Language selection


Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2023]
Research Articles

Image by: Master Sailor Valerie LeClair, MARPAC Imaging Services

Search and Rescue Technician, Master Corporal Matt Sankey, practices decompression stop procedures during the deep diving phase of the Dive Supervisors Course at Fleet Diving Unit (Pacific), CFB Esquimalt, BC on November 2, 2022.

Dr. Nancy Taber is a professor in Adult Education at Brock University. Her research explores the ways in which learning, gender, and militarism intersect in daily life, popular culture, museums, militaries, and educational institutions, with a particular focus on women’s experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces related to organizational culture, official policies, and informal everyday practices. She is a retired military officer who served as a Sea King helicopter air navigator. Dr. Taber is a former President of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education. She is one of the co-directors of the DND-MINDS funded international collaborative network Transforming Military Cultures. 

Military training has focused historically on socializing new recruits, teaching task-based skills, developing leadership through formal courses and exercises, and conducting informal on-the-job training.Footnote 1 More recently, Western militaries have included courses intended to prevent sexual harassment and racism. This training fits into two broad learning categories: technical (task-based) and humanist (understanding self and others). Military personnel also engage in situated learning in everyday practices, as they learn to accept and conform to the status quo of military culture, policies, and practices.Footnote 2 Although the status quo is institutionally constructed (and therefore neither inherent nor natural), it is treated as an unproblematized given.

In the Department of National Defence (DND) and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF),Footnote 3 attention has turned to engaging in culture change, to “tackl[e] all types of discrimination, harmful behaviour, biases and system barriers.”Footnote 4 Such work is contradictory in a military organization, where the aim is to reproduce uniformity in a collective and consistent culture, with personnel honouring tradition and obeying orders through a hierarchy, and not questioning the organization. There has been much resistance and outright opposition within the CAF to critiquing the warrior ideal—which privileges white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men while marginalizing those viewed as other—and engaging in cultural change.Footnote 5

This article focuses on a significant reason for such opposition and resistance to culture change: the reliance on technical and humanist training with a concomitant underestimation of the role of situated learning in sustaining the warrior ideal. If the DND/CAF is to transform its problematic hypermasculine “toxic and sexist culture”Footnote 6—which is “hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault”Footnote 7 as well as imbued with “systemic and cultural racism…institutionalized in regulations, norms, and common worldviews”Footnote 8—then the organization must frame policies, practices, education,Footnote 9 and learning from a critical paradigm. This article defines technical, humanist, and critical learningFootnote 10 and applies these concepts to the context of formal education in the CAF. The article explains how CAF personnel learn to value and emulate a warrior ideal through informal situated learning. The article applies a transformative learning lens to challenging military cultures, demonstrating how DND/CAF can support and engage in critical education.

Technical and Humanist Training: Formal Education in the CAF

Formal military training typically occurs through two of three adult educational approaches: technical and humanist (to the exclusion of the third, critical).Footnote 11 Each of these approaches is underwritten by a differing set of beliefs and aims, relating to a specific set of military orders, policies, and expectations. The technical approach focuses on objectivity, efficiency, and measurement applied in task-based education, where an instructor is the expert and student success is assessed through the replication of skills. This approach can be found in weapons training, drill exercises, and physical fitness testing, based on related orders and manuals (e.g., DAOD 3002-3, Ammunition and Explosives Safety Program; The Canadian Armed Forces Manual of Drill and Ceremonial; DAOD 5023-2, Common Military Tasks Fitness Evaluation). At an order to shoot, halt, or run, students obey and perform, without question.

This technical approach also includes higher-order skills, such as planning a deployment, repairing a ship’s engine, flying an aircraft, and strategizing a battle plan. Although there may be much learning as well as personal finesse in succeeding in these areas, success continues to be measured from a skills-based perspective: logistics ensures that the proper equipment gets to the proper location, a mechanic fixes an engine, a pilot flies the aircraft, and the artillery fires on the enemy.

