Trapped in an elevator with a Nobel Prize winner

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“We don’t have a word for learning and teaching at the same time, but our schooling would improve if we did.”—Kevin Kelly, Out of Control.

One afternoon in 1975, I entered an elevator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located near Geneva, Switzerland. In the elevator was Professor R, soon to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and generally regarded by lowly graduate students like me as a physics god. We were alone, on our way to a lecture he was giving. As he ignored me, the door slid shut, and we began to rise.

Abruptly, the elevator shuddered to a stop between floors.

We stood, not speaking, waiting for something to happen. Some thirty seconds went by, but we did not move.

Professor R swung towards the elevator control panel. He started pushing the buttons. Nothing happened. He pushed the buttons again. We remained motionless.

And then Professor R began to shout.

It was clear to me that his outburst was not driven by panic. He was yelling at the elevator because he was angry that a mere elevator could delay an important man. His anger was automatic, a habitual response when things didn’t go his way.

I stood, saying nothing. There was an intercom on the elevator panel, and I wondered how long it would be before Professor R would calm down enough for me to suggest we use it.

He was still shouting when the elevator started upwards smoothly, as if nothing had happened. Professor R stopped yelling. We stood for a few seconds more, avoiding eye contact, until the elevator arrived at our floor and the door opened. The physics god rushed out.

The lecture started ten minutes later. As I sat in the audience, Professor R showed no sign that our little elevator incident had ever occurred.

Later I learned that my momentary elevator companion was notorious for angry outbursts when he didn’t get his way. No one who knew him was surprised on hearing my experience.

Initially I thought that my brief encounter with a famous person had simply given me a good story to tell. It took a while before I realized what I had learned in the elevator.

***

Our children are born totally dependent on us. We supply sustenance, shelter, and protection from perils. As they grow they learn. At first sight it seems that their learning is a one way street. What can we learn from children?

We can relearn how to learn—if we pay attention. When my younger granddaughter, Kayla was two I’d see her every few weeks. The changes I noticed between visits were striking. At one visit it was clear from how she reacted that she understood what I said to her, but she didn’t speak more than a word or two. Three weeks later, she repeated the last word of everything I said to her; at the following visit she was creating two word sentences; at the next I heard a four word phrase; at the next when she said something I didn’t understand, she patiently repeated herself, perhaps changing a word or two. Now four years old, she is still fearless at experimenting with her world through ceaseless play, is cheerfully curious, life fascinates her, she is resilient and persistent, she is open to new ideas and experiences, and she is spontaneous.

Professor R, on the other hand, had forgotten how to learn in the ways that Kayla does. All of us seem to move in this direction later in childhood, perhaps because our increased awareness of social context causes us to self-censor natural curiosity and willingness to experiment. Right now, Kayla is out of control of her life most of the time because there are so many things she doesn’t understand, and because the adults around her steer her life in so many ways. And she responds to this state of affairs with great curiosity and ingenuity. For less than a minute Professor X experienced being out of control of his life, but for him, a new situation, a stuck elevator, evoked only anger.

Professor R understood more about physics than I ever have or will, but that day I discovered that I was wiser than him in at least one way. I knew that when you experience minor setbacks in your life, there are better alternatives than exploding with anger. Until that day at CERN I had assumed that people who society had provided as my teachers must be smarter than me in every way. Professor R showed me that this belief was wrong, and, over time, this realization has fundamentally blurred how I see the relationship between student and teacher.

I now believe that I have something to contribute to everyone, and that I can learn something from everyone. And I also believe that this is true for other adults too.

***

And this is why a peer conference de-emphasizes pre-determined official roles. Attendees figure out for themselves who and what is of value to them, and the conference format supports the resulting connections with relevant topics and people. No one makes prior assumptions about who is valuable and what should be discussed, and people move as needed between teaching and learning, moment to moment.

One can look back at a moment between two individuals and say: at that moment she was the teacher and he was the student. But in the present moment we have no way of knowing the role we may be in. There is a joy in living in a way that avoids preconceptions about our role, and that, in the process, opens us up to new experiences and learning that would otherwise pass us by.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marc_buehler/ / CC BY-NC 2.0