Meeting the Minds – Interviewing Dr. Jon Dron

This time, it's personal.

Back in February, The Voice Magazine interviewed Dr. Jon Dron about his approach to teaching. Marie Well has since conducted a follow-up interview that looks more at exactly who Dr. Dron is beyond just the academic work. If You’re curious about what type of person becomes a course designer and wins a National Teaching Fellowship from the UK, read on!

Marie: Dr. Dron, you have the most innovative course designs possibly throughout the entire Athabasca University. To begin, what prompted you to go with a course design that resists giving grades and that emphasizes projects?
Dr. Dron: I’d like to flip that question about grades. Why on Earth would anyone give them? I know of no evidence whatsoever that they have any value at all in learning, while there is a vast body of substantial proof that they are very harmful indeed, especially to motivation. Useful feedback is very helpful in any learning process, but grades are not useful feedback. They are simply judgement, and controlling judgement at that, and they almost always become the reason for learning, not the result of it.

There is, of course, a completely separate issue of accreditation whereby we are expected to certify the competence of learners for the benefit of others. I don’t want to get rid of such certification?It’s useful?though I would like it to be surgically removed from all of our teaching. Teaching to the test is not a great model if we want our learners to be passionate and creative.

With regard to projects, perhaps the most central pattern in all of my teaching is to try to give more control to learners. I want to support people in learning things and skills that are meaningful to them, that have divergent, as well as convergent outcomes, that can encourage them to challenge themselves, to take different paths, to play, and to have a chance to engage with other people in the process. I don’t always use projects for that, by any means. I have one course that is almost nothing but different kinds of argument, for instance, and another in which the course group decides with me what and how we study together. Though I don’t always use projects, I do fairly consistently use evidence-based portfolios for the final summative assessment because, instead of being separate from the learning process, portfolios can contribute very directly towards learning, while providing useful proof of competence for the purposes of certification. Moreover, it is possible for learners to use lots of different kinds of evidence so they have lots more freedom to take different paths, rather than simply doing what the teachers tells them to do. It’s about empowerment and celebration of the uniqueness of every learner.

Marie: You’ve been heavily influenced by the perspectives of Alfie Kohn, who wrote a book called Unconditional Parenting. How has Alfie influenced not only your teaching but your prospective parenting style?
Dr. Dron: I’m a great fan of Alfie Kohn because he is a very eloquent and accessible writer in the field of self-determination theory (SDT), but it is the theory, not the man, that has influenced me most. SDT is one of those very rare psychological theories that consistently stands up to both repeated study and controlled experiment. One of its central tenets, in common with several other theories of motivation (some of which, like Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about flow, are fully compatible with it), is that motivation can be intrinsic (done because we like to do it) or extrinsic (done for some further purpose). What is most distinctive about SDT is that it identifies the conditions needed for intrinsic motivation and it also delves deeply and usefully into the different ways we can be extrinsically motivated, ranging from the very bad – reward and punishment – to the pretty good, such as doing things you don’t find inherently engaging because they align with your sense of identity and beliefs. The best thing, though, is always intrinsic motivation, and there are three main prerequisites that are necessary for that to occur: when you feel you are in control (the need for autonomy), when you feel that what you do has social value (the need for relatedness), and when you feel you are gaining competence in understanding or controlling your environment (the need for competence).Take any away, and it evaporates. Unfortunately, among the best ways of taking it away is to reward or punish someone’such as through grades?or to tell people what they must do, as too many of us do through a course process.

Once intrinsic motivation is gone, it is incredibly hard, if not impossible, to ever get it all back again. We can reduce the harm, especially by giving learners as much control as possible, enthusing them, caring about them, and helping them to see how the learning aligns with their personal beliefs and goals, but it is much harder work than if they are intrinsically motivated in the first place. Teachers have not only to come up with ingenious designs to diminish the dangerous effects but also to “unteach” students so they can unlearn the terrible habits of dependency that schools and other university courses have taught them. We make rods for our own backs.

If I had known more about all of this 30 years ago I would have brought up my kids quite differently. Like most parents, we did our best, but we did use rewards and punishment coercively, far more than I would consider doing now. On the bright side, we mostly did so out of love. My next book focuses on one crucial and central thing that trumps almost everything else when it comes to education—it ain’t what you do, It’s the way that you do it. Basically, you can do the wrong things well, and the right things badly. I may be just a tad biased, but I reckon that our kids did turn into the most delightful, caring and curious adults. However, I think that is despite anything we did as parents as much as because of it. Perhaps the most important thing is not what we did as parents so much as the environment, the conditions and examples we created for our kids, and, above all, the fact that we cared for them deeply and unreservedly. The same is true of teaching: if you care about your students’ learning and you care about the subject you are teaching, and the conditions that you provide are not too poisonous, then everything else is secondary. I have seen many examples of people using the most atrocious teaching methods but none-the-less being brilliant teachers, simply because they care. It’s like music or painting: technique is useful but, beyond a very basic level of competence, passion and soul matter more.

Marie: If you could wish one thing on your students, what would it be?
Dr. Dron: A deep and passionate love of learning.

Marie: What is your favorite hobby?
Dr. Dron: That depends on which way the wind blows, sometimes quite literally ? one of my hobbies is sailing. A hobby for me is not normally about doing something I know how to do so much as doing something I don’t know how to do or could do better.

Whenever I get too good at something I tend to lose interest in it. I have quite eclectic interests. I love to play music so much that I used to sing and play guitar for a living. I have been learning at least one musical instrument every year for a few years now, with varying degrees of success. I like computers because they are endless and bottomless machines?they can be and do pretty much anything. I like to take photos, sail, cook, write, read, watch movies, tinker, build, design, cycle, program, and the list goes on. I love to challenge myself to discover new things, to develop knowledge and skills, and cultivate new ways of seeing. I’m an inveterate learner.

Marie: What were some of your childhood passions?
Dr. Dron: I’m not sure my childhood is quite over yet. At various different times when I was a kid I was a passionate writer, photographer, footballer, sailor, musician, jewellery designer, actor, chess player, inventor of games, philosopher, cyclist and much more besides. I tended to be pretty obsessive about whatever interested me at any one time. Some interests persist. On reflection, I like to be challenged and I like to be liberated. I’m not a natural stamp collector or bird watcher, though I did very briefly dabble with both of those when I was a kid, but cumulative, carefully catalogued knowledge has never really appealed to me as it has never challenged me enough and I’ve never found it liberating. I do love reading, though, and have done so obsessively since at least the age of three. Whenever I found an author I liked as a kid I would typically read everything they had written, often consuming several books in a week. It is still not that unusual for me to stay up all night reading a book that I’m enjoying. This gets back to the learning thing again. Reading opens up vistas of possibilities, though it is also about the joy of being lost in a different world, thinking like a different person. Liberation, again.