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Martin Hughes, 1949-2011

Professor Martin Hughes

Professor Martin Hughes

21 July 2011

Martin Hughes, Professor of Education and a developmental psychologist who understood deeply the role of out-of-school learning, has died. Professor Rosamund Sutherland and Wan Ching Yee offer a tribute.

Martin Hughes, who has died aged 62, was an inspired and inspiring developmental psychologist who dedicated his life’s work to understanding the social context of children’s learning and the social embedding of their knowledge and understanding.

Martin grew up in Manchester and was educated at University College, Oxford and Edinburgh University. He developed a strong interest in out-of-school  settings, and in the book Young Children Learning (with Barbara Tizard), he demonstrated that the home provides a powerful learning environment, with much richer conversations, and suggested that children’s own intellectual sense-making efforts were an essential part of the learning process.

In 1986 Martin published Children and Number, which was awarded the Standing Conference for Studies on Education Book Prize. In this book he posed a paradox: “Young children appear to start school with more mathematical knowledge than has hitherto been thought. In that case, why should they experience such difficulty with school mathematics?” (p 36). He presented convincing evidence that young children develop informal ways of writing mathematics that contrast with the system of symbols that they are required to learn at school, and that children need to build links between their informal and formal understanding of number.

In later years Martin built upon this interest through a range of projects, first at the University of Exeter, then at Bristol (where he worked from 1999 and was Head of the Graduate School of Education from 2000 to 2003). In a brilliant partnership with Pamela Greenhough, he looked at children and young people’s learning in out-of-school settings, and at what children were learning through homework. 

From 2001 to 2004 Martin directed a large ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme Project on Home School Knowledge Exchange (HSKE). This project set out to devise, implement and evaluate ways of connecting children’s in-school and out-of-school learning through knowledge exchange activities in order to enhance children’s learning. The HSKE activities were well received by teachers, parents and children and had a positive impact on children’s attainment.

As well as being the author of numerous book chapters, papers and reports and a referee of papers and research proposals for ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the Nuffield Foundation, Martin also co-ordinated the ESRC Research Initiative on Innovation and Change in Education in the mid 1990s and served as associate editor of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and the European Journal of the Psychology of Education. In 2000 he was a panel consultant for the National Science Foundation in Washington, USA. He ended his academic career with a prestigious ESRC professorial fellowship on out-of-school learning.

Martin was always committed to communicating his research to academics and teachers, although understandably cynical about the likely impact that research could have on policy makers. Nonetheless, he worked hard to include policy makers in dissemination activities. He was a brilliant academic, who always remained modest about his own achievements. His work was ground-breaking and inspirational and he wrote about his ideas so well that his work was accessible to all.

As an academic colleague Martin was loved and respected. In the words of Charles Crook: “I felt he was always a great listener. Martin seemed genuinely interested in hearing about other people’s activities and their views. Always happy to listen and then develop such conversations, rather than the strategy common in many senior academics – that is, nod politely and move on to talking about their own interests”. Martin always gave people space to develop, which was very much appreciated by his colleagues and the many doctoral students who he supervised.

A lifelong Manchester City football fan, Martin also became an Exeter City supporter when he moved to Exeter and joined the pitch invasion when the team were promoted. He was looking forward to his retirement, enjoying his garden and spending time with his extended family. His death is a huge shock to us all, but his work lives on. In so many ways he was ahead of his time. He asked difficult questions about the role of schooling and understood learning in all its complexities, from the perspective of the child. He is sadly missed.


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