A book about the nature of technology, learning, and being human
How Education Works front cover
How Education Works: Teaching, Technology, and Technique, by Jon Dron, was published with an open (by attribution, non-commercial, no-derivatives) licence by AU Press in 2023.

Read How Education Works for free

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The paperback version is available from all major booksellers internationally, and it is most likely available to order at your local bookstore, if you order it. It is also available in most standard e-book formats. Here are a few places to buy it: AU Press (CA), Barnes & Noble (US), Blackwells (UK), Amazon (CA), Amazon (JP), University of Chicago Press (US), Kobo (CA), Everand (International)

Wait, what’s How Education Works about?

It’s about how we learn, the nature of knowledge, the very technological nature of humanity, and the very human nature of technology.   It’s about how our participation in (not our just use of) technology brings about knowledge and skills, and it’s about the very complex nature of how that happens. It’s about how education, treated as a technology, actually works rather than how it is designed to work, and why it often fails to work or surprisingly succeeds. It’s about how what we do (the hard methods, tools, theories, models, processes, and structures we employ) is less important than the way that we do it (the soft technique we bring to assemble it all). It’s about the parts we play in the cognition of others, and the parts they play in our own. It is about what it means to be human.

Along the way it provides some helpful and sometimes unconventional advice to help the reader to think about how to educate (including to educate oneself), how to research the practice of education, and how to think about educational systems. It has some stories and anecdotes, and some pictures of elephants.

From the publisher’s site, this is the official description:

In this engaging volume, Jon Dron views education, learning, and teaching through a technological lens that focuses on the parts we play in technologies, from language and pedagogies to computers and regulations. He proposes a new theory of education whereby individuals are not just users but co-participants in technologies— technologies that are intrinsic parts of our cognition, of which we form intrinsic parts, through which we are entangled with one another and the world around us. Dron reframes popular families of educational theory (objectivist, subjectivist, and complexivist) and explains a variety of educational phenomena, including the failure of learning style theories, the nature of literacies, systemic weaknesses in learning management systems, the prevalence of cheating in educational institutions, and the fundamental differences between online and in-person learning. Ultimately, How Education Works articulates how practitioners in education can usefully understand technology, education, and their relationship to improve teaching practice.

Still not sure whether you want to read it? Read what others have to say first…

Highly recommended in the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL)

The contribution to the field of education that this book makes—as a learning technology that educators can experience in their own ways—is deep and meaningful. It is not an easy read. It challenges the reader
to let go of assumptions and well-established education research paradigms to consider new ways of enacting research and practice. The co-participation theory and model of the work are applicable to PreK-12, post-secondary, community, and corporate learning, and they are modality agnostic. Anywhere that teaching and learning take place—which is everywhere and constantly—practitioners can benefit from consideration of Dron’s ideas. I highly recommend reading and exploring this book either in print or digital (open and no-cost) format.

Recommended as an essential read in the Digital Education Review:

Through the lens of a seasoned educator, it serves as a mirror for readers to reflect on their pedagogical practices, invites introspective meditation on teaching methodologies, and provides a platform for discussing common obstacles in technology-enhanced learning landscapes. This review endorses Dron’s book as an essential read for educators, instructional designers, and scholars interested in the complexities and evolutions of educational technology and its impact on instructional strategies.

Recommended as a “must-read” by TeachOnline.ca (update: one of the top 5 most-read TeachOnline book recommendations of 2023!):

If we want to improve learning outcomes, inclusivity and student engagement, we must rethink what and how we teach and the ways in which technology-enabled learning can support quality teaching and effective learning. The author of this book is an experienced distance educator who writes clearly and well. His book, which is free to read online, will provoke you to think and examine your practice.

Positively reviewed in the Canadian Journal of Education (CDE)

Dron’s technological lens will resonate with teachers and teacher educators regarding the teacher training process they themselves have received or delivered and the textbooks they have read, and it will encourage them to rethink their own teaching and learning experiences.

Some unsolicited comments from people who have read the book:

If you prefer your non-escapist, trying-to-learn-something-here kind of reading to still be a little bit escapist via anecdotes, wit, and story-telling, then this is the book for you. In this book you will get a fresh take on just what learning technology is, you will be explained things via stories about elephants, and you will gain a new appreciation of a good stick. You will also understand more about how education works via insights that were decades in the making. 10/10 would read again.

(Terry Greene, reviewing on amazon.ca)

Just finished reading “How Education Works” (https://lnkd.in/gA543wER) by Jon Dron, which left a strong impression.
As an EdTech researcher, I spend a lot of time wrapping my head around the many (many!) perspectives, taxonomies, methods, solutions, and empirical studies in this field. Amidst this labyrinth, finding a book exploring the field’s first principles is refreshing. I appreciated how Jon spent much time defining his terms and building a conceptual framework that puts most others into perspective. It is an engaging read that I recommend to anyone invested in the teaching and learning processes.
Kudos to Jon for enriching our knowledge and sparking a renewed enthusiasm for the essence of education.

