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What does learning require?

The com­plex­i­ties of learning and the future of higher edu­ca­tion were among the many topics North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun and TED con­fer­ence cre­ator Richard Saul Wurman explored on Wednesday in an engaging dis­cus­sion as part of the semester-​​long Con­ver­sa­tions at CAMD series.

Pre­sented by the Northeastern Center for the Arts, the event marked the third and final public con­ver­sa­tion this semester between Wurman and fas­ci­nating doers, thinkers, and intel­lec­tual leaders. The pre­vious two events fea­tured Amer­ican oceanog­ra­pher David Gallo and world-​​renowned archi­tect Moshe Safdie.

The hour-​​long con­ver­sa­tion fea­tured a number of thoughtful exchanges between Wurman—an archi­tect and graphic designer who is Northeastern’s inau­gural Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of the Prac­tice in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design—and Aoun, a national leader on issues crit­ical to higher education.

They dis­cussed edu­ca­tors’ role as cat­a­lysts who guide stu­dents along the path of explo­ration and knowl­edge. Aoun, who has lived and studied on three con­ti­nents, said America’s edu­ca­tion system empowers stu­dents to chal­lenge the status quo. “Dis­cov­eries happen when you ques­tion some­thing we all agree on,” he said.

On the future of higher edu­ca­tion, Aoun pointed to the trans­for­ma­tional changes cur­rently underway, including the evo­lu­tion of mas­sive online open courses, known as MOOCs, and the shift from a teacher-​​centered approach to a learner-​​centered approach. As a result, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties must be able to pro­vide flex­ible pro­grams that meet stu­dents’ evolving needs.

And what about the def­i­n­i­tion of learning? Wurman said it’s remem­bering what you’re inter­ested in. Aoun, for his part, said learning is not a pas­sive oper­a­tion; instead, it’s an expe­ri­en­tial journey, which aligns with Northeastern’s edu­ca­tion model that com­bines class­room learning with real-​​world experience.

Midway through the con­ver­sa­tion, Wurman turned the inter­viewing duties over to Aoun, who asked how Wurman goes about learning com­pletely unfa­miliar topics. Wurman answered that he writes about them.

“My books are my journey from not knowing to knowing,” explained Wurman, who has penned, designed, and pub­lished 83 books on topics ranging from foot­ball and health­care to var­ious guide­books on cities across the globe.

Later, the con­ver­sa­tion shifted to what both men described as a fun­da­mental ele­ment of learning: lis­tening. The topic came up when Wurman inquired about Aoun’s child­hood hobbies.

“I was always fas­ci­nated with lis­tening to people,” said Aoun, a noted lin­guist. “It was a great way to learn because nobody speaks in the same way.”

Wurman then issued a chal­lenge to those in the audi­ence. “Slow down your thinking process a bit and listen to every word people say. You’ll find it fascinating.”

By: Greg St. Martin