The following is a guest blog post written by Mary Jane Drummond, a former lecturer at the Faculty of Education and renowned writer and researcher in the field of Early Childhood Education.
The death has been announced of Michael Armstrong, the author of two exceptional books about learning: Closely Observed Children (1989), and Children Writing Stories (2006). In the first, Michael Armstrong sets out, in his own words, ‘to describe the intellectual life of a class of eight and nine-year olds in a primary school in rural Leicestershire’; it is a book that has touched the working lives of countless teachers, and many others who shared Michael’s passionate interest in children’s learning.
In the second book, long-awaited by enthusiastic readers of the first, Michael brilliantly analyses a selection of children’s stories, some documented by Tolstoy in the peasant school he set up on his estate, some collected by the incomparable Vivian Gussin Paley, and many more from the primary school in Oxfordshire where he had been headteacher for 19 years.
Michael also wrote countless essays for the campaigning journal FORUM, many of them available online at www.wwwords.co.uk/FORUM. See, for example, a sparkling article about the importance of play in children’s thought and language: ‘Playful Words: the educational significance of children’s linguistic and literacy play’ in Volume 51, No.2, 2009, pp165-183. Readers who would like to be reminded of the cataclysmic events in English educational history in 1988 could turn back to Michael’s article in Volume 30, No.3, 1998 ‘Popular Education and the National Curriculum’. This is a fierce and cogent denunciation of the dysfunctional effects of the 1988 Education Reform Act, and, as it turns out, prophetically acute in its diagnosis of the long-term outcomes of the Act for children and teachers, for curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. When will we ever learn?
But Michael never gave up hope. His most recent and – tragically – final piece for FORUM is the text of his address to the Brian Simon Centenary Conference, held in March 2015 (Vol.57, No.3 2015 pp317-24, not yet on open access. See the FORUM website for more details). In this passionate speech, ‘Humanism in Education’, Michael robustly restates his abiding belief in Brian Simon’s educational vision, and his insistence ‘on the teacher meeting her students as human beings…with education as the meeting of minds within a common school in which all children are educable, and all have something to say.’ Michael concludes: ‘It is a vision that we have lost sight of. It finds no settled place in contemporary educational discourse. All the more reason to reclaim it.’ That work of reclamation must go on…