By Ian McNay
Lewis died on 29 September. I have missed him, as have many people, since he withdrew from public life when he spotted the early symptoms of dementia a few years ago. What follows is not an obituary but more a written memorial service, a celebration of the admiration and affection we had for him, with contributions from Society members influenced by him.
The first contribution is from Harriet Croft (formerly Greenaway) whose period as Vice-Chair of the Society overlapped with Lewis’s period as Chair, at a challenging time. She also gives some basic background for younger members who may not be familiar with it. So, new readers start here.
Lewis Elton, who has died at the age of 95, was one of the founders of the SRHE. He was Chair for 1976 and 1977. He had an interesting history. His German Jewish father had obtained a post in the UK shortly before the Second World War and, after some difficulty, the rest of the family also made it to London. Lewis and his brother Geoffrey also became academics.
Lewis was a physicist, working at the Battersea College of Advanced Technology. When it became the University of Surrey, he moved to Guildford where he later shifted his career emphasis and set up an Institute for Educational Technology. He defined ‘educational technology’ as ‘research-based practice’ and it was from this base that his work on teaching methods developed.
Lewis was short of stature but large of personality. He could always be relied upon to be the first person to ask a question, or make a comment, when that awkward pause came at the end of a presentation of a paper. His observations were always thoughtful. For instance, at the SRHE Annual Conference in December 1971 when Innovation in Higher Education was the theme, he drew on analogies of both nuclear physics and then on his Jewish awareness. The conference report states that ‘he thought that a university might well be compared to a factory housed in a country house in a kibbutz’. Commenting on another paper, on educational technology, he argued for more teacher training in higher education, comparing the benefit this has had for primary education.
This was a period in which the SRHE was seized of the importance of training academics in teaching methods; Lewis Elton was one of those who was much involved in the work to establish the Society’s role in it. Staff development became a significant theme throughout the period in which Lewis was a member of the Governing Council.
He became Chair unexpectedly in January 1976 when Professor Roy Niblett had to retire on grounds of ill health. He ensured that I became his Vice-Chair, which was useful as having been an Administrator of the Society, I had an empathy and understanding of the situation of the staff when the Society found itself in severe financial straits. Lewis led the SRHE through one of its most difficult phases. When he became Chair, the finances were so precarious that it became necessary to move the office from central London and he engineered its move to the University of Surrey. This led to a wholesale change of staff which was handled with sensitivity and some success in the appointments made. There were some positive developments with the successful establishment of the Journal.
During his period as Chair, Lewis also inaugurated a membership drive and attempted to solve the problem of how to get the Society’s publications onto a more commercial footing. From its inception SRHE had been its own publisher but sales were not huge. It took some years before new arrangements came into being but Lewis Elton was involved in early discussions on this topic.
In the Annual Report for 1977 Lewis reported that, after his gloomy report the previous year, the Society’s finances were in the black, and good relations had been established with many other educational bodies or funding agencies, and some sponsorship had been received for the Annual Conference.
He also used his diplomatic and negotiating skills in persuading the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics to support, with some funding, an SRHE survey of the policies for the training of polytechnic teachers. This considerably extended, but built on, the earlier SRHE survey of training of university teachers in 1971.
Lewis took his responsibilities as Chair seriously, and in my tribute to him in his final Annual Report, I referred to his ‘lively and hardworking style’. Indeed, he frequently telephoned me at home in the evenings or at weekends to discuss the Society’s business. Having served since the Society’s inception on the Governing Council, and two years as Chair, he chose not to seek further election at the end of his tenure, despite pleas to do so. However, he remained an active member at conferences for many years.
After retiring at the age of 65 Lewis Elton became a government adviser, and subsequently Professor of Higher Education at University College, London and then Visiting Professor and the University of Manchester. This lively man continued working well into his later years.
Harriet Croft, Former SRHE Vice-Chair
Others, from different generations, can fill in details of working with Lewis in his support to colleagues’ and students’ learning and later professional development.
