Problem Tree

Image by Benita Lovett-Rivera

Image by Benita Lovett-Rivera


Problem tree in-formation

Problem tree in-formation























The Leaves represent the overt, most evident symptoms of the problem.

The Trunk represents the immediate causes of the leaves.  What informs the overt symptoms of the problem?

The Roots represent the deep social, economic, and political structures and attitudes that feed the trunk.


The Collective of Researchers on Educational Disappointment and Desire (CREDD) was formed in 2006 to conduct youth participatory action research on New York City public school policies and practices that produce school push-out, often under the auspices of the General Educational Development (GED) credential. This was the Gateways and Get-aways Project.

In 2007, CREDD facilitated another participatory action research project with a group of New York City youth, the Youth Researchers for a New Education System (YRNES).  This project, part of a larger city-wide initiative to replace mayoral-controlled schooling with human rights-based schooling, sought to document students’ visions for school governance, schooling based on collaboration rather than competition and control, and the purpose(s) of schooling.

In both projects, CREDD remodeled a popular education method—the problem tree—derived from Paulo Freire’s (1970, 1974, 1975) work on problem posing education, and utilized in people’s literacy groups throughout Latin America.

The problem tree is a qualitative method of collaborative conceptual mapping.  In CREDD’s hands, the method is deepened and transformed by Indigenous theories of interconnectivity and Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theories of the rhizome. Intensely pedagogical and theoretical, this method is at the same time accessible, easily reproducible and malleable: CREDD has used it with youth as an approach to collaboratively generate research questions, as part of our participatory design of research projects, as a tool of data collection in focus groups, and as a tool to facilitate collective analysis of myriad data.

CREDD’s process of creating a problem tree generally goes as follows: We begin by identifying the problem or the issue the problem tree will address.  We have done problem trees on problems such as “The GED is not seen as an equivalent to a high school diploma,” “Schools have ways of getting rid of unwanted students,” “The American dream does not work for all of us,” and in our focus groups have used the problem, “Schools push students into dropping out.”  In the research project we conducted with the Youth Researchers for a New Education System, we used the problem, “The current school system isn’t working.”

We then pass out small bits of paper, the leaves, and ask people to write the every day occurrences of the problem.  These are the symptoms of the problem.  Everyone fastens their leaves to a sheet of big paper, and the group discusses what has been written on the leaves, adding extras as they come up.  Examples of the leaves might include my teacher told me not to come to class if I was going to be late, we have to share textbooks, and I have never met with my guidance counselor.

Next as a whole group we draw on patterns in the leaves to answer the question, “What feeds the leaves?” in order to start mapping the trunk.  The trunk represents the attitudes or beliefs that keep the symptoms in play.  Examples of ripples of the trunk might include there aren’t enough seats for all of the students in my classes, resources are unfairly distributed, and the generally held fear of young people in the US.

We then ask the question, “What roots the trunk?” in order to map the roots of the problem.  The roots are the systemic and structural sources of the trunk ripples and the leaves.  The roots might include capitalism and hierarchical power systems of domination. 

The following is excerpted from Tuck, E. (2009). Re-visioning Action: Participatory action research and Indigenous theories of change. The Urban Review.

Using the process of constructing and then deconstructing a problem tree to determine our research questions, the YRNES Project’s focus was on two sets of relationships, which we also referred to as areas of inquiry: 1) CONTROL: Poor communication and lack of access to needed information in schools – the external (mayoral, police) control of schooling – the widespread belief that power and knowledge go from the top down.  2) COMPETITION: School rules and policies are arbitrary – the perception that there are “not enough seats” for all NYC students – the purpose of schooling is foggy and not agreed upon. …

In YRNES’ research, we applied this theory of regeneration not only to relationships between people, but also to relationships between ideas.  For example, we utilized the popular education technique called the problem tree (see also Ferreira and Ferreira, 1997; Tuck, 2008 and Tuck et al 2008) to map the relationships between the everyday occurrences and root causes of a dysfunctional school system.  CREDD utilized the problem tree as an approach to research design and data collection.  However in YRNES’ research, we built upon CREDD’s use to craft it as a method of data collection and collaborative theorizing.

In YRNES’ problem tree,  we began with the problem, “The school system isn’t working”  then asked researcher/participants to write the everyday ways they saw this problem thrive in their schools on leaves that would represent the symptoms of the problem.  Next, the group identified the common attitudes and (mis)beliefs that supported the leaves, and these became the trunk.  Finally, the group identified the ideologies and systems that grounded the trunk, forming the root causes.

This exercise was very useful to us in getting the ideas on the page and in front of our eyes, but difficult to use as a course of action because it was so linear.  In many ways, it embodied the reform vs. revolution paradox that I described at the beginning of this article: to only reform the leaves would ensure a new crop of leaves in the future; to only revolutionize the roots might take too long, sacrificing those who are already or will soon be tangled in the tree. (For an extended treatment of this critique, see Tuck, 2008)

To address this, YRNES deconstructed the tree, and began re-organizing the leaf, trunk, and root parts as clusters that our research would explore.  Although we created six clusters, because of limitations of time and resources, we decided to focus on two, anticipating that even two would have a ripple effect on the remaining four.