In contrast, the humanist approach is concerned with understanding others, acting ethically, and working for individual self-actualization. Teaching in this approach is discussion-based, exploring how people think and act in certain ways. Teachers guide students in their thinking, with questioning encouraged to assist students in learning content and applying it to particular situations through case studies and role-plays. In the military, this approach is used for leadership, anti-harassment, and ethical training, based on related policies, orders, and manuals (e.g., Canadian Armed Forces professional development framework; DAOD 5012-0, Harassment Prevention and Resolution; The Path to Dignity and Respect). Sometimes, students learn much about their own thinking, how they react in certain situations, and how they can become a better military member, though “better” is framed within taken-for-granted assumptions of ideal military membership.

In both these approaches, the expectation is that neither individual worldviews nor the organizational status quo will change. The focus is on students’ ability to attain organizationally set and valued skills and thought processes. In the military, student achievement is measured through becoming skilled in one’s occupation, contributing as a team member, and demonstrating leadership, with a focus on operational effectiveness. The aspect of the military that is expected to change are the individual abilities of members, not the institution. Therefore, using technical or humanist training to challenge and transform the military’s hypermasculinized and sexualized culture is bound to fail, given the core mismatch between the educational philosophy, aims, and processes of such training, and the goal of transformational culture change.Footnote 12

To date, evidence suggests that work toward DND/CAF culture change has taken place from these two approaches. For example, Operation HONOUR, a mission “to eliminate harmful and inappropriate sexual behaviour within the CAF,”Footnote 13 used an informational and order-based approach, which reflects the technical paradigm. Members were expected to read the orders and change their behaviour accordingly, with a focus on “communication and application of discipline.”Footnote 14 A “Respect in the CAF” app was created, with an associated “DO YOUR PART” “soldier card,” which “reminds members…that sexual misconduct diminishes operation readinessFootnote 15” (Government of Canada, 2021, italics added) and “is not acceptable.”Footnote 16 The app and card list support services and details on reporting an incident.

The problem with this technical approach is that it assumes falsely that members simply need to be reminded that sexual misconduct is unacceptable and given access to resources in order to address the issue.Footnote 17 Furthermore, this approach ties the inappropriateness of sexual misconduct solely to operational effectiveness. Work against sexual misconduct is reduced to giving individuals information so they will change their behaviour, access supports, and achieve the mission. Such an approach (also reflected in PowerPoint decks and multiple-choice quizzes) ignores institutional responsibility and keeps military culture and priorities intact.Footnote 18 The aim is supposedly to meet organizational responsibility by positioning the problem as one of individuals who simply need information.

The “Respect in the CAF: Take a stand against sexual misconduct” workshop takes similar content but presents it from a humanist approach, with a “one-day interactive workshop [that] uses scenarios, discussions and small group practical activities.”Footnote 19 Further, “the workshop addresses cognitive, affective, and behavioural domains: what people know, how they feel, and how they behave.”Footnote 20 This approach differs from the technical, as it goes beyond increasing awareness of sexual misconduct definitions, policies, and supports, with its aim to address and engage with understandings and attitudes, as relates to what actions people take. Organizational culture is a topic (i.e., “promote a culture in which bystander intervention is widely accepted, expected, implemented and supported”Footnote 21) but is positioned as an individual element, in that personnel should act within organizational expectations, not bring about broader institutional transformation.

Both technical and humanist training aim at reproducing military culture and ideals. Training is one size fits all, without an analysis of how the institution itself was created to privilege a particular form of military membership—of those who fit into a warrior ideal—and marginalize others who do not. The stated outcome of such training is the elimination of sexual misconduct yet the hypermasculine and sexualized nature of military culture itself supports gender and other forms of discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.Footnote 22 Military personnel learn about the privileging of this culture not only in formal training, but in everyday practices, with the former supporting the latter and vice versa, which are combined forms of socialization into the institutional status quo. As such, situated learning must also be problematized to engage in transforming military cultures.

Situated Learning: Valuing a Warrior Ideal

Military personnel typically spend their entire careers learning to value and emulate a warrior ideal.Footnote 23 When new recruits enter basic training, they exchange their civilian clothes for military uniforms, are assigned to units, and are marched around the base, as they are taught the importance of conformity and uniformity. Curriculum content and delivery focuses on respecting tradition, obeying senior noncommissioned members and officers, and appreciating the military profession as the highest form of service. The Universality of Service policy and soldier-first principleFootnote 24 promote the idea that personnel must always be physically, mentally, and logistically able and willing to deploy; anyone who cannot deploy, for whatever reason, is viewed as a less-than-dedicated military memberFootnote 25 (see Leigh Spanner this issue, in relation to how military family life intersects with military ideals and policies).Footnote 26

