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In Their Own Words: Alumni Updates — Brian Johnson

Post Series: In Their Own Words -- Alumni Updates

Feel inspired by our engaged alumni and learn how significant bus Resource Experiences still impact them years after the fact!

Brian Johnson — Learning to Ask Good Questions

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Brian and a penguin!

Today, I work as an education researcher and evaluator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, a worldwide conservation organization based in New York City. If there is one thing that describes my job best, it is the importance of good questions. Research and evaluation hinge on asking well-articulated questions and then selecting the best methods for finding answers.

I first learned the importance of asking “good” questions during my years on the bus. I remember sitting outside in some of the most beautiful places on earth and generating questions to guide our meetings with activists, educators, scientists, farmers, politicians, and community leaders. We didn’t always call it “research,” but that’s what we were doing. As a learning community, we worked together to find the right questions to create dynamic and engaging conversations with our resource experiences.

Of course, some of the questions we investigated were about our own journeys. One of the first questions I explored focused on the idea of learning itself. The only other way I had ever experienced education was in a classroom—whether in school as a child or in college as an undergraduate student. That September, however, I was living and learning outside, in community, in touch with the natural world around me.

2016-04-21 09.58.08

Brian with his first bus community in Newfoundland.

During that first semester on the bus, we spent six weeks on the west coast of Newfoundland, Canada. It was a wild, wind-swept landscape, and by early September, there was already a wintry chill in the air. Our initial wilderness experience was to take place in Gros Morne National Park. The day we set out, however, a winter storm moved in and several inches of snow had fallen by the time we made it to our campsite, just before dusk. Snow continued to fall throughout the night. The storm forced us to change our plans, and instead of moving deeper into the mountains over the next several days, we stayed put. Many of us had never had the experience of encountering severe weather while living outside, and it wasn’t easy. But a few days later, as the sun began to emerge from behind the clouds, I went on a hike with some of my fellow students and faculty members. We climbed a snowy ridge and did exactly what one should do on a snowy mountain ridge—we had a snowball fight. I asked myself, “Is this really education?”

During the rest of those six weeks, we met with families in fishing communities, townspeople affected by the disappearance of local industries, and park rangers who helped us interpret the geology and ecology of that amazing landscape. Our interactions with each of these individuals and places were deepened because of the questions we asked and the stories and wisdom we heard in response. And those interactions helped me to answer my own emerging questions about my relationship to the earth and the role I wanted to play in creating change in the world. It was where I decided that I wanted to focus my career on education.

At the end of our time in Newfoundland, I wrote this poem, later published in the journal Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy. It represented the beginning of a change in who I was and what I wanted to become—and it was the result of learning to ask good questions.

Intro to Education

The other day I watched my teacher’s kite soaring high above a grassy meadow next to the sea

And I said to myself, “This is education?”

The other day I hurled snowballs at my classmates as we scrambled over a rocky mountain top

And I said to myself, “This is education?”

The other day I had my first taste of partridgeberry pie late at night in a small harbor town

And I said to myself, “This is education?”

The other day I watched the Earth wrap the moon in a milky shroud

And I said to myself, “This is education?”

And now, I remember how I used to learn, in crowded lecture halls with untouchable teachers

And I say to myself, “This is education.”

Brian was a graduate student on the bus from 1996-1998 and served as faculty from 1998-2003.