Margaret Donaldson 1926-2020

A tribute.

She used to wander freely as a child, Margaret said: climbing the hill backing onto their house in rural Perthshire, and often lying on the slopes, just looking up at the clouds and thinking. This is my enduring image of Margaret – looking at clouds and thinking! That freedom to wander, which she remembered and cherished, seems to capture her as a person. It captures her adventurous forays into immediate post-war Europe, teaching French, speaking to soldiers, hitching a ride back to the UK in a Lancaster bomber! It captures her career, moving from French to Psychology to Painting to Photography and Digital Art. More than anything it captures her remarkable attraction for ideas which ran free. She was drawn like a moth to a flame when people confronted her with challenges to her own thinking – offering a quite remarkable potential for dialogue to her many students and colleagues whom she continued to welcome to her home until the end. As I write this, the memory of her encouragement of ideas washes over me – as does the incomprehension of the thought that we cannot talk about them to her anymore.

Margaret is probably best known for her ground-breaking book Children’s Minds, challenging standard Piagetian claims in the late 1970s. Having won a one-year grant to write the book, she wrote it in one stretch of three months she said – not bad going for a book that still captures undergraduate imaginations across the world in Psychology and Education. The book begins with a utopian scene of pre-school children lying around in a courtyard, drawing, looking at books, watering plants, enjoying the (rare) Edinburgh sunshine and chatting with smiling teachers. Its power, however, lies in Margaret’s question of why this idyll is so sharply lost in later school years: a question that is still painfully relevant. Her sense of this loss of confidence as children develop was strong and she worked for many years on strategies for children’s reading, writing children’s fiction and seeing the world through their eyes. Her idea that children’s books (and not sweeties) should be on the checkout stands at supermarkets is something we can still hope will be taken up by a business-minded society.

Her work on the necessary embeddedness of cognition was a turning point in cognitive developmental psychology. By seeing embeddedness not as a developmental primitive, or as a problem with thought, but rather as a way of making sense of the world, a ‘human sense’ as she called it, she unlocked the door to a much more grounded and situated developmental psychology. She never settled for easy answers. And her last book – Human Minds, in which she tries to understand the development (and unity) of thought and feeling well beyond childhood – is a testament to her attraction to challenge.

Jerome Bruner saw Margaret’s spirit as ‘ineluctably and irreversibly Edinburgh’ – a tribute to her ability to stay local in a wider intellectual context, her situational approach to meaning and her shunning of all-or-none conceptions of growth. Her portrait in the beautiful building of Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery is not the only aspect of Margaret Donaldson that will endure.

Vasudevi Reddy

Emeritus Professor of Developmental and Cultural Psychology

University of Portsmouth

See also the obituary in The Scotsman.

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