Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ What I Learned In High School

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 04, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, February 4, 2008.

Following on a thread from Clay Burrell and Harold Jarche...

I actually learned a great deal in high school. Most of it wasn't the approved curriculum.


In grade ten my English teacher Jamie Bell - a young idealistic educator full of new ideas - had us all do writing journals. It could be anything we wanted and - as I've mentioned before - I filled mine with stories, crosswords, drawings and more. From that point on I kept writing for myself, the way that project taught me, filling numerous notebooks before finding a web space in which to express myself.

I was also taught public speaking in English class. Technically this began in grade five. But it continued throughout high school. I won the school championships in grades five, eight, nine, ten and eleven (it was a small school).

I discovered science fiction in high school (specifically, John Christopher's 'The White Mountains' and Arthur C. Clark's 'A Fall of Moondust') and read that during English class instead of the official texts. I was also reading the classics (from a series that my mother bought) - Twain, Crane, Stevenson, Swift, Weiss, London and many more. These gave me a vista far more sweeping than the school texts, and let me see myself as (potentially) a hero.

In grade 12 I was supposed to read Dickens (we were finally done with years of Shakespeare) which I hated. I was tested on content (what colour was so-and-so's shirt) which I thought was degrading, so I boycotted then. I did take the final exam, though, and so managed to finish the year with a respectable (but still failing) 44 percent.


I took 12 years of French and found I was not qualified to work for the government after I graduated because I was still unilingual.

Social Studies:

I enjoyed World Politics and I supposed I learned the basics of political systems. I enjoyed the model stuff that we did:

- model parliament (I managed to win 30 percent of the vote in a school-wide election running as the leader - and only member - of the Fascism Reform Party. This made me leader of the opposition in a minority government. With the socialists I toppled the government and then made their party illegal. Now possessing a clear majority in parliament, I made the socialists illegal as well, thus becoming the only member of parliament. The governor general intervened so I shot him (no I didn't - I had a screaming fit and swore at Mr. Greenfield and his "bloody class" - I was very passionate when I was 16 ))

- model Premiers' conference (naturally, I was the prime minister - I wrote to the government for advice and got pages and pages of policy papers and procedural notes, which I basically committed to memory - something that has served me well in chairing meetings ever since)

- model commonwealth conference (subbing for Jane Cooper as the representative from 'England' - and therefore having to crib overnight to prepapre) city-wide, in which I learned that the high class kids from Ashbury may be dressed to the nines, but they weren't any smarter than I was)

- model revolution - definitely an unsanctioned action, the 'Movement for Autocratic Organization' overthrew social sciences - I learned that it's easy to plan a revolution and to write a manifesto, but the reality is very very difficult to pull off - because you have to win the support of the people (aka the students) which is not such a simple matter.


I tried out and lost a male part to a girl. I learned some play. I learned I liked Randy-Lee Gbert (not a typo, it was a very odd last name). Nothing ever came out of either thing though.


Pretty much nothing. By the time I hit high school I was competent with basic mathematics. I could do geometry and measure areas and stuff like that. I zoned out right around the day they decided to teach me quadratic equations (which, somehow, I knew was specialized knowledge).


I'm not sure when I learned the basic laws of motion, friction, force, acceleration, and all that, but I learned them.

In my closed ecosystem project I learned that nature needs sunlight. I also learned that going way way overboard on a project (I kept my ecosystem long after the rest of the class gave up, and then submitted a detailed notebook with graphs of months of measurements, drawings, references, theories, the rest) is sometimes rewarded (with a 20/10 woo hoo!).

Um, what else? I never did made anything explode (not for lack of trying). I learned I didn't want to cut animals open (and hence skipped most of the biology classes). I learned that the experimental; method was a fraud (because we were doing 'experiments' but were penalized if we didn't get the 'right' results - which, of course, is a contradiction).


Oh, I loved geography.

I learned the shapes of every country in the world, their location, their capital cities, their flags, their forms of government, their populations (roughly), their major exports, and some of their history. Mind you, I learned this from reading world almanacs, but I digress...

I learned everything about Ecuador.

I did a major project on the Danube River (so it was a special thrill to finally see it when I went to Vienna, even if it has been rerouted far away from the city center). I wrote to the embassy of every government along the river (I picked the river because it had lots of governments) asking for information. They all responded - the communist countries right away, Austria next, and West Germany dead last and well after the end of the school year.

I did a project about the northwest territories and learned all the islands.

I learned urban geography which led to a lifetime habit of creating complex city maps in the margins (and sometimes on whole pages) of my notebooks. I remain to this day an inveterate critic of transit systems, highway intersections, left turn lanes, parkland planning, city profiles, and more. I was seriously tempted in later life by a career in geography (I didn't have the eyes for cartography, sadly, because it really was my first passion - I still love maps of all kinds).

I probably learned more, but that's the main stuff.


I learned all the explorers (specifically: the Vikings, Columbus, Cabot, Tasman, Hudson, Magellin, Drake, Frobisher, Mackenzie, Franklin, Thompson, Livingston, Stanley) and where they went (I made maps, of course).

I also learned enough ancient history in Ancient History class (it was an experimental class with only eight people - I sat next to Janet McGee (the girl who took my role in drama) and she liked me. I learned just enough about the Greeks and the Romans to become fascinated by them (my actual knowledge of the Greeks and Romans is based much later readings of Herodotus and Gibbon).


I took grade 11 and grade 12 economics in grade 11, discovered I was very good at it, and lost interest.


I was pretty good at art, but never really received any instruction or technique. So, to this day, my only real artistic ability is to copy. I like taking photographs, though, and with my father set up a black and white photo lab at home.

Industrial Arts

I learned I was very good at drafting. I learned to print (that is, to print properly, with proper form, beautiful writing), which became my 'handwriting' thereafter (including even my signature, which is today (sadly) a bad scrawl - maybe time to fix that). I learned basic drafting techniques, including the three-sides diagrams and the exploding diagrams.

I learned how to weld. I could probably still run a bead - I really liked that. I learned basic carpentry (which was, essentially, how to use power tools without injuring myself).

Phys Ed

I hated phys ed.

I learned I cannot kick a 30 yard field goal, even if my grade depends on it.

I learned I was the 4th fastest kid in school (over distances greater than a mile). I learned that this does not translate into a starting spot on the soccer team. Apparently you need to be able to kick.

I learned the rules of curling and how to curl. As a skip, I am undefeated (1-0, lifetime).

I learned the proper way to hold a golf club. Sadly, this does not translate into 200 yard drives. It does, however, help a lot with putting.

I learned that if you show even the lightest weakness, people will exploit it; that if your clothes are even slightly ripped, people will rip them to shreds; that if you feel pain, people will inflict it.

25 years Later

I went to my high school reunion. My presence at the high school had been completely obliterated. there was no trace.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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