Learning by doing

By Sepiso Dean Mwamelo

Sepiso Dean Mwamelo Photo: Sepiso Dean Mwamelo

In the past few years, John Dewey and the likes have reformed learning through popularising the concept of ‘learning by doing’. The main gist of the concept is that learning should not be passive and theoretical, but it effectively happens through relevant and practical experiences. I for one have found this concept to be absolutely true.

I have had a front seat experience of this phenomenon during my first ever internship right after high school. I had learnt every business concept a high school student should know and had a collection of straight A’s on my transcript, but I just didn't know how to be part of a team, let alone manage my work relationships. As such, all the knowledge I had could not be effectively utilised during my internship. The only way I could learn and accordingly actualise my potential was through a series of multiple internships where I had the opportunity to exercise my interpersonal and team working skills.

Unfortunately, this situation is common for many people who are great students, with impressive GPAs but cannot thrive in the workplace because they are ‘unemployable’. Following John Dewey’s concept, the only way to effectively learn how to thrive in the workplace is to be in the workplace and develop the skills needed a concept that Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership Group, would call ‘Building the plane while flying it’.

During my internship with ESSA, I worked as a researcher for the organisation’s Scholarship Impact Hub. As I researched various scholarship programs in sub-Saharan Africa, it was almost standard to see scholarship providers requesting applicants to submit CVs showcasing their work and internship experiences. This is because scholarship providers understand the value that learning by doing has on a student and the work maturity one can gain through internships.

Some institutions such as the African Leadership University (where I am currently a student), even mandate students to take time off school to pursue an internship. As I worked for ESSA this year, I gained first-hand experience of being part of a global team. As this was my first time working with a team that was fully remote, I learnt how to communicate effectively, maintain team synergy and manage my time as I was still in school during the internship. It goes without saying that this internship was a value-adding experience that has enabled me to apply and contextualise concepts that I had learnt in school.

I was, however, dismayed when I returned home to find a lot of my peers not doing internships mostly because companies don't traditionally offer internships. Upon research, I found a piece written by Jonathan Jones, Head of Investment Talent Development at Point72 Asset Management. He outlines the benefits that organisations gain through having internship programmes, the key benefit outlined was that having interns helps an organisation to begin identifying top talent that can be later given full-time employment.

Undoubtedly internships benefit both the interns and hosting organisations. My hope is that more African and African based organisations open their doors for interns to learn by doing. I believe this is a positive step towards developing the continent and solving the persistent problem of unemployment.


Sepiso is a third year student at the African Leadership University, Mauritus pursuing a BA(Hons) in Business Management.