The Power of Experiential Learning

By my junior year of high school, I’d had enough. Reading textbooks, filling out worksheets, and taking quizzes was mind-numbingly tedious. There’s got to be a better way to learn, I thought. I started actively seeking out new experiences. Living in the Bay Area made this easy. After school, I’d hop on the train to San Francisco or Silicon Valley. That year, among other things, I participated in discussions on world affairs, volunteered at fashion shows and film festivals, and interned at a hackerspace.

Did this really count as learning?

At first, I didn’t think so. I was having way too much fun.

But I was learning. In fact, I was learning a lot more than I was at school. Although my teachers were funny, the material was interesting, and I took my studies seriously, I remember little of what I learned junior year. What’s telling is that I use even less of it.

These are just two of the major problems with classroom learning. The first is that you don’t have to truly engage in it to do well. If you memorize the material and you have basic critical thinking skills, landing an A is easy. The second issue is that it’s not applicable, unless you actually want to go into a related field. Therefore, it’s also not engaging.

Outside of school, I studied things that actually interested me. I learned how to send effective emails, make friends with adults, ask for what I wanted, find needed resources and much, much more. Because I was learning while participating in real life, the knowledge I gained was applicable in real life, too.

Although experiential learning proved to be challenging, it was also extraordinarily rewarding. When I look back on the 11th grade, I remember a year of exciting adventures and incredible growth. Because of the experiences that I had, I broke free of the idea that learning could only place in school, and discovered instead how to make the world my classroom.

Knowledge vs. Mindset

In hindsight, the most important difference between school and real life is obvious. Spending time in the classroom will teach you what to think. Seeking out varied experiences will teach you how to think. It’s a matter of knowledge versus mindset, and it’s an incredibly important distinction. People who have the right knowledge are plentiful. Unfortunately, they’re also easily replaced by Google. People who have the right mindset, on the other hand, are few and far between, and have yet to be replaced by technology. These people are valuable because they’re good at doing real things: finding information, solving problems, taking initiative, and making connections.

To cultivate this mindset in yourself, I recommend three experiences: you should intern at a startup, live in a foreign country, and build your own project. In the process, you’ll gain more perspective, naturally achieving a better attitude.

How do you measure your life?

Some people measure it in time; others, by the balance in their bank account. I measure the richness of my life by the depth and breadth of my experiences. I’m convinced that choosing this metric got me to where I am today.

Because I sought out experiences outside of the classroom, I found a community of like-minded people. Members of this community now make up my close group of friends and mentors. With their support and encouragement, I’ve had the confidence to grow into my own person. This landed me a job at a kickass company. It’s also what got me into Stanford.

I believe that who we are is a result of what experiences we’ve had. Now that you know how crucial experiential learning is, it’s up to you to make time for more experiences, and to make them count.

By Jean Fan

Jean is the Director of Community at UnCollege, an organization that helps people take control of their education. She’s taking a gap year right now before going to college (ironically). Connect with her through Twitter.