CAF personnel learn these lessons in formal contexts but also in situated ones, in that official training intersects with learning in everyday practices, such as in the barracks, at the mess, and in the gym. In communities of practice, situated learning explores how “newcomers” learn to think and act in organizationally privileged ways through their interaction with “old-timers.”Footnote 27 This interaction is, for example, institutionalized at Canadian Military Colleges, where third- and fourth-year students are given leadership positions over first-year students in the First Year Orientation Program.Footnote 28

Newcomers learn how to perform masculinities and femininities in a variety of ways, depending on their own embodiment within the organization,Footnote 29 with women learning to walk a tightrope between being just masculine enough while retaining certain aspects of femininity, as they navigate organizational needs, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment.Footnote 30 As described by Tammy George (this issue), racialized service personnel are continually reminded of their difference from a white norm, which requires them to constantly navigate the ways in which they are viewed as different. As such, marginalized members must learn not only general military and specific occupational skills, but also how to fit into an ideal that is defined in opposition to them, in a form of self-policing.Footnote 31 This is work that those who are viewed as embodying a warrior ideal—the unearned privilege afforded to them through their white, male, cisgender, straight, able bodies—do not have to conduct.

Despite different generations joining and serving in the CAF, there has been little change to organizational norms over the years. Newcomers learn to conform to—not challenge—norms. Those who conform to norms are more likely to succeed, while those who do not are more likely to retire and/or remain at middle-management ranks.Footnote 32 This conformity is reflected in the personnel who have been promoted to the CAF’s general and flag officer (GOFO) ranks, which are overwhelmingly comprised of white, masculine, cisgender, straight men from combat occupations.

While formal technical and humanist training might promote a more inclusive vision of military membership, this vision requires related changes to situated learning. For instance, the new dress instructions, which officially allow for a more diverse expression of gender identity and religious or spiritual beliefs,Footnote 33 have been communicated to military personnel through policies, Frequently Asked Questions, and YouTube videos. However, there has been much criticism of the revised policy by some old-timers, with the changes joked about, denigrated, and contested.Footnote 34 Personnel are likely to learn that, despite the official move to inclusive dress, individual acceptance at an informal level may occur only with conformity to the previous dress expectations, which were founded on white, male, Christian norms within a gender binary.

One way to challenge this situated learning is by utilizing the critical paradigm. Within this paradigm, there is an acknowledgement that the military was created by men, for men, with colonial, racist, heteronormative, ableist, classist, and patriarchal perspectives embedded in its structures and values (see Maya Eichler and Vanessa Brown, this issue, for a discussion of how these root causes are at the foundation of the DND/CAF’s problematic culture). As such, critical education and learning are positioned as questioning and re-thinking the very ideals upon which Canadian military service is conceptualized.

The Critical Paradigm: Transformative Learning Theories

Recently, DND/CAF has begun to explore transformative culture change. Chief Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC) was established to “unify and integrate all associated culture change activities”Footnote 35 with the aim of “creat[ing] a more inclusive organisational culture that respects the dignity of all members of the Defence Team.”Footnote 36 Although the initiating directive uses terms such as “new perspectives,” “new structure, frameworks, and strategies” as well as “new approach” and “new path,”Footnote 37 the language in the directive focuses on becoming “more inclusive”Footnote 38 in order to “progress”Footnote 39 and “adjust”Footnote 40 strategies and culture. In its Frequently Asked Questions section, CPCC states that “the organization has been created to lead cultural transformation.”Footnote 41 What is still unknown, however, is what exactly is meant by cultural transformation. In 2022, CPCC introduced the term “culture evolution”Footnote 42 to describe their work, problematically communicating the idea that the CAF’s culture simply needs to evolve with changing societal norms, which obscures the oppressive foundations of the institution from its personnel and the Canadian public.

Image by: MCpl Matthew Tower, Canadian Forces Combat Camera, Canadian Armed Forces Photo

The Canadian Ranger Patrol – Inukjuak from 2nd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group participates in an annual training event designed to refine valuable skills in Inukjuak, an Inuit community, located on the north bank of the Hudson Bay in Nunavik, Northern Quebec, on February 7, 2023.

