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What does learning require?

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, right, and Richard Saul Wurman, the TED conference creator and a Distinguished Professor of the Practice in the College of Arts, Media and Design, discussed the complexities of learning and the future of higher education on Wednesday. Photos by Brooks Canaday.

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