I was talking recently with an experienced colleague about vision and metaphors, and of values and focus. She raised the term, ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’.

Covey used this metaphor when talking about the distinction between urgency and importance. Any task worthy of endeavour will have aspects of urgency that will demand your attention. In teaching, urgent tasks often refer to administration, much of which is important. Some of it, though, can wait. And some of even, still more, is unimportant.

Covey’s metaphor describes how a good manager might go about cutting trees in a forest. He or she might organise rotas of lumberjacks, ensuring that they are well-fed and equally equipped. The wood would be harvested efficiently before being shipped off expediently, all by well-managed staff. However, there is always a risk that one of the lumberjacks might climb too high up a tree, gaze out over the canopy and shout those words of dismay: “Sorry, wrong forest!”

A good manager might appreciate this issue. However, they could be so focussed (an innately impressed) with their management of the wood-cutting that they very well might not change anything. If anything, they could become increasingly resolute in ensuring their systems are sound.

A good leader, of course, would try to change the forest, regardless of the cost.

From this (partly) the connotations of this metaphor become clear, that either:

a) Someone can’t see the detail of a situation (the trees) because they are focussed on the entirety of the situation (the wood/forest).
b) Someone can’t see the bigger picture of a situation (the wood/forest) because they are too focussed on the details of each of the trees (as our manger is in the above example).

My colleague raised a fascinating alternative interpretation, that:

c) If you perceive the wood harvested from the tree as solely that (tree-wood) then you may fail to see the potential in that wood (to become a table, a chair or something else of use).

This interpretation applies fruitfully to teaching. If someone only sees their students as test scores, or (even worse) as means to earn a salary, or as people to cow into good little workers, then they may miss what the students could become.

I remember now when I first saw the work of one of my future-Oxbridge students in a context outside of a textbook many years ago. It shocked me how different (and mature, and rich) it seemed. Marking without rubrics can, I think, narrow a teacher’s vision of a student’s work. At least it did with me. Therefore, I must say that seeing the writing of students outside of the context of a text book is something that I want to do. Especially if it is in their textbook.