Michael Armstrong, a pioneering educationist, teacher, and author, passed away at 81. He consistently challenged conventional beliefs about teaching and argued that progressive methods were more rigorous, exacting, and intellectually demanding than traditional teaching methods. His work focused on a “pedagogy of imagination” that placed importance on the child’s thought and creativity. Armstrong believed that creativity was the pathway to skill development. He was known for breaking new ground in both primary and secondary school education by encouraging intellectual curiosity in children and viewing the classroom as a collaborative workshop.
In his classic book, Closely Observed Children: The Diary of a Primary Classroom, Armstrong delved into the daily happenings of a primary school class of 32, covering subjects such as writing, art, mathematics, and sciences. He believed that the true role of a teacher was that of an attentive and imaginative interpreter who could help a child develop independent thinking skills. His philosophy was that through teaching, a child could enter culture and reshape it in their image. Strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s revolutionary essays on education, Armstrong was intrigued by the idea of whether peasants should teach us instead of us teaching them.
Armstrong’s fascination with teaching stemmed from his time at Sherard school in Leicestershire, where he spent a year teaching and produced a video on the nearby river with his class. The video involved the children creating a scale model of the river, honing skills in mathematics, ecological understanding, botanical drawing, and research into flora and fauna. Armstrong’s education journey began at Methodist Culford school, attended by him as a child. He went on to study Greats and BPhil at Wadham College, Oxford and became a teacher at Wandsworth school for boys, a pioneer London comprehensive, before embarking on his research endeavors.
Armstrong’s research focused on the early days of comprehensive education, and he collaborated with Michael Young on an iconoclastic pamphlet on the small comprehensive school. He also worked on a Nuffield Foundation Resources for Learning project, which aimed to address the curriculum and teaching methods. Armstrong returned to teaching in 1970 and joined the staff of Countesthorpe community college, an experimental comprehensive school in Leicestershire. However, it was not until his time at Sherard school that he realized the full importance of primary education and decided to concentrate on music while heading Harwell primary school, Oxfordshire.
Armstrong’s legacy continues in the form of numerous American graduate students whom he taught at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, where he lectured annually as they described his courses as life-changing. In a unique collaboration with his son Tom, Armstrong produced an opera, The Buried Moon, where the entire Harwell school participated, cementing his dedication to encouraging imagination, curiosity, and creativity in children. His philosophy that the true role of a teacher is an interactive one and that the classroom is a collaborative workshop, inspired countless educationists and continues to shape current education practices.
During his lifetime, he found inspiration in the works of renowned figures such as Tolstoy, whose ideas on education he admired, as well as Italo Calvino, who fuelled his imagination. Additionally, the American education reformist John Dewey and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky were highly influential to him, so much so that he was working on a lengthy essay about the latter two before he passed away. Despite receiving a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 2000, he demonstrated tremendous strength and determination to overcome the condition, proving his ability to work and travel as usual, which impressed both his loved ones and acquaintances. He is survived by his wife, Isobel, a distinguished literary critic and 19th-century scholar, their three children – Tom, Ursula, and Stephen – and five grandchildren.