From the general standpoint of the critical paradigm, learning in relation to cultural transformation would entail radical action that questions power relations, deconstructs privilege, supports the empowerment of diverse marginalized groups, and promotes social justice. Therefore, at its core, the critical paradigm stands in stark juxtaposition to a military culture that demands adherence to uniformity, obedience, hierarchy, and tradition,Footnote 43 so it is telling that transformation has been replaced by evolution. As critical pedagogue Paulo Freire stated, “No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?”Footnote 44 Militaries aim to socialize their members to conform to its status quo not to transform it.

Scholars and educators who research and teach from the critical paradigm do so using a variety of critical theories, including critical race theory, decolonial theory, intersectional feminism, critical disability studies, and queer theory, which collectively explore issues of class, gender, Indigeneity, race, ability, and sexuality, and the ways in which they intersect.Footnote 45 The critical paradigm contests the ways in which historical, ideological, cultural, and institutional forms of oppression, power, and privilege operate.Footnote 46 Applying these theories in the DND/CAF context means critiquing the ways in which the military as an institution enables and engages—through culture, policies, practices, and training—in systemic colonialism, racism, misogyny, ableism, and heteronormativity. Therefore, using the critical paradigm means questioning the very foundation on which the military is built and perpetuated, which is the same foundation military personnel are taught throughout their entire careers—in formal technical and humanist training as well as situated learning—to value and protect. It is little wonder that the CAF as an institution and military personnel themselves may be doubtful about a critical approach.Footnote 47

Instead of accepting time-honoured military values, for transformative culture change to be achieved it is important to challenge them, by critiquing how obedience, discipline, hierarchy, and uniformity promote binary ways of thinking with respect to male/female, masculine/feminine, protectors/protected, military/civilian, friend/foe, winner/loser, and self/other, with a privileging of the former aspects of these binaries to the detriment of the latter.Footnote 48 These values and ways of thinking are embedded in CAF culture, such as with the Universality of Service policy and soldier-first principle. While work is ongoing to revise this policy and principle (as well as related training and promotion processes), they continue to privilege white able-bodied men in operational occupations with a (typically female civilian) spouse to care for the home and family,Footnote 49 leading to an overall homogeneity of CAF leaders at the GOFO ranks and in the position of Chief of Defence Staff.

The questioning of these policies and practices often leads to oppositional responses against change, such as:

  • the size, demographics, and mandate of the CAF prevent any other way of organizing the work of the institution;
  • personnel who demonstrate absolute dedication to the military should be rewarded with valued training, promotions, and postings; and,
  • operational positions provide for necessary command experience.

These responses deserve to be engaged with, but too often they shut down conversation and inhibit imaginative thinking.

Transformative learning theories—that are foundational to the field of adult education but seldom applied to the military context—can assist with asking and addressing tough questions that challenge long-held military assumptions. Transformative learning is that which results in changes to worldview perspectives in relation to self, others, and society.Footnote 50 This type of learning can be conceptualized through four different lenses: “liberation from oppression”; “rational thought and reflection” as a result of experiencing a “disorienting dilemma”; a “developmental approach” that is “intuitive, holistic, and contextually based”; and, spirituality “soul work,”Footnote 51 with differential foci on connectedness, embodiment, emotion, and the arts, as well as race, class, and gender.Footnote 52 When learners are presented with ideas or experiences that fall outside their own understandings, beliefs, values, and expectations (a disorienting dilemma), they have a choice: ignore whatever does not fit into their worldview by devaluing it, dismissing it, and/or closing their mind to it; or, engage with it, with an open mind, consideration of its value, and willingness to incorporate it into a new belief system as they transform the way they view the world. Transformative learning varies in its focus on individual and structural levels of change. In this article, my focus is both these levels, in the vein of bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, which engages with the “interplay of anticolonial, critical, and feminist pedagogies”Footnote 53 in a critique of structural forms of oppression, power, and privilege that challenges the status quo.

Transformative learning can be applied to militaries by calling for problem-posing education that aims to deconstruct gendered, racialized, and militarized military power relations by challenging and changing the ways in which civilians and military personnel see and interact with military organizations and ideals, as well as with orders and policies. Problem-posing educationFootnote 54 stems from a stance of asking critical and creative questions, instead of searching for quick straightforward solutions. In the military, such questions include: Who benefits from the warrior ideal? Where did it come from? Is it needed? How can military service be re-imagined? How can DND/CAF structure, orders, and policies be re-imagined? These questions demonstrate a quite different focus from that of the technical and humanistic paradigms.

