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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.”