Published: 27 January 2020

Ben Elton remembers his father

The late Professor Lewis Elton made it his life’s mission to understand the practice of learning. As the University of Surrey launches a new award in his name, his son Ben Elton explains why it means so much.

Professor Lewis Elton and new lecturers in 1979
Professor Lewis Elton, front row centre, with new lecturers 1979

Ben Elton is the multi-talented master of British comedy. But he’s not the only brilliant Elton to forge a successful career in the art of communication, albeit for an entirely different audience. Here, he tells us about his late father’s lasting impact on education. "I was about 15 when my dad took the brave decision to switch from teaching physics to pioneer a whole new subject – education. Instead of focusing on what we learn, he wanted to investigate how we learn" explains Ben. Professor Elton’s career started at Battersea Polytechnic, but then relocated to Guildford with the transition of the Polytechnic to the University of Surrey. During his tenure at Surrey, he asked the vice-chancellor if he could shift the focus of his research to improving teaching and learning in universities, and he agreed.

As a result, Professor Lewis Elton (1923-2018) founded the Institute of Educational Technology in 1967. The first of its kind, he was somewhat of a pioneer. "I remember him telling me that while it takes three years to train as a primary school teacher, to teach an undergraduate you only need to graduate." Ben says. He also recalls how teaching was in Lewis’s blood. His father and brothers taught, and he married a teacher. 

"He was passionate about communication and wanted to help people make themselves understood, so that they could help others understand."

Professor Elton was an innovator in the professional development of university teachers, and he continually revolutionised and researched his own teaching and encouraged others to do likewise. The Institute became internationally renowned. And as testament to that, some of his research students have gone on to become some of the most eminent scholars in contemporary higher education.

Now known as the Department of Higher Education at Surrey, the school champions Professor Elton’s ethos by supporting and promoting excellence in learning and teaching. Using a research-led and evidence-based approach, the department enhances learning and teaching across the disciplines. It provides academic leadership and gives direction to the continued professional development of practising university teachers. And his philosophy is one that has been adopted by many universities all over the world.

The school is now headed up by Dr Naomi Winstone, a Surrey graduate and leading light in the field of further education herself. She was awarded the National Teaching Fellowship for excellence in teaching in 2016. Dr Winstone says "We are profoundly grateful to Professor Elton for his work in further education. We wanted to recognise his contribution towards higher education with a formal award."

The Lewis Elton Award for Educational Innovation is a fitting tribute, recognising a commitment to experimentation and innovation in learning and teaching, seeking to reward educational enhancement beyond traditional measures of ‘excellence’. The award is be given to a graduate of the Certificate in Learning and Teaching who demonstrates a willingness to innovate and challenge teaching practices, and a commitment to invest in the development of their educational practice. Due to a generous donation by Ben in memory of his father, a financial award is also given to the recipient to further their development as a teacher

Lego Serious Play
Lewis Elton award winner, Dr Debbie Gooch, uses Serious Lego play to aid revision sessions

This year’s inaugural award goes to Dr Debbie Gooch, whose approach to supporting student revision practices using Lego Serious Play was recognised by the Board of Examiners as innovative and challenging the status quo. Debbie says of the financial award, "I feel very honoured to have received such a generous gift – thank you to Ben! Through completing the GCL&T, which was initiated by his father at Surrey, I was inspired and given the confidence to try something new in my teaching – rather than just sticking to what I know."

Ben reflects that his father may have been unaware of how innovative he was, but that many believe he changed the way we view education. Ben explains,

"Every now and then people come over to talk to me. I’ll be thinking it’s another Blackadder fan wanting to quote Baldrick. But then it turns out to be someone who wants to tell me that my dad changed their life."

So how does the Elton family feel about the award? "The whole family are very proud of him. To have arrived in the country as a 15-year-old refugee boy in 1939 and end up the recipient of the Times Educational Supplement Lifetime Achievement Award is quite something. Now he has an award in his name, which I’m proud to support. I, and my family, offer our heartiest congratulations to Dr Gooch – the very first recipient of the Lewis Elton Award."


If you would like to make a gift to the University of Surrey in your will, or in memory of a loved one, please contact Kate Redrup, Advancement Manager (Legacies) k.redrup@surrey.ac.uk  +44 (0)1483 689 264

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