As a VC who spends a lot of time and money investing in education, people are often surprised to learn that I didn’t really care much for what was being taught in class. I wasn’t a bad student. Teachers liked me, mostly because I was nice 😇 and followed the rules. My grades were decent, and I performed highly when I needed to (on standardized tests). But, my head was rarely in the classroom. This stayed true for the entirety of my academic career, elementary school through college. If pressed to tell you a single thing I learned in a classroom, I’d have a hard time answering.
This might not seem like an argument for education, but hear me out.
I wasn’t focused on school, not because learning wasn’t important to me, but because I was finding opportunities to build knowledge and skills elsewhere 🤯. I spent my days planning school events, participating in public speaking competitions and putting together theatre productions. While at university, I organized a conference for which more than a thousand students and teachers traveled to my home city to participate. I was managing inventories and accounts, coordinating logistics and programming, practicing my TED Talk voice, and more.
I was learning a lot! I just wasn’t at a desk while doing it.
This is called experiential learning, or learning by doing. Experiential learning occurs when learners take an active approach in the learning process, compared to the passive approach of listening to a lecture.
Experiential learning promotes interdisciplinary learning in a way that education inside the classroom doesn’t. Think about it this way — when was the last time you were given a test to prove what you knew? That’s not how most workplaces measure talent. Instead, you show your knowledge and competence by working through challenges and solving problems. It’s not the isolated knowledge or skills, but the application that matters. Experiential learning teaches us how to take foundational skills, whether learned in the classroom or through prior experiences, and apply them to new challenges.
By the time I entered the workforce, I’d already had an opportunity to practice raising sponsorship money and managing large teams of fifty-plus people. I learned it in a low-stakes environment with more room for failure (read: I had already made the rookie mistakes). This came in very handy when I founded my own VC firm 27V in 2019. Even though I’d never raised a fund before, I’d already broken through the psychological barriers of asking people for money and could focus on the important stuff like the value we were providing and the impact that money would have.
Learning by doing is one element of learning outside the classroom. The other equally important aspect is social learning. Social learning is closer to how we learn every day: by observing the world around us. For example, if you watched a baseball game, without even studying it, you would walk away with a sense of how to swing a bat, how to catch a ball, and how the team works together. You might not be great at actually playing, but you’d have a sense of expectations and the social factors at play.
This is incredibly significant to how we work today. Very few careers operate completely independently. By getting out of the classroom and seeing leaders and group dynamics in action, I learned early how to work best with others. I could practice those skills and get feedback in the form of social cues which, for me, was far more meaningful than grades.
This leads to probably the most important point. In addition to teaching us new knowledge and skills, immersive learning provides a unique opportunity that’s impossible to replicate elsewhere: a deep insight into our own passions and values. Through watching other leaders, I learned what type of leader I wanted to be. By providing customer service for my conference participants, I learned an authentic way to communicate with stakeholders.
Rather than building my value set in response to what a classroom or a career told me, from an early age I was able to chart my own path based on what mattered most to me. I learned how rewarding it was to build from scratch — and even though it’s not an easy path, I kept returning to it. I learned resilience, which is critical in innovative spaces. And, I built confidence in my own abilities.
In my experience, experiential & social learning and the current classrooms are siloed — group projects don’t count 🙅♂️— but they don’t have to be. We shouldn’t abolish the classroom but challenge the mindset that it is the best or only place to learn.
Learning should happen everywhere around you. At 27V, our portfolio reflects that mindset. Fiveable makes learning social to democratize access to the best learning experiences. Edlyft connects CS learners to peer mentors and tools to help them work through challenges. Fluent puts language learning in context by teaching you a new language while you browse the web. Alpe Audio builds audio courses to help lifelong learners learn new skills on-to-go. Each of these companies uses the power of experiential, social or immersive learning (sometimes all three!) to exponentially increase learning potential. (Don’t worry — we love teachers, too! We’ve invested in tools to make their lives easier, like 101Edu and Pango.)
An added bonus I’ve found from learning outside the classroom at an early age is that I’ve never stopped learning. I still practice the same skills of reflection that I did as a teenager to understand what I could do better or how I can grow to be the leader and person I want to be. How powerful would it be if all young people started that journey then?