What shall we do today?

As a biologist, I regard teaching and learning as innate natural abilities, so I question the value of pedagogical tinkering. Should I engage deeply with the latest teaching and learning research, or should I reject it and rely on instincts, which have been through millions of years of evolutionary testing?

Forget the rules, and learn from first-hand experience instead. There’s so much more to be gained from not knowing how to do things the ‘correct’ way, and learning to do them your own way.

Richard Branson

I have seen pedagogy go too far and it puts me off the whole genre. My grandfather told me about his excellent chemistry teacher, so I wondered – was he guided by pedagogy or natural abilities?

He would begin lessons by asking students:

what do you want to do today lads?

This engaged the students, and apparently, the curriculum was fully covered using this approach.

I questioned my grandfather and learned the following:

burnley municipal college

burnley municipal college

Mr Binks was Chemistry teacher at Burnley Municipal College during WWII – a Technical college at the time and now a university. Under Mr Binks my grandfather aged 15 remembers learning by doing, e.g.:

  • Making gas from coal
  • Making thermometers from capillary tubing and mercury

He says that Mr Binks was very clever and it wouldn’t surprise him if he had read pedagogical books.

Were the techniques of Mr Binks innate, or based on researched pedagogical practice?

I found evidence of attempts to reform education through “hands on” and “discovery” techniques in the 1960s from Blumenfeld et al (1991), so certainly the ideas are not new. Following up on this, I found that John Dewey was a major proponent of “hands on” learning. He wrote a book in 1938 called Experience and Education, which I read with interest. In that book Dewey outlines the case for experiential learning and develops a supporting philosophy. This is what he has to say about having students decide the learning activities:

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.

In conclusion then, I find it very likely that Dewey influenced Mr Binks, and in turn, the pedagogical techniques promoted by Dewey probably had a beneficial effect on the life-long education of my grandfather. I was encouraged to learn that like me, Dewey came from a skeptical viewpoint of pedagogy, and his philosophy is strongly grounded in developing educational techniques that complement innate human biological and social characteristics. In other words, rather than subverting our evolutionary development as learners which I object to, Dewey teaches us to harness it.

My action plan is to read further works of John Dewey, and make use of his teaching in my own practice. I set out this investigation expecting to fail in my quest to identify a pedagogical basis for Mr Binks approach, because it seemed to me natural or innate. Discovering the likely link to Dewey has broadened my outlook on pedagogical thinking, therefore I plan to research how Dewey reached the position set out in “Experience and Education”. I believe this will help me to progress my own teaching by identifying common starting ideas, and exploring the pedagogical conclusions they lead to through both theory and practice.


Blumenfeld PC, Soloway E, Marx RW, Krajcik JS, Guzdial M, Palincsar A (1991). Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning. Educational Psychologist 26:3-4, 369-398, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.1991.9653139

Branson R (2014). You learn by doing and by falling over. Virgin blog. [online][accessed 22 June 2015]

Dewey J (1938). Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi Lecture.


Dewey wrote other influential books including:

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