Here, I provide an example of my own unexpected experience with transformative learning to demonstrate how the theory can work in practice, how long-established mindsets can be changed, and how problem-posing education can support the transformation of military cultures at both individual and structural levels. When I served in the military, although I was privileged due to my white able-bodiedness, officer rank, and occupational trade, I was marginalized due to my status as a woman. Although I recognized this to some extent, I resisted critiquing my experiences. In retrospect, I believe I did so for two reasons. First, I observed that women who protested their organizational status were punished for it. Second, I valued the military and my own service, and did not want to critique either. I had been taught that, to be a dedicated military officer, I had to embrace the military as is and embody a stoic toughness with a get-it-done attitude, which did not include any sort of questioning.

When I began my Master of Education degree at a civilian university and was introduced to feminist and transformative learning theories, I began to see my experiences from a different angle.Footnote 55 My rational thought and reflection on these theories, in relation to my military service, precipitated a disorienting dilemma. I now understand that this dilemma was not a singular event brought on solely by formal education, but rather had been percolating over the years, as I struggled with the gendered nature of my experiences. It was difficult and emotional learning, to challenge what I thought and believed, and it took quite some time before I embraced feminist theory, and even longer before I began to call myself a feminist. However, engaging with critical theories enabled me to both value and critique my military service and the military as an institution. Transformative learning creates an uncomfortable space fraught with tension, but it can contribute to positive change. Indeed, it is from a position of discomfort that the greatest learning can occur.Footnote 56 It was only when I engaged in learning outside the DND/CAF that I began to question military culture. Therefore, what is needed is for education within the DND/CAF to do the same, by bringing critical theories into the institution itself. The transformation of my individual worldview with respect to the military directly led to my academic work engaging in structural-level change, as I turned to critiquing and recommending changes to CAF culture, policies, practices, and education.

As the literature and my own experiences indicate, in order to engage in military cultural transformation, it is imperative to work within the critical paradigm,Footnote 57 to learn about, understand the need for, and gain a desire to change military culture, policies, and practices. Once individuals transform their own perspectives, they can then begin to engage with structural transformation. As CPCC acknowledges, “culture change targeting attitudes and beliefs cannot be ‘ordered.’”Footnote 58 Culture change cannot be taught through technical and humanistic paradigms; instead, it must be learned through situated learning and in critical education. For education from the critical paradigm to be supported, the content and policies to be learned and taught must themselves stem from a critical perspective.


Engaging in education from the critical paradigm is complicated and complex, requiring continual commitment to ongoing change. Critical education is not straightforward, quick, or easily measurable, which is why it is often dismissed in favour of technical and humanist training that is viewed as demonstrating immediate progress. Delivering a PowerPoint presentation about sexual violence statistics, inclusive policies, or an organizational mandate for culture change and assessing learning with a multiple-choice quiz can be viewed as a measurable outcome, with a particular percentage of military personnel completing the training and receiving a grade. But any such result is largely meaningless for cultural transformation, with little opportunity for learner engagement and no insight into what learners are thinking, understanding, accepting, or resisting. Instead, I recommend the following educational practices:

  • Connect individual experiences to structural forms of power and privilege as relate to colonialism, racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, and heteronormativity.
  • Recognize that “disorienting dilemmas” will occur as military personnel encounter difficulties in challenging established military values and worldviews.
  • Accept and embrace discomfort in learning.
  • Understand how unearned privilege is granted to those who appear to emulate the ideal warrior and how those who do not appear to emulate it are marginalized.
  • Engage with critical theories.
  • Participate in small group discussions facilitated by those familiar with critical theories.
  • Ask questions and challenge assumptions with a focus on problem-posing.
  • Examine situated learning for what is learned in everyday practices and work toward an environment where situated learning supports cultural transformation.
  • Be committed to ongoing education and work for cultural change.

While teaching and learning in the critical paradigm is challenging, it can create the path for military cultural transformation. DND/CAF’s educational approach must be transformed from one that promotes an acceptance and policing of the status quo to one that contests it.

Report a problem on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, please contact us.

Date modified: