Main menu:

Making Sense through Metaphors

We know we’re not the first to address how the nature of what we see directly influences how we think about it.   Others have sought to solve this same thinking and perceiving problem… in two ways:
•  Through new lenses –

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new   landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

•. through metaphors:

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphors…” Joseph Campbell

We will do both.
Moreover, because the nature of this website’s content may appear to challenge prevailing assumptions and beliefs (see Warning), we’ve gone beyond the use of metaphors and analogies to address that constraint on thinking.   We will apply the principle of “simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Metaphors and analogies – I’ve learned from experience how hard it is to mount a frontal attack on deeply embedded assumptions, and even stronger beliefs about what is true, right, or good, that permit people to make sense of schools and classrooms.  It can raise walls of defensiveness that close down people’s capacity to listen and see other possibilities for accomplishing their own objectives.

At the same time, metaphors can shortcut the process of changing beliefs and assumptions — still needed as sense-making structures — by surfacing another body of knowledge that is more accessible but, in the case of schools, also hidden from view.  We might think of this knowledge as “the common sense we know…that we don’t know we know.”

Analogies and metaphors can be helpful bridges to that knowledge.  They hook into “old” stored information — information most people already “know” and accept, but in different contexts. They are particularly relevant to the nature of the issues we address because as Daniel Pink has noted:

“A picture is worth a thousand words, but a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures because it explains what’s going on in complex circumstances.”

• The “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — The thinking, and subsequent learnings, informing this journey‘s story have been products of a lens that offered a different way-of-seeing — and then understanding — the experiences of schools that are documented here.  Because our minds tend to “see what we believe” and then “believe what we see,” it has shaped the beliefs that frame our thinking.  Consequently, part of the story is devoted to the history and nature of that lens.

In the past, when I’ve written about or presented the results of what it revealed I’ve seldom described it out of a fear that it would seem too conceptual and impractical, that it would be perceived as “too simple” by some, and at the same time, “too complex” by others.    (Actually I had described it in a US Dept. of Education report – The Communication of Experience: A Guidebook for the Management of Information in the 1980’s and used it as part of training for the Teacher Corps.)

Ironically, what I’ve discovered since then is that its value is in the way it uses simplicity to address complexity.  It took me a while, but I finally grasped the wisdom of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ understanding of “simplicity.”

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

What could be “seen” through the lens captured the difference between the seeming commonsense of “For every complex situation there is a solution that is simple, direct…and wrong!” and the simplicity of solutions that are based on the simple principles or “simple rules” generating the seeming complexity — a basic principle of Chaos theory.   And it was at this level where we found the roots of natural “dot-connecting” answers to the complex problems that schools face.

And while this may seem to be a helpful way to address a perceptual condition, its scientific base can be found in the biology of cognition as articulated by Humberto Maturana.   (To better understand its value, see: “An Introduction to Maturana’s Biology” by Lloyd Fell and David Russell and “Maturana’s Biology and Some Possible Implications for Education” by Joy Murray. Both in Seized by Agreement, Swamped by Understanding, Lloyd Fell, David Russell & Alan Stewar)

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. … Out of clutter, find simplicity…. From discord, find harmony.. … In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Einstein


“…and so these men of Indostan
disputed loud and long.
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
They all were in the wrong!”

The Parable of the Blind Men & The Elephant

Who was SABU?

Sabu was a fictional character with a unique way of making sense of whole “elephants.”

Best known as the “Elephant Boy” in a series of 1930’s films, he was a “leader” of elephants who had a simple way to make sense of the elephants he led that gave him a distinct advantage over the six individuals we know about from the centuries-old “Blind Men and The Elephant” parable.

Specifically, his assumptions about those elephants were based on what he had learned from his direct experiences with elephants.

  1. He never questioned that he was always dealing with a whole elephant, because he had no choice. It was always a single bounded entity we might describe today as a coherent “system,” whose parts and processes were connected (even if he couldn’t see how.) To him Everything’s-connected-to-everything-else was not an expression of frustration (as it seems to many of us today), but a fact.
  2. The “elephant” was not only the fundamental unit-of-management he could affect, but also the only one within which sustainable growth and development could take place.

The Blind Men’s assumptions about the shape and nature of the same elephant, however, were obviously limited by their blindness.  They had no way to step away, as Sabu could do, to see the “whole elephant” as their “system’s” containing boundary.

The focus for their personal understanding had to be on the “part” for which their assigned work made them hands-on accountable.  The smart ones may have intuited (usually from their largely negative experiences) that there was a “system” out there that seemed to constrain their effectiveness, but the focused blinders of their daily job requirements didn’t allow much time to understand it or to deal with the role their part played in the whole elephant’s healthy growth, development and survival.  And, anyway, their experiences had taught them that they lacked the authority and resources to fix it anyway.

Sabu’s advantages:

  • Always starting his planning and practice with the “system” as a given, not a future state.
  • Recognizing (having learned it from experience) that the elephant had a mind of its own —  already naturally “programmed” to do whatever was needed to help it survive.
  • And figuring out (again from experience) that his leadership involved linking the naturally-driven will of the elephant to the work he needed the elephant to do.


… like their other fictional peers – the Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow – both Sabu and the Blindmen were missing something important. They lacked an MRI or CTScan of an elephant that could have helped them understand its functional internal connectedness.

Intuiting the everything’s-connected-to-everything-else connectedness of an organism or organization is not the same as understanding the nature of that connectedness and how it enables the “whole” to survive. Neither Sabu nor the Blindmen had a way to understand that the elephant already was a natural system — regardless of people trying to make each of the elephant’s parts perform separately — and, because of that embedded nature — perform unnaturally.


Two “Elephants” have become commonly accepted metaphors today. First, the “whole elephant” the Blind Men couldn’t see with the result that each was “partly in the right” but in the end “all were in the wrong.” And second, the “elephant-on-the-table” that we continually try to find ways to walk around.

In both cases it’s an already-present system we can’t see, but blame for the limits it places on our effectiveness. For many, “the system” has become synonymous with an enemy that we feel powerless to control, and therefore devote some of our limited store of time and resources to working around it, shutting our doors and ignoring it, or trying to kill it or make it go away.

But what if it’s already on the table… everyone knows it is dysfunctionally “sick”… and ignoring it hasn’t cured it yet?

And while some still hope that research will find a “systemic” cure for this sick elephant, many others no longer believe they can be fixed — elephants are what they are, and don’t suddenly slip out of their skin and morph into a horse, or disconnect their internal and external parts so they can work independently.

Thus many of these advocates of “systemic” school system change have given up on it, and down shifted to fixing the disconnected parts. Others still valiantly strive to fix it through two forms of “fixing”

  1. Curing it through the prescriptions of usually external “specialists.”
  2. Helping it heal itself.

But in either case, to do this, one first has to understand it as an elephant – a bounded, internally interconnected “system.” And one whose health and viability is dependent on the nature and quality of the interactions that contribute to the capacity of the healing and/or curing processes.

The material on this site can contribute to that essential understanding in two ways:

1. It offers a dual-purpose thinking tool which first can serve as an organizational MRI making the scope and nature of that natural interconnected system evident. Then, much like the surface of a radar scope, it offers a vision of reality that one can begin to use it as a plot board for planning and navigation.

2. It offers a case study of a large school system— faced with all the social and economic conditions impacting schooling today — as viewed over nine years through this different lens. What can be seen includes:

  • the thinking that enabled them to understand their “elephant,”
  • the processes they developed to “heal themselves,” and
  • the processes they then had to develop to integrate them into the sustainable life of the “elephant.”

Write a comment