No popular education technique has spread as far and wide as this one. I first learned it from Eleonora Castano Ferreira and Joao Castano Ferreira, thanks to Maureen LaMar at the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union Worker-Family Education Program. To my mind the authoritative version is the one found in Volume 2 of Alforja's Tecnicas Participativas Para La Educacion Popular.

Using a tree metaphor, participants go through a several step process of describing and analyzing problems, moving from the forms the problems take in day to day life to the immediate causes and then root causes of the problems. The objective is to deepen and organize the group's understanding of their problems so as to formulate goals and strategy that addresses problems at their roots in addition to their immediate expression. (Fear not! It sounds very abstract, but the activity is very concrete.)

Good for:
Helping people organize their thoughts and perceptions. Exploring the sources of our problems. Pushing participants to develop more complex and deeper explanations of their problems. Laying the ground work for strategic planning.

Materials needed:
Tree drawn on big paper, markers, cut out paper leaves -- large enough to write on so that people can read the words across a room. (It is worth making the effort to make the leaves look like leaves -- don't just use index cards. Put a bird on a branch, use colors. The concrete and organic quality of the tree is helpful in providing people a way into what can become a dense analysis. Think of it as scaffolding you can stand on while you build your analysis.)

Number of people:
Variable, probably at least five or six. A single tree, if it is big enough, can handle up to twenty people. Beyond that create additional trees and then have groups compare results at different points in the process (you'll need additional facilitators).

Depends on where you start and how deep you go. At least three hours to get through the whole tree. Add time for reflection at the end.

Set up:
Big tree poster on the wall, groups with blank leaves and markers. Space for small groups and for the whole group to gather.


  • Explain and motivate: the purpose of this activity is to build a collective analysis of the problems the group faces and the roots of those problems so as to be better able to develop solutions that go to the roots of the problem.
  • Facilitator explains the tree format, first asking people to describe the basic parts of the tree (leaves, trunk, roots) and their functions. The facilitator then explains that we can use this tree to analyze problems we face in the union and on the job.
  • The leaves are the problems as they present themselves to us every day.
  • The trunk is where we place the direct or immediate causes of the problems written in the leaves.
  • The roots are for the deeper causes, or the causes of the immediate causes.
  • Form groups of four or five.
  • Facilitator asks participants to brainstorm a list of problems they face every day (list should be about ten to twenty items). Stress that the problems should be very specific and concrete: instead of "bad working conditions," specify the exact conditions. Is the bathroom filthy? Is the safety guard on a machine disabled? etc. Participants choose five to ten most serious problems and write them on paper "leaves."
  • Participants then place the leaves on the tree, arranging them so that all can be seen. If two or more groups come up with same problem, place only one leaf on the tree.
  • Once leaves are up, review them, make sure all are clearly understood. Then, ask participants why do we have these problems, what causes them to happen? What is the immediate cause of each one? The bathroom is filthy -- what is the cause? Stick here to immediate causes. If someone says the cause is "the free market system," urge them to be more specific! E.g. "The bathroom is filthy because management does not want to pay anyone to clean it and makes us wash up on our own time. The safety guard is disabled because if you use it you can't work fast enough and management will be on your case..." Trial and error are needed before you get a good sense of what makes for an immediate cause. Remember you can always move something down or up the trunk as your analysis unfolds.

    Try to keep the causes active, not passive -- say who does what: "workers disable the safety guards to save time."

  • Write the immediate causes on index cards and place them in the trunk space of the tree. You may want to take notes first, then transfer the finished immediate causes to the trunk when this discussion is done because there may be overlap and you may want to move them later.
  • Now, ask participants what causes the causes? Why are they doing these things (the things listed on the trunk)? "Why is management cutting corners and speeding you up? They want to show more profits to please the higher ups." "Why are they violating safety rules? They don't suffer when we get hurt; it's cheaper to speed us up, break the rules, and pay compensation than it is to run the plant safely." Note: when you put the cause on an index card, try to capture the idea in a few words: "cheaper to violate safety rules."
  • Write these deeper causes on index card and place them on the roots.
  • Along the way, feel free to ask questions to clarify points. You can also challenge people's analysis. The purpose of this activity is to get people thinking freely, but it's not brainstorming -- they need to clarify and justify their arguments. Do not shoot down their answers as a way to make room for your own, but press them to defend their ideas and rethink where necessary.
  • When the tree is complete ask people to turn to the person next to them (pairs) and each take three minutes talking about what the tree tells them, what it means, what they get from it -- any reaction they have. While one person is talking, the other should be actively listening.
  • At this point, you can continue discussion, but you will need a break, if you haven't taken one yet.
  • Save the trees! Photograph them, copy them in a smaller format. Keep the originals. You may want to reproduce them on a smaller scale to keep for future reference.

    Watch for:
    The first problem this activity poses how to clearly distinguish the three levels: what is a problem, a cause, a root cause? Aren't root causes also problems? Aren't problems in turn causes of other problems??? If this tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it....

