A tree is known by its fruit…

In Metaphor and Thought (1993) Otorny speaks of two principal standpoints: the constructivist and non-constructivist view. I take it here that metaphor for me is constructivist in its deployment – that is asking you the reader to go beyond the literal. This is a cognitive rather than a solely linguistic undertaking. Lakoff adds that, ‘in short, the locus of metaphor is not in language at all, but in the way we conceptualise one mental domain in terms of another’. According to Yob (2003) metaphors are best employed, ‘when one wants to explore and understand something esoteric, abstract, novel or highly speculative‘. Using a metaphor to describe an education system seems appropriate because, says Yob, ‘knowing how human beings come to know [education is] also highly speculative.’ I propose that we best understand the nature of an organisation when we describe it in such terms. An organisation (from the Latin ‘organum‘ with connotations of a living organism), as Margaret Wheatley might understand it, is best understood as a series of relationships and/or systems so work by Wheatley in particular speaks of organisations as relational phenomena. She notes that, “every organisational power is purely relational” that “power in organisations is generated by the capacity to build relationships”. It is an “energy that comes through [healthy] relationships”.[1]

Education infographic showing the whole system with stakeholders.

Infographic showing the school system and the environment in which it sits.

“Schools are like trees in an orchard, they are far stronger when they grow together and nourishment of the individual tree comes through the management of its rootstock and not continued clipping of its branches. One might hope that a tree would yield much fruit but the health of a tree is not purely determined by the ‘quantity’ of fruit; a more holistic picture is drawn when we understand the quality of produce that flows as a result of good farming.”

The produce of the education system.

The produce of the Education tree.

  1. Lush green foliage and beautiful flowers are not always the sign of a healthy tree system
  2. …and apple trees in particular take some time (5-7 years) to yield good fruit. Education cannot be rushed.
  3. Apple trees yield between 120 and 450 pounds of apples every year. One might assume that the bigger the yield the healthier the tree, but is that so?
  4. …is the system there to yield fruit or the possibility of many final outcomes? If you look very carefully into the distance then one apple may have a very rich and exciting destination with the final product far more spectacular than one could have imagined.
  5. The problem with the way our current education system judges performance, is the assumption that the fallers will make their way into the system in the end: they will rot and merge so nourishing the soil or be eaten by the birds. Discarded apples will be useful for something eventually.
  6. Whilst it is important to nurture and manage the branches (trees after all need light) the best way to ensure a tree grows is to manage its rootstock and the system that surrounds it. It seems the prevailing view is that the only way to promote enlightenment of thought is to cut away the dead wood!
  7. Most tree roots are located near the surface of the soil. Occupying two to four times the diameter of the tree crown, one can see why they are so important. Roots are susceptible to injury though and research shows that this increases stress and susceptibility to disease. To avoid root disease one must maintain a healthy, vigorous environment around a tree. Once a root system is severely affected, the tree usually must be removed.
  8. But where trees grow together, and their roots intertwine, so each tree strengthens the whole system. The greatest disease of the English education orchard is the competition inherent in the system. Often trees become very isolated and when…
  9. …storms come – and they seem to come with regular inspection cycles – the tree looks more vulnerable and prone to destruction. Root systems die away quickly when the tree above is attacked.

The Relational Schools Project seeks to understand how to strengthen relationships within and between organisations. We view the end of product of education, and thus our contract with students, as far longer-term for great wine (excuse my mixing of metaphors) comes through careful viticulture and patience; whilst a grape might look small and insignificant when it is picked – it can go on, years in the future, to be the finest vintage red.


[1] Wheatley, M (1996) Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Berrett Koehler

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