Training Secrets of a Military Survival Instructor
For years, I would holler “WINDOWS, REFERENCE POINT,” at my students several times a day. Do you know why those words are important? I’ll come back to that. I used to be responsible for helping people survive helicopter crashes. In the Navy, our helicopters crashes sometime happen over water. When a helicopter hits the water, the rotor blades on top are so heavy that it immediately flips upside down and sinks.
Crashing in the water is incredibly dangerous. That’s where survival training comes in. We had a special training device with a very informal name. We called it “The Dunker.” It’s the body of a helicopter attached to a crane dangling over a pool. It’s similar to an amusement park ride. You’re strapped in and dangling there, completely blindfolded. Then… it drops. You hear the splash and feel the cold water filling up your boots and covering your legs. Then you get disoriented as you roll backwards in your seat and feel the water covering your chest. Maybe you get a good breath maybe you don’t. Finally, you’re upside down, blindfolded, underwater and your life depends on your ability get out through a window. That’s why I holler “WINDOWS, REFERENCE POINT.” Chances of survival are dramatically increased if you can knock out a window and grab onto a point of reference. Then you have a way out and you know where you are when the world is spinning around on you.
We put students through all that to help them. We ask a lot of our students, and I bet you ask a lot of your students. Sometimes, we ask more of our students, but not of ourselves. We forget to assess our own methods. In the Navy, we generally resorted to what I call the Facts and Fear method. We spout off facts about how to do something, then we read a report about people who made mistakes and died.
There’s a great book called Change or Die that describes how the Facts and Fear method fails people who are receiving health education after a heart attack. They are taught all the facts about why exercise is important, but most don’t change. Then, they are hit with Fear, “If you don’t exercise, you will die.” Still, most don’t change.
Over the last 5 years, I observed 3 keys that separate our most effective training from the mediocre, and now I’m going to hand over those 3 hard-learned keys to all of you. We’ll discuss the need to pull in your students, provide tremendous value, and protect your students, all in order make your teaching more effective.
Key #1 is to PULL in your students. Imagine yourself in front of a class of 20 stone-cold Navy SEALs. How will you get their attention? That’s key #1, you must pull in your audience, even if they are trained to kill. I think of teaching as a process and this is the key to working through the first layer The first time I taught a class for SEALs, I thought I would be really tough and get through all of the facts very quickly. Before I even finished my first sentence, one of the guys in the back row shouts out, “No one cares!” He meant to be funny, but I was pretty rattled. After a few weeks of training SEALs with facts, I began to get comfortable and tell stories that illustrated my points. This led my students to soften up and engage. And it’s really that simple, even Navy SEALs are pulled in by a good story. And if you think that your subject can’t be a story, you may be surprised.
I believe everything has a story, even vomiting. Airsickness is something I taught people about before their first flight in a fighter jet. These are usually college kids who will become pilots, but sometimes I taught VIPs like celebrities and politicians. One time I taught a British Knight, literally a knight. The British Chief of Defence Materiel. Sir arrived at my training center with a security escort of 2 very senior British Navy officers. He wore thick glasses that reminded me of Harry Potter. He looked very serious and very unimpressed by me. Sir was in a class full of college ROTC students. Usually I reach the college students with a funny story about how, if they remember to bring a barf bag on their first flight, their entire lives will be dramatically changed. But I thought with this very serious Knight in the class I should just stick to the facts. Then, I remembered what I had learned teaching SEALs and decided to give him my funny story.
And when I hit my punchline about the model student who remembers to bring 2, one gallon, zip lock freezer bags and goes on to be a fighter jet pilot and eventually President of the United States, Sir had dropped his serious demeanor and was laughing along with the students. When I finished, Sir and all the students were actually clapping. It was magical. No one ever claps for vomiting. After class, Sir came up to me and made his own joke about how to make 2, one gallon, zip lock freezer bags standard issue flight gear for the Royal Navy. It was a banner day, all because I bothered to tell a story. Remember, everything has a story, even vomiting. Stories pull people in, and that gets you in the door for your next key… providing value.
I see these ideas as concentric circles, the next circle in, Key #2 is PROVIDING your students with tremendous value. The survival training that I hear our people describe as most valuable is SERE school. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. So, if a student was to crash in hostile territory, he would be prepared to survive and evade the enemy as long as possible. If he were captured, he would resist interrogation and escape, as quickly as possible. People talk about SERE school for a number of reasons. It’s pretty scary, and talking helps people process things. We’re not supposed to talk about it, which just makes it more exciting to talk about. And, it is incredibly valuable training. It provides so much value that people will bear a week of physical and psychological suffering for the sake of learning.