Memories of Lewis Elton
I initially encountered Lewis Elton in 1966 when he was Professor of Nuclear Physics at the University of Surrey, in the first term of my physics degree doing Atomic Physics. He was the star lecturer of the course and could clearly explain all manner of complex phenomena—special relativity, wave-particle duality—in ways that I thought I understood. He gave specular demonstrations, inviting students on to the stage to twirl in a chair to demonstrate angular momentum or to get one of us to volunteer to work out which was a fresh egg and which was hard-boiled by spinning it. The choice was tested it by cracking the egg on the head of the unsuspecting student. I thought I understood these topics but I was found wanting when I did less well on Atomic Physics than my other subjects. I learned the painful lesson that thinking one understands is no substitute for being able to do it for oneself, even with the images of a top lecturer in one’s mind!
Far from putting me off, this and the experience as a student of other innovations in the physics course furthered my interest in teaching and learning. When, in my final year, I discovered that Lewis was starting the Institute for Educational Technology and moving from his role as Head of the Physics Department, on graduation I joined him as his first full-time PhD student in higher education. It was an exciting time as all of us, students and research fellows in the Institute, were exploring together what it meant to improve teaching and learning in higher education. Despite his apparently sharp public image, he provided a wonderful environment in which I and my colleagues were free to pursue our interests. He didn’t tell us what to focus on or how to go about our investigations, but created conditions in which we could think and argue with each other and develop our own talents. That so many students from this small group went on to hold chairs in higher education and related areas is testimony to the stimulating context he provided.
Lewis became increasingly known nationally and internationally as a powerful advocate for the importance of university teaching and in the process gained great recognition. He could draw on his high disciplinary standing and his incisive intellect to speak out on behalf of teaching improvement, the training of university teachers and a scientific approach to the analysis of educational problems, and he took every opportunity to do so. He was the first to ask questions in any presentation and keep the speaker focused on educational implications. While many others also contributed to the establishment of the field of teaching and learning in higher education, his was a consistent, articulate and fearless voice that took the message to the highest levels. At the University of Surrey and later at University College London he provided a strong role model for all those who followed in arguing the case for the teaching role of the university and the professional development of academics.
David Boud, Alfred Deakin Professor, Deakin University, Professor Emeritus, University of Technology Sydney
Lewis Elton 1923 – 2018 A Tribute
Lewis’s challenging beginnings, escaping Prague in the nick of time, and his first academic career as a theoretical physicist, have been well documented elsewhere. By the time I joined his research group in 1980 at the Institute for Educational Technology (later Educational Development – IED), he was firmly established as an educational guru, having rescued the SRHE from dire financial straits and led it to greater publication heights as chair and lead figure of the Academic Staff Development (ASD) group.
He gathered around him colleagues and researchers with constructivist philosophies, all of us intent on demonstrating that education is better when agentic rather than reactive, all of us flourishing in the challenging but supportive, essentially collegial environment that he nurtured in the IED and SRHE. Little did I know then as a doctoral researcher how much that influence would pervade and orientate my professional life – much as it has done with others.
We students engaged in broad-reaching yet in-depth research methods and skills training as well as weekly seminars and daily challenging discussions with professors, led by Lewis. They would listen patiently to our arguments, demand more evidence, defend their viewpoint, but be willing to accept a stronger case if well-supported. Since then, finding that these were innovations rather than normal practices, many of us have tried to introduce such doctoral support into other institutions.
Thereafter, as the members of the SRHE ASD gathered around the conference bar, loosening our protective post-PhD intellectual coats, we would share confessions that supervision and examining were ‘skin of teeth/seat of pants’ activities, professional adventures into the unknown with little guidance. Lewis encouraged us to explore and challenge those aspects of learning and teaching, ensuring they were included as foci for research and debate in the pioneering distance-learning Advanced Diploma and Masters courses devised when he brought us together in the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching in Higher Education, following the amalgamation of IED with Adult Education in the mid-80s.
