefe, an aviation officer from Fort Rucker, Ala. "This small-group sharing model allows me more time to prepare for class, evaluate students and give them the best educational experience possible."
In addition to CCC mandatory training directives from Army Regulation 350-1, students are challenged to read and discuss current events and military affairs articles.

The current crop of SGLs is grounded in doctrinal understanding and operational experiences. Both are required to bring students beyond simple understanding to the application and analysis levels of adult learning.

"One of the major goals in the Mid-Grade Learning Continuum is to develop the critical thinking and communications skills of our captains," said Col. William Raymond, director of SALT.

The SGLs facilitate learning using the Experiential Learning Model, specifically designed to build upon students' prior education, training and experience. PowerPoint as a learning tool is dramatically reduced. Primary methods of instruction include whiteboard exercises, instructor-facilitated student discussion and the use of Decisive Action Brigade Level, Crucible of Command, and other computer-based battlefield visualization tools enable students to "fight" their plans on the Common Teaching Scenario based in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey or "GAAT." Because they represent multiple branches, the SGLs are able to provide pointed feedback on how the students integrated maneuver, fires, sustainment and other warfighting functions during after-action reviews.

"The Maneuver Center sent me to the Joint Firepower Course as part of my continual education. What I learned there and other schools helped me round out my own knowledge to increase my capabilities as an instructor," said Capt. Cory Roberts, an infantry officer assigned as tactics instructor for the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Beginning in spring 2012, TRADOC may conduct pilots at Fort Bliss and other proposed Regional Learning Centers including forts Bragg, Campbell, Hood and Lewis.

"I feel more well-rounded as a facilitator, having gained a greater perspective from the maneuver branches' approach and techniques for facilitating the same material," said Capt. Jennifer Ernest, a logistics officer from the Sustainment Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, Va. "I would encourage other SGLs to take the opportunity to participate in the upcoming pilots that will follow this proof of principle."

Instructors who participated in the first Common Core PoP will provide input to course analysis and curriculum revision in the months ahead.

"There is no substitute for a quality instructor," said Raymond. "All the classroom technology, doctrinal manuals and theories are nearly worthless without a passionate and experienced officer to develop our captains."