(Nikola Luburic, via LinkedIn)

This thought-provoking book goes deep into the technical aspects of education, exploring the critical intersections between teaching, technology, and effective techniques. 
“How Education Works” challenged my assumptions and opened my eyes to new educational possibilities. It is a must-read for educators, students, and anybody interested in the future of learning.
(Mahmoud Hawamdeh, via LinkedIn)
I love the section on what technologies are. “To describe education as a technological system is anything but an attempt to reduce it to a set of mechanical rules.” I think we could have conversations about how technology works, bantering about boundaries and path dependencies.
A delightful read. Words and ideas carefully selected.  Impossible to choose just one thought to share here. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
“Learning often makes more learning possible, softening our boundaries. Sometimes, though, we can learn things that shrink our horizons as much as expand them.”
(Christa Morrison, via Twitter)
What a great book
Love the elephants in it and how you revisited them towards the end
(Virna, via Twitter)

GoodReads page

Now set to music!

Terry Greene has set How Education Works to music as part of his podcast series EZ Learning – Audio Books With Beats. You can listen online, download the episodes (loosely equating to chapters or sections), or subscribe with your favourite podcast app. Terry used Speechify to generate the vocal part, choosing a deep North American voice and adding Eaters In Coffeeshops Mix 1 by Eaters for the musical accompaniment. It works remarkably well, despite the bizarre pauses, emphases, and mispronunciations by the robot voice and the occasional vocal in the music that seeps through in the background. Because it is part of a feed that already includes another book and will include more, it may not be the first thing to appear on the page so here are the direct links to the episodes:

Acknowledgements, Prologue, introduction

Chapter 1: A Handful of Anecdotes About Elephants

Chapter 2:  A Handful of Observations About Elephants

Part 1: All About Technology

Chapter 3: Organizing Stuff to Do Stuff

Chapter 4: How Technologies Work

Chapter 5: Participation and Technique

Part II: Education as a Technological System

Chapter 6: A Co-Participation Model of Teaching

Chapter 7: Theories of Teaching

Chapter 8: Technique, Expertise, and Literacy

Part III: Applying the Co-Participation Model

Chapter 9: Revealing Elephants

Chapter 10: How Education Works


Shorter summaries

I summarized a few of the main themes for my keynote at SITE 2024. Here’s the video (just slides and audio, alas but, if you make it to the end, you will be treated to Jon Dron bluffing his way through “T’ain’t What You Do, it’s the Way That You Do it” which happens to be the epigraph for the book):

(slides available here)

Here are a couple of papers that summarize the main arguments of the book and that might give a bit of the gist of where I am coming from:

A short, fully open paper…

Learning, Technology, and Technique, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology (Vol. 48 No. 1, 2022).

Abstract: To be human is to be a user, a creator, a participant, and a co-participant in a richly entangled tapestry of technologies – from computers to pedagogical methods – that make us who we are as much as our genes. The uses we make of technologies are themselves, nearly always, also technologies, techniques we add to the entangled mix to create new assemblies. The technology of greatest interest is thus not any of the technologies that form that assembly, but the assembly itself. Designated teachers are never alone in creating the assembly that teaches. The technology of learning almost always involves the co-participation of countless others, notably learners themselves but also the creators of systems, artifacts, tools, and environments with and in which it occurs. Using these foundations, this paper presents a framework for understanding the technological nature of learning and teaching, through which it is possible to explain and predict a wide range of phenomena, from the value of one-to-one tutorials, to the inadequacy of learning style theories as a basis for teaching, and to see education not as a machine made of methods, tools, and systems but as a complex, creative, emergent collective unfolding that both makes us, and is made of us.

A longer paper going into a bit more depth…

Free to read: Educational Technology: What it is and How it Works : AI & Society (Vol. 37 No. 1, 2022) 

Preprint version, free to download: https://auspace.athabascau.ca/handle/2149/3653

Abstract: This theoretical paper elucidates the nature of educational technology and, in the process, sheds light on a number of phenomena in educational systems, from the no-significant-difference phenomenon to the singular lack of replication in studies of educational technologies. Its central thesis is that we are not just users of technologies but coparticipants in them. Our participant roles may range from pressing power switches to designing digital learning systems to performing calculations in our heads. Some technologies may demand our participation only to enact fixed, predesigned orchestrations correctly. Other technologies leave gaps that we can or must fill with novel orchestrations, which we may perform more or less well. Most are a mix of the two, and the mix varies according to context, participant, and use. This participative orchestration is highly distributed: in educational systems, coparticipants include the learner, the teacher, and many others, from textbook authors to LMS programmers, as well as the tools and methods they use and create. From this perspective, all learners and teachers are educational technologists. The technologies of education are seen to be deeply, fundamentally, and irreducibly human, complex, situated and social in their constitution, their form, and their purpose, and as ungeneralizable in their effects as the choice of paintbrush is to the production of great art.

More related work – papers, presentations, and blog posts on the themes of How Education Works