    I think the answer is found in the context. The idea is to take the simplest, more descriptive statement of the problems faced by a given group in a given context -- the way problems present themselves day to day -- and then ask "where do they come from?" Pressing people to be concrete when talking about causes will help you find immediate and then deeper causes.

    Watch out for people who are comfortable with abstract analysis but skimp on description. They may jump immediately to causes. Depending on the context -- for example a group with a lot of experience discussing problems and causes together -- that may be okay. In my experience, though, description is often neglected in favor of analysis, which is a shame because description is often so much richer and more complex. Description also provides a common starting point for dialogue among people with different ways of looking at the world. We may not agree that capitalism is the cause of our problems, but we may have a very similar take on what is happening in our daily lives and how these problems arise.

    Jumping to root causes can also lead people to jump to long term solutions that don't correspond to our capacity to achieve them. In one case I witnessed, participants created a problem tree of which one root cause was the legal doctrine of "at-will employment" and then started talking about launching a campaign to end at-will employment. Nothing wrong with the goal, but there was a huge gap between the group's capacity to organize -- they were just starting out -- and the power needed to win such a radical objective. How would you facilitate that moment?

    It depends so much on the context and the goals, doesn't it? If the goal is to get a group to think in terms of long, medium and short term strategy, and the participants seem to be reluctant to think about the long term, then the facilitator may want to lean that way, urging people to loosen up and talk about deep solutions.

    Finally, as facilitator, it helps to think through the tree several times beforehand, trying to imagine what answers might come and whether you think they are problems, causes, root causes. You don't have to have the answers, but you need to be able to ask questions that will clarify the group's thinking.

    When in doubt -- ask the group. If they can't figure out where to place a cause, then it's probably worth slowing down, or going back a step.

    You can do two trees at once: one tree to show what the rank-and-file or the reformers think the problems and causes are, and another to show what the officers think the problems and causes are.

    You can play with the tree's surroundings: "what about the earth the tree is rooted in? What about the air?" Don't let the metaphor drag you around, but feel free to explore.

    You can use overlays to make a tree with several layers. (I haven't done this, but the description in Alforja shows this.)

    After you do the problem tree, you can do a solutions tree: what solutions correspond to the problems you have identified? What actions can you take to win those solutions? For example, if the problem is dirty bathrooms, the solution is clean bathrooms.

    If the cause of dirty bathrooms is management cost-cutting and speed up, then the solution might be forcing the owner to put more money into plant conditions and slow down the pace, maybe by including wash-up time. How do you win that? Could be through new contract language, by OSHA complaints, by slowing down, getting 'sick', or with creative tactics like organizing a "clean-in," where workers stay late to clean, dressed in maids' costumes and using huge sponges and buckets of soapy water... etc. (Thanks to Teamster Mike Ruscigno for that last idea!)

    If the root cause is that management wants to show the higher ups that they are saving money and it does not hurt them to pay compensation now and then, then the solution might be to find a way to make speed-up too expensive or inefficient, to give management a headache and make them look bad to their higher ups. Again, this calls for a round of creative thinking and careful analysis of the employer's weaknesses and strengths. The problem/solution tree should help you organize the solutions into short term, medium term, and longer term goals.

    You can also use the tree as a reconstruction and assessment tool: to describe and analyze actions taken and the purposes. What actions have we taken (the leaves)? Why did we take them, to accomplish what (the trunk)? Why did we want to accomplish those things, what were we trying to build (roots)? You can then do another tree to analyze the actions of management, or of the union officials. What has management been doing? Why are they doing these things -- what do they want to accomplish? What are their larger goals, what are they trying to get?

    I have used this technique many times in a wide range of contexts. It is very versatile.

    In one case, I used it with a group of home attendants with little union experience who were fighting an uphill battle against an employer that routinely violated their rights. They wanted to sort out what was going on, to have a picture of what they were doing and what the union representatives were doing and why. We used this technique to create a "strategy tree."

    The activists did a tree for themselves, (actions they had taken, why they took them, why they had those objectives -- working back to their unstated goals) then did a corresponding tree for the union representatives. The trees showed the workers' actions flowing from a strategy of building unity and taking action to fight management and the union rep's actions flowing from concerns about putting down the problems, "putting out the fire," so as to keep things running smoothly.

    Obvious danger here. The facilitator has a choice: to use the problem tree to try to inject her/his own views into the participants, to simplify and polarize the conflict by demonizing the opposition; or to help people come up with their own sober and self-critical analysis. In fact, using this activity can be a great way to assess your stance as a popular educator -- how will you handle the many choices that it poses? Will you use your power as facilitator to try to push through your (or your employer/organization's) goals and plans? WIll you suppress answers or ideas that take the analysis a different direction than the one you anticipates? Popular education flows from deep political choices, but those deep choices come up again and again in many guises.