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Tributes to Michael Eraut: 1940-2018

Emeritus Profeoor of Education, Michael Eraut

Emeritus Professor Keith M Lewin, Michael’s colleague at Sussex:

Michael Eraut, the well-known educator and longstanding Professor of Education at the University of Sussex, died peacefully at the age of 77 on 7th September.   Michael studied as an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (1959-62) and went on to complete his PhD in Organic Chemistry. He then spent two years (1965-67) as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Illinois Chicago Campus in the highly regarded Department of Instructional Development.  Michael’s was the first appointment made by Professor Norman MacKenzie to the School of Educational Studies at the University of Sussex in 1967. He was invited to develop the newly established Centre for Educational Technology as part of a leading-edge contribution to curriculum development in the UK.

The Centre’s primary objective was to explore the potential of new technology in higher education teaching.  From the start it established close links with schools and local authorities, and Michael developed a ground-breaking Diploma in Educational Technology. It was this initiative that enabled Sussex to become the first university to respond to a major shift in demand for Higher Education courses.  Hitherto the rapid expansion of Teacher Training Colleges had been served by courses in educational sociology, psychology and philosophy.  By 1970 the growth in the colleges was over and LEAs were developing large advisory services which required a different approach.

Changes in teacher training nationally in the 1970s created a new demand for what would now be known as Continuing Professional Development (CPD), for mid-career education professionals. Michael was quick to recognise the need to develop and set up a new MA programme linking Curriculum Development and the Management of Change; head teachers and senior teachers were recruited in small groups of twelve to encourage critical discussion of the practical implications of theory, and new modules were added later for local authority advisors and college lecturers, integrating organisational theory with the more conventional academic disciplines of psychology, sociology and philosophy.

These new courses were an extension of the innovative approach first developed in the Sussex PGCE, and laid the foundations for the significant contribution that Sussex was to make to the national school managements initiatives launched in the 1980s.

Michael’s early work in Educational Technology and Curriculum Development was widely admired and replicated. It produced a set of protocols for the analysis of learning materials which were used by many institutions and recognised in UNESCO publications, and led to invitations to run national and international workshops. After a sabbatical year in 1980-81 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Michael consolidated his work on educational technology in a series of publications and editorial contributions to the International Encyclopaedia of Educational Research.

Michael went on to spend the rest of his academic career at Sussex, including an influential period as Director of the Institute for Continuing and Professional Education (ICAPE) from 1986-91. Under his leadership the Institute prospered. He led with commitment, insight and humanity during a turbulent period of change, overseeing the evolution of various graduate programmes, and even managing to generate a recurrent financial surplus, not least as a result of his success as a major grant-getting academic. Michael continued to play a major role within the Department and the University, particularly in the gestation of what was to become the Medical School. He became Professor Emeritus from 2006, after which he took on various commissions, amongst others, for the University of Surrey, the Australian National University and the Royal College of Surgeons. 

Michael later became known for the work which occupied the latter part of career, researching professional knowledge and work-based learning, a field he helped to shape and in which he became an acknowledged world expert. His key insight was to unravel the many ways in which professional capability depends on learning in context, through a combination of learning from books, learning from people and learning from personal experience. In the workplace general theory is personalized and validated by practice, and this creates new ways of understanding the meaning of client-centredness, and translating knowledge into competencies. This interest led Michael to work and research across many professions, including teaching, nursing, midwifery, medicine, engineering, and business accountancy. His research has profoundly influenced education and continued learning in these professions, particularly in medicine and nursing.  Michael’s work in education, training and Learning in the Workplace is being read and appreciated by educators all over the world.

Michael held many substantial research grants from the ESRC and other funding agencies, and evaluated large scale national programmes for the UK Government, the European Union and the National Science Foundation in the USA. His books include the highly-acclaimed Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, along with many refereed journal articles, and he was the founding editor of the journal  Learning in Health and Social Care.   

Michael founded the Professional Learning Special Interest Group (SIG) of the British Educational Research Association (BERA), and sat on the executive committee of the Professional Learning Division of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).   His last book, Learning Trajectories, Innovation and Identity for Professional Development, co-edited with Anne McKee and published in 2013, won an “Outstanding Publication Award” from the AERA Division I - Education in the Professions.

