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Interactive leadership course graduates first class

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
The Mathies NCO Academy graduated the first-ever class of technical sergeants through the four-week Intermediate Leadership Experience course here Oct. 23.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody was the guest speaker for the 34-student graduation, which comprised students from all over the U.S. Air Force.

After months of collaborative preparation between the Mathies NCOA leadership and course developers at the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Alabama, the ILE professional military education course has been constructed to teach leadership and management techniques in a completely new way.

"This isn't the structured, instructional style of development that students are used to," said Master Sgt. Douglas Schmidt, Barnes Center instructional systems designer. "This new course is going to challenge them to step outside of their comfort zones and be more conative, more active - not only in correcting - but in improving themselves and their work centers willingly.

"No more passive leadership. We require more active mid-level leadership."

That is what conative means; it is the natural tendency toward direct action. The goal of the new training is to instill adaptive leadership skills as an ingrained reflex in U.S. Air Force middle management.

The ILE course was spawned for a different style of education.

"One of the major changes and focuses of this education is not just knowing the principles, but acting on those principles when it's the time to act," said Bonnie Houser, Barnes Center director of education.

The informational knowledge for the course will be done through an online distance-learning platform, the Course 15. It supplies technical sergeants with the terms, concepts and tools they will exercise during their time in the ILE course at the NCO Academy.

Students will still receive assignments, write essays and give presentations during the in-resident course at the NCO Academy, but more emphasis is placed on discussion and reflection.

"No longer do students have to worry about passing a test," said Tech. Sgt. Thomas Bebin, Mathies NCOA instructor. "The course focuses on how they work together as a team and how they use experiences they share to accomplish a task."

Instructors have to inspire classroom discussion and guide group problem solving, but knowing the terminology and concepts of the course is the responsibility of the students.

The students of the first course agreed that doing away with testing allowed them to truly focus on learning through discussion.

"It's not about getting out with a 90 percent," said Tech. Sgt. Ernest Coleman, 362nd Recruiting Squadron, March Air Reserve Base, California, and recent graduate of the ILE course. "You're not there to haggle over grades; it's not about passing. It's about leaving as a better person and learning from everyone else."

Reflection is as much a part of ILE learning as cooperation.

The core of the curriculum is designed to boost self-awareness as well as equip students with the correct tools to lead, said Alisha Webster, Barnes Center ISD.

"Our mid-level leaders are sitting in what some call a pressure cooker," said Schmidt. "It's pressure from all sides: their subordinates, their superiors and their peers rely on them in a whole new dimension. So, they need to be adaptable, resilient and critical thinkers."

Although the course puts emphasis on critical thinking more than right and wrong answers, the students urged incoming technical sergeants to remember their Course 15. The 4-week NCO Academy course is dedicated to applying the information learned from Course 15 material.

The ILE course came to be for a variety of reasons.

The course saves money; it saves time; it teaches more efficiently; and it teaches communication in line with the new Airman Comprehensive Assessment performance feedback tool released in July.

"We are redefining success," said Schmidt. "We are doing that through a more participative effort in the classroom, with the use of effective feedback and the willingness to accept feedback."

The adoption of newer educational technologies has made these innovations possible.

By facilitating Course 15 materials through Blackboard, the online resource used by civilian higher education, all coursework has been digitized. Classrooms are truly paperless. Plus, the technology allows for quick updates to the course and the curriculum, said Master Sgt. Rebecca Sargent, Mathies NCOA ILE lead.

"Blackboard adds a more interactive distance learning experience, and it saves on printing costs," said Lenz.

The Air Force will save money and time by shortening the length of the temporary duty assignments to the academy from six weeks to four. The course enables NCOs to receive PME while also returning them quickly to their organizations to apply what they learned and continue their mission.

None of these savings detract from the intention of the new higher-learning experience. It allows the in-resident part of the course to be immersive and more personal, said Schmidt.

The course is really more of a learning retreat than a class.

"In today's environment where people are constantly deploying and going into different work centers, we need to be comfortable working with different groups and learning team dynamics, team roles, learning how to work past your differences and trying to get a common goal," said Coleman.

The ILE course made its first home at Keesler.

"Keesler was selected for many reasons," said Schmidt. "The Keesler team, through past experience, has shown proactivity above reproach and a camaraderie that is hard to match."

The Barnes Center team has worked with the Mathies NCO Academy throughout the course preparation and had been at work for almost a year before that.

John Wilson and Marvin Williams, the ILE project leads, were responsible for the design and development of the course over the past 18 months, said Houser.

During the five months since Keesler's selection to host, the Barnes and Mathies teams have had weekly teleconferences to review the course and its edits.

"They kept us in the know as if we were in the Barnes Center working with them on the process," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert Nolen, Mathies NCOA commandant.

"When curriculum developers conceptualize and put something together, and then see it play out, it's important to take feedback and tweak the course to make it more effective."

A lot of back and forth editing happened during the preparation prior to the course beginning, and 14 members of the Barnes Center development team came to Keesler to train instructors before the course began Sept. 30.

There are five NCO Academies under the Barnes Center: Lackland AFB, Texas; Sheppard AFB, Texas; Tyndal AFB, Florida; Peterson AFB, Colorado, and Keesler.

Eventually, ILE will make its way to other NCO Academies, said Houser.

The second class of ILE technical sergeants will begin in mid-November, and the Barnes Center will keep representatives at Keesler to continue fine-tuning the course as needed.

"Because we put a lot of preparation into the transition, it has been a lot easier on the staff," said Bebin. "This course is so different; it has really been a mentality change for us all."

Professional military training in the U.S. Air Force will continue to innovate as time goes on, and the new ILE course is a step in that direction.

"It sounds like a glamorized version of what we were already doing, but it's not," said Schmidt. "It's a completely new in-resident experience for the students which targets the higher order of thinking."