Then, just before he retired from Surrey in 1988, a lucky few of us followed this slight, grizzled figure, in sandals and socks with his knapsack on his back, to far-flung Universities to provide academic development workshops for the British Council, establishing global networks of people passionate about improving teaching and learning in HE.
Lewis pretended to retire numerous times, a trick he taught several of us, instead moving to UCL, University of Manchester, and advising government on HE issues. In 1992 he gathered together ex-students and colleagues to produce another iconic distance-learning series for staff on Active Learning in HE. He supported Pat Cryer in the 90s to establish the SRHE Postgraduate Interest Network and Doctoral Education Guides which, after she retired in 2005, I was honoured to take on to keep the flame burning.
Lewis was kind, generous and irascible, a pioneer in urging, cajoling, pestering and supporting academics to excel in their jobs. In 2006 Paul Ashwin edited a compilation of reflections, written with respect and affection by those whose careers had been inspired by him, to celebrate Lewis’s lasting effect on HE: Changing HE – The Development of Teaching and Learning. Despite many other accolades and honours, I know he particularly treasured those tributes.
To give a glimpse of the man I will re-tell the story that his son, Ben, provided in his funeral tribute to his Dad. ‘Dad loved it when people were willing to engage with him in debate. And he was always willing to admit he was wrong if you provided a good argument. Of course, he would then do a lot more research for himself, and finally return to demonstrate that there were indeed many valid perspectives on the topic – so he could well prove to be right in the end!’ Our tears and laughter recognised how well this encapsulated Lewis.
Pam Denicolo, Professor Emerita of Postgraduate and Professional Education, University of Surrey/University of Reading
Reflections on Professor Lewis Elton
I first met Lewis Elton when I was a lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University, Belfast. Lewis was carrying out an evaluation of QUB’s response to the Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) project and I was one of the academics lined up to talk about the work I was doing. Senior Management at QUB was not overly supportive to staff engaged in EHE activities and this was something Lewis discerned through interviewing staff like myself. On being interviewed by Lewis, I was giving him an overview of my project, which was introducing open-ended ‘real-life’ science projects for first year students, which included introducing peer-, self- and tutor assessment. To my surprise, Lewis said to me ‘would it be fair to suggest that you are a thorn in the side for your Head of Department?’ I was quite shocked by his insight, feeling I had not given away too much about how my senior colleagues considered me to be completely mad for suggesting students could assess themselves! To my delight, Lewis suggested I write up my work and get it published. This moment actually marked the start of my journey to becoming an academic developer.
I moved from the biosciences into academic development in 1994 when I took up a lectureship in the Centre for Academic Practice at the University of Strathclyde. There I came up against some criticism along the lines of – what does a scientist know about academic development? Therefore, I set about trying to find a route to gaining a qualification in this field to gain credibility and, at that time, the possibilities were few and far between. As it happened, I came upon a Postgraduate Diploma in Higher Education Research and Development offered by UCL that could be carried out through distance learning. I cannot quite express my delight on being accepted as a ‘student’ on this course and finding out that my tutor was none other than Lewis Elton.
Starting this programme was quite tricky. Lewis and I did not seem to understand one another fully when I outlined the aims and objectives of my first assignment. The real reason for this was that Lewis was very exacting and I was very broad brush. Instead of trying to communicate by email, we took to communicating by fax. It seemed to work, we got on like a house on fire. I thoroughly enjoyed completing my assignments and I considered the feedback that Lewis provided to be outstanding. He truly did support his students to close the gap between actual and hoped for attainment and it became my mission to do for my students what Lewis had done for me. He was such a role model for great pedagogy.
When I completed the programme, Lewis invited me to write a paper with him, which was in essence an evaluation of the UCL postgraduate DipHERD. I felt so honoured at the time. Imagine, writing a paper with Lewis Elton! Lewis was extremely generous in putting me as first author because I was still at an early stage in my career.
For many years after I was his student, Lewis was a constant support and great mentor to me. He had navigated many of the pathways of academic politics and so for me, was very often my ‘go-to person’ to discuss the many challenges academic developers face throughout their career.