But what do I mean by providing value? Business people understand value as something that people will exchange money for, in order to achieve a goal. Providing value lies in the power to help people achieve their goals. Whatever you do for work, your job is to help people achieve their goals. Your job is to help your students, customers, leaders, teammates, and yourself to achieve goals. If you provide value, customers will pay you money, leaders and teams will need you, you will make progress toward your own goals, and students will be eager to learn from you.
Providing so much value that student will give you their time and energy requires that you take on a selfless worldview. This is tough and thankless, but it is good for you. I’ll describe two teachers and you can decide which one is asking the questions to become a better person.
Teacher A: looks at a job that pays an hourly rate, and asks “Is that worth my time?”
Teacher B: looks at a room of 25 students, and asks “Is my one hour presentation providing such value that it is worth the 25 individual hours of time and energy that I expect from my students?”
Much of life is about asking good questions, and that is the difference that example illustrates- we can change by asking selfless questions.
Generally speaking, providing value is all about understanding the needs of your student and how to best meet those needs. It’s also a process that gives more meaning to your work and your life. The most amazing survival psychologist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of 4 Nazi concentration camps, says that meaning comes from 3 sources. These are love and beauty, achievement, and suffering well. You have the opportunity to use your work to find meaning by doing your work with love, achieving and helping others achieve, and suffering proudly in the tedious work that just doesn’t seem to add value.
Something very special happens when we seek to provide value to others. We become more caring at work, and caring about people helps them feel safe and protected.
Protecting students is Key #3, the innermost circle. We started with pulling in the audience and getting our foot in the door. Then, we got in closer and provided so much value that students would give their time and energy to learn. Finally, our third key is the protection we provide.
Protection is for more than just high risk training. It is the crucial element to transcend lecture and create the space for active, deep learning. Protection is the holy of holies. If your students feel unsafe, they can completely shut down, no matter how great your lesson. If your students feel safe to make mistakes, safe to risk failure, safe to feel vulnerable, and safe to get uncomfortable, amazing things can happen!
It starts with something as fundamental as how we ask questions. I saw this play out a lot with my fighter pilots. If you’ve ever seen the movie Top Gun or heard stereotypes about jet pilots they’re some truth in them. And I’m glad, people who drop bombs should be exceptional. Getting exceptional people to take risk in a classroom can be challenging. I used to ask questions like, “What is the definition of spatial disorientation,” or “Who knows the definition of spatial disorientation?” To a jet pilot, this was a clear situation of being right or wrong. I was usually met with crickets. Occasionally, one student would propose an answer and be right, but when I would show the textbook definition on my slide, the class would get on his case about the one word that was off. I would lose that student for the rest of the day and no one else would dare participate.
It became clear that the problem was not the locker room attitude of my students, but my questioning technique. When I started asking “In your own words, how would you describe spatial disorientation?” participation immediately increased. Students would offer their personal insight and I would skip over showing a word-for-word definition. I could get the point across by playing off of the material my students would give me. It became a dialogue and improved the energy from students for the rest of the training. This was all the result of PROTECTING my students from the judgment of their peers.
If you read the work of Dr. Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and the Fixed Mindset, so much of it gets at this idea of making the classroom a safe space to make mistakes and learn. For those who are unfamiliar, Carol Dweck is a great motivational psychologist who was here at Columbia for years and now works at Stanford. I gave a quick synopsis of her main idea in my last article.
When we help students be free to make mistakes, we create a better learning environment that is not about measuring, testing, comparing, and perfectionism, but about actual learning.
I’d like to close with a story… naturally. When I was working at the unit where we had The Dunker (AKA the helicopter sinking thing) a student came back after surviving a crash. He told our whole staff about it. It helps survivors to talk through the experience. Then he looked at my boss and said, “you know I heard your voice.” She said, “What do you mean?” He repeated, “I heard your voice, from the training.” She said, “Was it something I taught you?” And he laughed and said “No I forgot all that. I heard “WINDOWS, REFERENCE POINT.”
As teachers, we never know what difference we might make. This student who owes his life to a simple lesson is a great example of the power of education that pulls you in, provides value, and protects you.