Michael was a dedicated teacher. In the course of his long career more than 50 students achieved PhDs under his supervision, and many more students were offered a window into his world through his extensive and enthusiastic contributions to Masters Degree programmes. Michael was also a mentor to many of the first generation of faculty who worked at Sussex, and to those who came later. He gave his time generously, and with an economy of words and often with a very good sense of timing, he would steer events and emotions surrounding critical issues towards a plateau of rational compromise.

Michael was a scholar who understood that “people do not change their minds in meetings, but may do so after reflection later”. His wisdom and insight will be missed by all those who shared his time at Sussex, and in the academic and professional arenas he enriched with his ideas.


Cynthia Eraut, Michael’s wife:

Michael was born in Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, while his father was serving in the British Army in India and Burma during the war.  Both his parents were born in Ireland, his father in Galway and his mother in Bantry.  Michael’s paternal grandfather had been the headmaster of Galway Grammar School, before he retired to live in Cambridge. Michael’s mother was a Froebel Trained teacher, so he inherited the teaching gene from both sides of the family.

Michael first came to England in 1947, with his parents and his younger brother Dennis, on the Empire Windrush, which later began the Caribbean run in 1948.  So Michael used to say that he was one of the first immigrants on Windrush!  The family then settled in Cambridge, but Michael always regretted that he had not met his grandfather who had died a little earlier.  Michael won a scholarship to Winchester College, where he was a keen athlete and gymnast.  Although he was a good mathematician he very much enjoyed learning Russian, and was also tempted to take up history. In 1959 he won a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences, and stayed on to gain a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1965. We were married in Cambridge in 1964, and lived there for a year while Michael completed his Doctorate. While doing his research he was asked to supervise two or three deaf undergraduates, and perhaps it was this challenge that prompted him to think about ways of teaching and learning, because he dropped Chemistry in mid-Atlantic when we sailed to America in 1965.  Even so he always valued his scientific background which enabled him to engage and work with scientists at university level.

The move to the USA came when Michael won a Fulbright Scholarship, and he chose to work with the distinguished psychologist Susan Meyer Markle, who had done research with the legendary B F Skinner at his Harvard Laboratory from 1956–60.  In 1965 she had just been appointed as the Professor of Psychology and Director of Instructional Resources at the Chicago Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. We went to live in Chicago, where we had many adventures and made many friends.  We enjoyed many travels in the US, from East to West, visiting Washington DC and New York, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona, up to Vancouver and down the West Coast to Los Angeles.  During those two years in Chicago Michael devised special “Programmed Learning” courses in Maths, to enable students from Inner City and Ghetto schools to cover, step by step, the ground that they needed to cope with university level work, as too many of these students were failing – or “flunking out” - in their first year at university.  These programmes were published and fortunately earned Michael enough money to pay a deposit for a house when we returned to the UK. We had planned to stay for one year, but in fact we stayed for two; Michael was not willing to be seduced into staying longer in the USA, although I might have been tempted to do so!

In 1966, Norman MacKenzie came over to the US from the still fairly new University of Sussex, but when he visited Chicago, Michael was away teaching a summer school in Boulder, Colorado.  Sue Markle must have given Michael a glowing reference however, because Norman offered him a temporary Research Fellowship to come to Sussex to join the newly created Centre for Educational Technology.  Norman later said that this was the only appointment he had ever made without meeting and interviewing a person first!  Fortunately Michael gave him no cause to regret it.  Michael came to Sussex University in 1967 and stayed there for the rest of his academic career.

Although Michael was undoubtedly a “workaholic” he was also a loyal and devoted husband and father, always ready to take his two sons to athletics and football training sessions and matches, and always ready to encourage and support his wife’s musical activities, both performing and teaching.  He loved to follow sport, especially football, rugby, athletics and gymnastics, either live or on television, and also loved to go to concerts and to the opera at nearby Glyndebourne.  He also enjoyed visiting Museums and Art Galleries.  These were his main diversions in an eventful and very hard-working academic life. Over the years we also enjoyed some wonderful travels together in many different countries, often based on Michael’s work assignments or academic conferences.

It was a great sadness that Michael’s latter years were clouded by dementia, otherwise he could well have continued his thinking and writing, but it is good to know, from friends and colleagues and from Research Gate emails, that his work is still being read and appreciated all over the world.  He has left a valuable legacy in the field of education.

He will be greatly missed by all his family and friends.

By: Heather Stanley
Last updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2018