I am most grateful to Lewis for the fabulous start he provided for me in my academic development journey.
Stefani, L; Elton, L; (2002) Continuing professional development of academic teachers through self- initiated learning. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 27 (2) pp 117-129.
Lorraine Stefani, Emeritus Professor Higher Education, University of Auckland, NZ
Lewis Elton: A personal reflection
Lewis Elton was an expert in a number of fields. My experiences of Lewis were as a higher education researcher and as my PhD supervisor.
Lewis was my PhD supervisor in the late 1990s. He was a brilliant teacher and the perfect supervisor for me. During my PhD, I would often get very excited about new ways of conceptualising teaching and learning. This was often a way of avoiding engaging with the difficult task of making sense of my data and developing an argument for an original contribution to knowledge. Lewis was always very generous in the face of these new ideas but would insist that they needed to do more than simply re-describe our existing understanding in a new way. This challenge led to the productive rejection of a number of exciting ideas that, when I had arrived at my supervision, I was fully convinced were going to lead to a revolution in our understanding of teaching and learning. I did this many times but Lewis’s generosity never wavered nor did his insistence on the careful, critical analysis of what these new ideas might offer.
Lewis’s great strength was that he had a deep insight into both the nature of teaching and learning in universities and the nature of universities as organisations. The way in which he brought these two together meant that his analysis of change in higher education had an unusual depth and rigour. He was equally committed to explaining these ideas in an engaging and accessible manner. Thus there are a whole range of Lewis-isms that I still find helpful today. One of my favourites is his characterisation of the ‘Where there is death, there is hope’ strategy of change. This was Lewis’s rightfully dismissive description of trying to introduce organisational change by recruiting new staff with new ideas and waiting for those who are deemed ‘unchangeable’ to leave. Lewis’s important point was that such approaches, rather than leading to sustained changes, are most likely to lead to the new staff changing to fit in with the established ways of working.
Lewis wrote in a straightforward and accessible manner. His refusal to hide behind jargon is again a testament to his great understanding of higher education. Lewis’s work is often overlooked because it was published in journal articles rather than being brought together in glossy books on teaching and learning in higher education. However, if you take the trouble to find it, you will be rewarded with an analysis of higher education that stands the test of time. For example, his various articles on defining and measuring teaching excellence and quality, although in some cases over thirty years old, offer a more powerful analysis of the travails of the English Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) than anything else I have read.
Overall, Lewis’s contribution to higher education was marked by a deep commitment to improving the quality of teaching and learning in universities. He was one of the least pretentious and most insightful commenters on higher education and is greatly missed.
Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education, Lancaster University
Personal recollection of Professor Lewis Elton
Lewis Elton was a key founder of the field of academic development of HE as a field of study; to the younger generation his ideas and influence have simply always been there. I know others who have known him longer, have set out his enormous contribution to the field, I will just add a personal postscript here. As a young PhD student and recent graduate I recall the very first academic conference I ever attended (the British Psychology Society Education Section Annual Conference) where the first keynote speaker had scarcely finished before Lewis leapt up and started a passionate and vigorous speech. I wondered if all academic conferences were like this and if everyone was as eager to debate as Lewis, but truly there was no one else like him! His contributions remained a memorable feature of so many conferences and seminars I have attended since.
Following his involvement with the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative, of which he was always immensely proud, he was appointed Professor of Higher Education at UCL in 1994 and founded the Higher Education Research and Development Unit. I only got to know him personally in 2000 on joining what was then UCL’s Department of Education and Professional Development, growing rapidly under Toni Griffith with the help of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Funds. Although Lewis held posts at other universities, his commitment to the department and especially younger colleagues remained long after he officially retired: he continued attending the department regularly and was very generous with his time. He could not have been more supportive of us all; he liked to ask for our latest ideas or paper and then go for lunch to interrogate us about it, with the greatest warmth and wisdom. We spoke on many and diverse other subjects too as his interests were so wide. At one such lunch Lewis was fully engaged in discussing the struggles of the four working mothers of EPD present, having rather more parenting experience than any of us. At one point a colleague joked that she had been in such despair at her child’s behaviour she considered adoption for an instant, and Lewis asked ‘But why do you think an adopted child would be any easier?’ He was so immensely proud of all his children it was clear he could only imagine wanting more and giving up on any child was inconceivable to him. He was always generous in sharing his experience, but he listened and took great interest in the experience of others too.