CONTROL: Poor communication and lack of access to needed information in schools – the external (mayoral, police) control of schooling – the widespread belief that power and knowledge go from the top down.  This cluster includes symptoms such as “the school never lets us know about any changes” and “guidance counselors don’t provide guidance,” and “guidance counselors aren’t told about better opportunities and alternatives for us.”  The researcher/participants then linked this lack of access to timely and accurate information to mayoral and police control in schooling, because decisions making does not happen in the building, but rather in an office on the other side of the city, and not for the specific school community, but for those students along with 1.2 million other students in the NYC public school system.  Finally, researcher/participants connected both of these realities to the commonly held belief that power and knowledge should flow from top down, and locate this belief as a stronghold in Western ideology.

COMPETITION: School rules and policies are arbitrary – the perception that there are “not enough seats” for all NYC students – the purpose of schooling is foggy and not agreed upon.  This cluster involves every day symptoms such as school overcrowding “my class is overfilled when there are ten students in other classes,” a mismatch between the curriculum and student realities, and illogical distribution of resources to determine that school rules and policies are incoherent and arbitrary.  Researcher/participants related this idea to what they described as a general yet pervasive feeling in their schools that there isn’t enough room or “seats” for all students.  Recognizing that this feeling can be tied to societal obsessions with competition as a result of capitalism, youth noted that this feeling is in contrast to expressed commitments to public education.  For this reason, they theorized that competition is enforced by default within a schooling system that- for reasons of economic change, political disagreement, and lack of vision- has lost sight of its purpose.       YRNES’ reconceptualizing of relationship between ideas affirms Indigenous frames of relationship and regeneration while at the same time attempting to see beyond, in order to (as Scott Lyons offers as lessons from Vine Deloria Jr.’s work and life) “Adapt, don’t accommodate.  Blaze a trail, don’t authenticate.  Embrace tradition on the other side.” (Lyons, 2007.)

The following is excerpted from Eve’s 2008 dissertation:

The problem tree is a useful approach to linking everyday injustices to systemic injustices, and when mapping several different problems on several trees, the linkages between the seemingly separate problems of different communities become evident by their common roots.  The responses to our use of the problem tree have been overwhelmingly positive.

However, the activity of tracing an everyday occurrence of an injustice to its roots can undermine an approach to research and action.  Does it mean that in order to get toilet paper in my school bathroom I have to fix all that is exploitative with capitalism?  It is defeating to become too attached to the linearity of the problem tree because it is best used to show relationships, not a course of action.

We have been encouraged by the work of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to consider the rhizome as a model instead of a tree.  A rhizome is the cluster of underground tubes that plants such as irises are fed by instead of roots.  Deleuze and Guattari oppose the tree for some of the same reasons that we are not entirely satisfied with the problem tree; it evokes a linearity that we don’t experience, and makes it seem as though you have to attack the roots to get anything done.  We all might be long gone before uprooting the roots we are talking about here, and those of us who are getting the brunt of the everyday expressions of those roots are being squashed in the meantime.

Further, Deleuze and Guattari oppose “arborescent” culture because it will always follow the same path, rather than the rhizome which always ceaselessly establishes new connections.  (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).  For us and for our work within educational policy, this notion is resonant.  We prefer the idea of the rhizome because it is concerned with the relationships between people, other people, and institutions.  In this way, we can think of our research and actions as trying to address relationships rather than roots.  We still use the problem tree to map these relationships, but in the Youth Researchers for a New Education System project , we worked to develop better ways to take the ideas in our problem trees and express them metaphorically and visually in non-linear, non-fixed ordered, non-causal ways.  We developed a deconstructed problem tree that utilized linked groupings of concentric circles, orbits in constellation.  See YRNES PROJECT DESIGN MAP

By taking the notion of the rhizome seriously, we take the implications of our research for public schooling seriously.  Our work is principled by our commitment to public schooling and organized by our disappointment in our own schooling experiences and the widespread exclusionary practices that happen at thresholds of the metal detectors of school entrances, at the closed door of the classroom, and at the desk adorned by a standardized test that are evident in our data.  We know that these practices are linked to the shrinking of the self determination of schools as public spaces and to the ever increasing pressures on schools to adhere to top down accountability systems and pressures toward privatization.

Most importantly, our work is organized around the desires that abound in our collective and in our data for schools that are sites of ideas and learning and are accessible, fair, and challenging.   Schools that push students out, especially that push poor students and students of color out, undermine these desires.

Our work is in rhizome with existing theories of schooling and school policy.  By this we mean that we move in and out of these discourses while drawing from our own experiences and data in order to bring discordant narratives into conversation.  This, we believe, is our work as researchers.

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