Academic Excellence Vs. Experiential Learning

Aug 03, 2018 1 Min Read
children, learning, experiences

Is it either or, or both?

IT’S a hot topic these days – the diminishing importance of academic achievement in relation to the pursuit of excellence and success.

Often, it can seem like a word or two from the likes of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos can render the traditional paths of learning obsolete as we seek to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to our development and growth.

Regardless of how flawed our conventional education model may be, there is no doubt that it still carries significant value in helping our young people cultivate the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the world upon graduation.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when discussing traditional education. It clearly retains a great deal of worth. However, as times change, existing education models seem to be the most resistant in adapting to the new demands ushered in by social and technological advances.

A breath of fresh air

What we need to consider – and consider strongly – is that focusing solely on academic excellence is neither helpful nor a guarantee of future success, even for those who consistently achieve top marks.

If we want our young people to be prepared for tomorrow’s challenges, it’s an absolute must to have a holistic approach to today’s education, one that includes experiential learning in equal (if not greater) measure to intellectual development.

It was a breakthrough of some sort when for the first time since 1987, there was no special emphasis given to the academic achievements of students in last year’s announcement of the UPSR (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah) results.

Academic vs soft skills

One of the most common concerns of today’s employers worldwide is that, while fresh graduates come equipped with the necessary practical skills to do the job, they often lack in real-life skills such as leadership, communication, and adaptability that are needed to cope with the everyday challenges of an industry.

Research from The Sutton Trust – a United Kingdom foundation focused on social mobility – found that over half of the teachers surveyed believe that real-life skills (often referred to as soft skills) are actually more important than academic skills in determining the future success of young people.
Tellingly, a staggering 94% of employers, 88% of young people, and 97% of teachers said that life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications.

As founder and chairman of The Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl puts it: “It is the ability to show flexibility, creativity, and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills.”

Wholesome, engaging education

While the notion that a holistic approach to education is needed rather than simply teaching for standard-testing, it is proving difficult to create a deep shift in attitude, despite research suggesting that experiential learning (i.e. “learn-by-doing”) is the most effective learning method.

Certainly, we’ve all experienced the difference: who among us hasn’t, on at least a few occasions, zoned out during a school lesson or university lecture?

On the other hand, when we’re actively involved in the learning process, our minds remain focused for much longer and most of what we learn sticks as a result.

Is it not time that we move past paying lip service to broadening the scope of the conventional education model, and embrace the learning methods that are best suited to 21st century learning?

Beyond conventional learning

Read More: How Do You Go About Collecting Competencies That Set You Up For Life?

In the following, I mention four highly-successful people who didn’t even complete their high school studies. We could say that these are exceptional people who possessed extraordinary talents, but that’s a simplistic view.

Every successful person puts in years of hard work and dedication prior to their achievements. What sets them apart from others was that they had an opportunity to put their soft skills (such as creativity) to use and, through an arduous learning process, they were able to bring out the best of their talents and make impressive contributions to the world.

It goes without saying that conventional learning does have a role to play in the development of our leaders of tomorrow, but it is time we recognise that it is no longer the central driver for nurturing future success stories.

We have surely arrived at the point where we need to teach our young people to learn more about what’s within themselves rather than just what’s in the school books they read.

Read: No End To Learning

Check out these four incredibly successful people who never finished school:

1. Sir Richard Branson
The British billionaire started his first business, Student Magazine, after having left school at the age of 15 and has since been involved in over 500 companies, including his famous Virgin brand. (Estimated worth: USD5.1bil)
2. Aretha Franklin
She has a number of honorary degrees from institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Princeton, but ‘The Queen of Soul’ dropped out of school at the age of 15 to look after her first child.

Her celebrated singing career has been one of music’s most iconic and, in recognition of her dedication and talent, she was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. (Estimated worth: USD60mil)
3. Mike Hudack
After leaving school at 15, Hudack joined an Internet security firm in Connecticut. Subsequently, he moved to New York to work as a consultant for Time Warner.

He later founded in 2005, leaving his position as chief executive officer in 2012 to become Facebook’s product manager. Hudack is currently the chief technology officer of European technology firm, Deliveroo. (Estimated worth: USD200mil)
4. Francois Pinault
The French multi-billionaire is currently the majority shareholder and honorary chairman of the retail conglomerate, Kering and in 1998, he purchased a majority share of London’s famous auction house, Christie’s.

Astonishingly, his journey began at the age of 11, when he dropped out of school to work at his father’s lumber mill. It was said that he wanted to leave school, in part, because his schoolmates ridiculed his poor background. (Estimated worth: USD27.8bil)

Before you go, check out this video on various life lessons learnt, brought to you by Leaderonomics! is an advertisement free website. Your continuous support and trust in us allows us to curate, deliver and upkeep the maintenance of our website. When you support us, you allow millions to continue reading for free on our website. Will you give today? Click here to support us

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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