His support for the younger generation of learners was demonstrated again as the student protests of 2010 took off and the UCL student occupation became a creative combination of conceptual art installation, virtual office for Guardian journalists, performance venue and drop-in centre for leftist commentators and non-stop debates on the purpose of Higher Education. Several of us in EPD were contributing to the schedule of education events and Lewis, of course, came too and shared his views on government policy on student fees, the management of UCL and the restructuring of educational development, which I fear are all unprintable. Lewis had retired some years before and appeared a slight and frail figure standing in front of a large semi-circle of attentive cross-legged students, but his righteous indignation was towering. He was an absolute iconoclast, sometimes a provocateur, always ready to remind us what had gone before, and never afraid to speak his mind. Despite his increasing frailty and health problems his enthusiasm for teaching, writing and talking on his passion for education was never dimmed.
Lewis had a gift for communicating colourfully and clearly and so many of his ideas and phrases will always remain with me. UCL printed the text of his inaugural lecture on whether university teaching is researchable, and a decades later we were still using it in professional developmental classes with colleagues; who can forget his question ‘what kind of camel are you lecturing to?’ If you have not read it, he argued that whether a normal distribution (one humped camel) or bimodal distribution (two humped camel) the pace of a purely didactic lecture will always be wrong for the majority of students. I heard of his death with great sadness and remember his life with great admiration and affection.
Elton, L. (1995), ‘Is university teaching researchable?’, Inaugural lecture, University College London, 9 March.
Holly Smith, University College London
My association with Lewis was less intensive. He was always supportive of me, as a new professor – he came to my inaugural at Greenwich, and his comments to Paul on universities as organisations and organisational change were very pertinent. His HEQ article on the RAE/REF as illustrating the law of unexpected consequences of policy decisions, was a constant reference point and citation in my work on research quality assessment and the disjunction of ends and means. He also came to most of the seminars in the ESRC funded series run on behalf of the Society, and presented a paper to one of them. Like others, I remember him at events: always bouncy and bubbling with enthusiasm. He was a boon to those chairing plenary sessions; when a session was thrown open to the floor for comments after the presentation, there was no slightly anxious wait for someone to break the ice, and the silence. Lewis started the ball rolling. He did need to come with a safety warning: anyone using in their presentation or argument German educational theorists or philosophers needed to be very sure of their ground. Lewis had read them all, in the original language.
His generosity went beyond what others have already exemplified. The University of Surrey has a Lewis Elton Gallery with the Lewis and Mary Elton Art Collection including donations of works by Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Cocteau. The University of Sussex Centre for German-Jewish Studies has the Elton/Ehrenberg archive of family papers. The staff working in Sheffield on Enterprise in Higher Education had an unexpected night out when Lewis produced tickets for a Ben Elton gig in the city.
Finally, he was an innovator, and well deserved to be the first person awarded the THE lifetime achievement award in 2005. He started two new centres, and the first Master’s programme in Higher Education, helping to pave the way for ILT and HEA. The disruption of people’s established prejudices was not always welcome, but what other academics have taken up new posts – with EHE aged 66, at UCL aged 71, where he founded the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and Manchester at 80, before the retirement age was abolished? His quality and potential contributions were recognised by those brave enough to offer the jobs, and he justified their confidence. He has left a significant footprint on the Society’s concerns, and made it easier for others to follow.
Ian McNay, Emeritus Professor, Higher Education and Management, University of Greenwich
Further contributions or responses are very welcome, and these can be added in the Leave a Comment section below, or – if preferred- e-mailed to the Society c/o Rob Gresham at email@example.com