Mackenzie Building, Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC)

Credit: DND photo, Steven McQuaid, Base Photo Kingston

Mackenzie Building, Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC)

Teaching Excellence: A Neglected Opportunity for DND Leadership

by Adam Chapnick

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Canadian military history, particularly the popular kind, almost inevitably focuses upon how the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) themselves, the country as a whole, or Canada’s political leadership have made a difference in world affairs. Whether it is Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard’s more recent command of a multinational force in Libya, the more than one million Canadians who served during the Second World War, or Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s willingness to stand up to the British and French in the later stages of the Great War, the national narrative cannot seem to get away from the idea of a country ‘punching above its weight’ in world affairs.

And for good reason. A nation of just 35 million with a military of just 100,000 and a defence budget of $20 billion cannot expect to be treated as a great power by virtue of its size and strength. Canadians, then, have generally effected change in global military affairs by identifying the value-added that they might bring to a conflict, and by excelling in those fields that have provided openings for smaller states to make a difference.

To maintain Canada’s international credibility among its military allies in a time of significant government cutbacks, it behoves the Department of National Defence to identify new—cost effective—domains where Canada, and the Canadian Armed Forces more specifically, might make their mark. Issues for which size does not matter, but the assets that Canada does bring to the table—intellectual capacity, professionalism, communication skills—are critical to mission success.

One such area, long neglected by the CAF and its superiors, is teaching excellence in the professional military context. To its credit, the Canadian Armed Forces invest far more in the continuing education of their people than any other federal department in Canada. Moreover, members of the CAF are often called upon to assist smaller war colleges in the establishment of, and subsequent development of, curricula and training programs around the world.

Never, however, does the CAF seem to have considered making the primary (academic) arms of its professional military education program—specifically, the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC) in Kingston and the Canadian Forces College (CFC) in Toronto—centres for teaching excellence. In other words, the CAF’s professional military education system is certainly admired for the quality of the curriculum and perhaps the design and organization of the programs, but never have I heard representatives from another war college—or from a civilian institution—speak of RMCC or the CFC as the home of the best teachers in the country or the Western world. It is not that our faculty—civilian and military—are necessarily ineffective. Indeed, many are admirable instructors; rather, it is that little serious attention has been paid to the quality of teaching (and its effect upon student learning) that is conducted.

Cadets in class

Credit: RMCSJ photo cmr-rmc-18

Cadets in class

To be more specific, while teacher training certification programs (that, to be fair, certainly range in quality) have sprung up at a number of post-secondary civilian academic institutions, professors at RMCC typically look to Queen’s University for opportunities for such professional development. While universities across the Western world have established centres for teaching and learning excellence across their campuses—through which experts in pedagogy and academic technology support faculty members interested in improving their ability to promote deep learning among their students—RMCC has done no such thing. There is no requirement to learn how to teach, or, for that matter, to study anything related to student learning while pursuing a PhD in War Studies, nor do the military teaching faculty at the Canadian Forces College undergo anything more than a cursory introduction to teaching and learning in advance of their taking up full-time roles in the post-graduate-level classroom.1

In RMCC’s, and DND’s defence, war colleges and similar military educational institutes around the world are not, collectively, any better. To the best of my knowledge, no Canadian allies have formalized a rigorous program to ensure that professional military education in their country is delivered by qualified, certified, post-secondary military educators. And that is why the Department of National Defence, and the CAF in particular, is faced with a tremendous opportunity. For what would be a relatively minimal cost, DND could transform Canada into the centre for teaching excellence in professional military education.

How could this be done? I see three specific areas that would require investment and/or change: (1) intellectual infrastructure; (2) hiring and promotion processes; and (3) branding.

First, the CAF, through the Canadian Defence Academy, might consider creating the first-ever internationally accredited (by the globally recognized Staff and Educational Development Association) post-secondary professional military education teaching certification program. Such a program could be housed in a new centre for teaching and learning located, at least provisionally, at RMCC. Such a certification program could be offered (either through travelling instructors or through the distance learning format) to academic and military instructors in war colleges around the world.

Second, as is becoming standard practice at leading civilian universities, RMCC could require all faculty to submit teaching dossiers as part of their applications for positions and promotions. Doing so will require hiring boards at RMCC to learn how to evaluate such dossiers, which will make the establishment of a centre for teaching and learning all the more important). The process of creating dossiers, or portfolios—which provide objective evidence of a commitment to and success in the promotion of student learning—will force educators to take stock of their efforts in the classroom in a rigorous, evidence-based manner. Explicit recognition of the value of the scholarship of teaching and learning in assessments of faculty research output would be another positive step. And on the military side, similar metrics might be developed to better evaluate the contributions uniformed faculty to the learning experience of their officers.

Finally, RMCC might create greater opportunities to recognize excellence in teaching among its faculty. Increasing the number of awards that recognize a faculty member’s impact upon student learning (from one) would be a start; creating a grant for research into the scholarship of teaching and learning would be another step; and assigning a new teaching and learning centre the responsibility to nominate qualified faculty for external teaching awards would be a third. An equivalent way to reward superior teaching and facilitation among the military faculty at merit boards is also necessary.

Taken together, these steps could transform the Canadian professional military education system, already a very good one, into a noteworthy example of Canadian distinctiveness and excellence on the international stage at a time when low-cost, high impact projects are at a premium.

Officers Mess, Canadian Forces College Toronto

Credit: J6 Imagery, CFC

Officers Mess, Canadian Forces College Toronto

Adam Chapnick, PhD, is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. To its credit, over the last half decade, the Canadian Forces College has increased the rigor of its training significantly, particularly for those staff who work in house. The training for on-line instructors remains rather limited.