Conference Session
Understanding “Context” to Achieve Harmony in Organizations and on Earth

Presented by Elaine Johnson


Abstract: The word “context” is used in myriad ways to refer to all kinds of situations.  This presentation will address what “context” means and why it is imperative that we pay close attention to every context we can possibly examine.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred North Whitehead, and John Dewey viewed any particular context as part of a system. Thinking systemically, they encouraged uniting action and thought, practice and reflection.  Modern educators, failing to see context as a union of the abstract and concrete, made education into a purely sedentary enterprise. Modern businesses, furthermore, attached more importance to abstract numbers than to an organization’s concrete practices.

The way human beings view any context matters, because humans alone have the power to change context. Something as seemingly innocuous as how we define “progress” or “economics” can compel us to alter our context in ways that transform Earth. Unfortunately, typically we respond to context automatically and unthinkingly. We respond to a given context by automatically downloading the opinions and values we have long held.  But to unthinkingly “download” and repeat the old values and beliefs that we long ago absorbed from parents, friends, and popular culture is to miss the meaning context holds.  We need to explore and  juggle any context’s competing claims and values. We need in this way to achieve insights and wisdom that can unfold a harmony that changes the face of the Earth.

Elaine Johnson

Biography: Elaine Johnson, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and Honorary Fellow of Huron University College, Canada, is the recipient of many teaching awards including the prestigious Outstanding Teaching Award from the University of Chicago.  Johnson holds a B.A. with honors from Mills College, an M.A. from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. Formerly a high school department chair, community college dean, and tenured university professor, currently Johnson is the Executive Director of  MBM Associates. For almost twenty years, MBM Associates has helped business leaders and educators place their work in the context of brain research.

Widely respected for her work on contextual teaching and on the brain research that supports it, Johnson has given hundreds of presentations to universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, and  businesses in the United States and Europe. Her books Contextual Teaching and Learning (Corwin Press, 2002), The Dismantling of Public Education and How to Stop It (Rowman &  Littlefield, 2004),  and Literature for Life and Work (McGraw Hill, 1997), a series of co-authored literature textbooks for grades 9-12, have significantly increased awareness of  the influence of context on the brain. Johnson’s books and classroom experience demonstrate that students succeed when they connect the content of academic lessons with the context of their own experience.
Elaine lives with her husband, Tom, in Portland, Oregon, where she recently completed a book entitled Banking and Betrayal, a study of one bank’s failure in the early 1920s, and where she teaches as an adjunct English professor at Marylhurst University.

Elaine can be reached by e-mail at for additional information about this Forum session.

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