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New Navy Chief Learning Officer Wants to Develop a Thinking Force

Recruits march in formation at Recruit Training Command on Oct. 2, 2019. US Navy Photo

The Department of the Navy’s new chief learning officer sees creating a thinking force, able to quickly apply classroom concepts to live situations, as the new training focus for all sailors and Marines.

A week on the job, the Navy’s new Chief Learning Officer John Kroger is spending much of his time meeting with the Navy’s educational leaders to understand better how the many pieces of the department’s education system fit together. There is a department-wide embrace of the idea that career-long intellectual development is critical t national security, he told USNI News.

“If we don’t outthink people, we can’t outfight them,” Kroger said.

Kroger’s role as CLO is to align the department’s academic institutions, which include the United States Naval Academy, the Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, Marine Corps University and the soon-to-be established Naval Community College.

The focus is turning education inside the department into what Kroger called a “lifelong trajectory in the service.”

Navy Community College

Electricians Mate 2nd Class Benjamin Achembach takes his final practical test on degaussing system in Surface Ship Electronics Advanced Maintenance Course C-school at Surface Warfare Officer School Unit Great Lakes. US Navy Photo

Harnessing distance learning, Kroger said the goal is to develop technological solutions making it much easier for sailors and Marines to participate in ongoing and sustained education. Kroger wants a system, “that doesn’t require necessarily pulling someone off frontline duty in order to pursue education.”

The increasing complexity of weapons systems, Kroger said, requires the Navy and Marine Corps to field increasingly educated forces. With the amount of training already being offered, he said it makes sense to formalize the training into accredited college-level learning. Creating a Navy Community College will accomplish this goal.

“Someone who is going through the nuclear program, for example, is doing collegiate-level work and probably isn’t accruing collegiate-level credit,” Kroger said.

By establishing the Navy Community College, the department can direct training the force needs to operate systems and help sailors and Marines to broaden their education.

“Undoubtedly, there will be some foundational intellectual development courses as part of the associate’s degrees we offer that will transcend an immediate training value and will help build the analytic and communication and critical-thinking skills of sailors and Marines,” Kroger said.

Such educational opportunities will go well beyond what’s typically required in the short-term to operate a system, Kroger said. Long-term, though, offering such courses that broaden intellectual development will build a better force.

“The impact of the community college is potentially transformative,” he added.

The Chief Learning Officer

John Kroger, named to be the Department of the Navy’s first Chief Learning Officer. Navy photo.

So far, Kroger said the reaction from the department’s academics has been supportive. His mandate comes from an April 2018 memo from Undersecretary of the Navy Thomas Modly launching the Education for Seapower study to evaluate how to revamp the Navy and Marine Corps education.

Creating the CLO position was among the study’s recommendations. The position, as detailed in the study, is: “A senior civilian with educational leadership experience headquartered in the Pentagon, with a small supporting staff transferred from extant Navy and Marine education management billets, responsible to the President, Naval University for all matters related to education in policy, budgets, promotion board precepts. Congressional interaction, future requirements, and assessments.”

Kroger’s office is in the Pentagon, down the hall from the offices of the Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary of the Navy and Under Secretary Modly’s office. However, Kroger told USNI News he intends to spend a significant amount of time traveling to visit the department’s education institutions and witnessing how learning occurs pier side. He’s looking forward to returning to public service.

Kroger served as an enlisted Marine between 1983 and 1986. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. After college, he spent a significant part of his career in the public sector, as a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor and Attorney General of Oregon from 2009 to 2012.

Kroger’s academic experience includes working as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and Leader in Residence at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. For the past six years, Kroger was president of Reed College, a small liberal arts college in Portland, Ore. While different from his recent years in academia, Kroger said he looks forward to being back in public service.

“The federal government is a large part of my career,” Kroger said.

Revamping Curriculum

A team of Naval Academy midshipmen and Air Force Academy cadets work on a HacktheMachine problem in New York on Sept. 7, 2019. US Navy Photo

Just days on the job, Kroger’s first trip was to the Naval Academy. He was next scheduled to meet with the Marine Corps University leadership, and then travel to meet with officials from the Naval War College and Naval Post Graduate School. Talks include discussing what topics included with each institution’s curriculum and how to deliver the curriculum.

The four institutions were already continually assessing what they teach to stay relevant in an evolving security environment, Kroger said during a media roundtable last week. However, Kroger is also analyzing what the schools are emphasizing.

“There’s just no doubt that the weapons systems we’ll be operating are going to increase in technological sophistication,” Kroger said. “That means that not really to employ them but to understand their full strategic potential, we’re going to have to have a very robust conversation, and that’s going to mean that greater technological sophistication both on the enlisted and officer sides is going to be essential.”

Increasing investment in education and increasing the level of strategic thinking at all levels of the force are priorities. Kroger already started conversations with the four schools to determine how they consider the ways technology changes and technological uncertainty are driving the Navy and Marine Corps strategy.

Ultimately, Kroger sees his role as bringing the institutions together so their ideas are shared with the department.

“Each of the institutions will have a slightly different take on what they think are the most essential capabilities they’re passing on,” Kroger said.