Coming to know – the path of the rhizome

A couple of weeks ago google told me this week that someone had cited my 2008 ‘Rhizomatic Education‘ article. It was my first academically published article and, looking back at it now, I can see some of the embers of the ideas that i’ve been mulling around lately. I wrote the article at the prompting of two of my favourite sparing partners online – @gsiemens and @lawrie. They are both central nodes in my online network and people I am always very happy to see when i run into them, online or off. They both encouraged me to take ‘that rhizome idea’ and crystallize it using the academic publishing mill. Both as a means of putting my own stamp on it (though, admittedly, lots of other people have done very interesting things with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome) but also in an effort to put some serious thinking into something that i had been babbling to people about for a while. It was always meant to be a first volley, a chance to set some ground work for talking about what it means to come to know.

This week i read the blog of a kindred spirit, Mary Ann Reilly, who’s post opens like this

For several years now, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as a metaphor for learning and a model for education. I tend to agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (2002) who in writing about the tree as the long standing metaphor for knowledge and learning said, “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much” (p. 15).

In their stead, Deleuze and Guattari offer the rhizome. Rhizome? Yes. You know rhizomes: think ginger. A rhizome is the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground. From the plant’s nodes, it sends out roots and shoots. The rhizome is all about middles. The tree is a symbol of hierarchy.

Her rhizomatic classroom is going to be a scary place for many… it requires leaving the students to make a great many decisions that could, under the wrong circumstances, exacerbate problems of discipline, socio-economic disparity, literacies… if not handled just so. Simply put… it sounds exhausting. “In the rhizomatic classroom, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole. Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners: teachers and students. ” And, at the same time, I wish Oscar and Posey were in that classroom. And it describes the way i teach. Trust me… lots of people find it frustrating.

Turn the button with your left hand
Hello, my name is Joe
I have a wife and a dog and a family
I work (all day) in the button factory
One day, my boss came up to me and said,
“Hey Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “No, heck no!”
“Then do this…”[turn this button with your left hand] link

This is the bleakest view of what we call education. It is a way in which we indoctrinate future generations with the ideas, rules and truths of the past. We take the things that we ‘know’ and we hand them, like tasks on a giant machine, off to students to ‘do’. It is a cold and marrowless view of the world, destined to improve test scores and kill creativity.

A Rhizomatic view of knowledge is inherently anti-hierarchal. It doesn’t allow to tell someone else what to know, nor does it like being in the position where the ‘right way’ established by someone else can be identified. The machine from our Joe model doesn’t exist. There is no giant platform upon which we can simply move buttons or secret special information, the knowing of which makes us knowers. There is only us, connected, and the tenuous bits of knowing that shoot off in various directions.

food plateThe machine way of knowing is, to me, just a shorthand we made up. Its a framework for talking about the world, the same way that language is. And it can be a useful framework… if you’re trying to pass along a simple piece of information. A good example of that might be the food plate. It’s replaced the ‘food pyramid’ as the new, true way of eating. It is the new ‘knowing’ from the powers that be. “They” have told us that, really, there was a bit more dairy maybe in that earlier ‘pyramid’ and the ‘plate’ metaphor is way more ‘eating like’. This is the ‘theory state’ of all the things we know. It’s a combination of all the different ideas published in journals by real people, an intersection of the different rhizomes of knowledge shooting off from a industry. It doesn’t work for the lactose intolerant, for the glucose intolerant, doesn’t make sense to the paleos, or the vegans… but it’s still ‘right’. Take a majority view, distill it to a picture that can spread the word that chips and pop do not a dinner make, and you’ve got something you can teach.

(and, of course, pyramids are tough to clean)

Sometimes the plate can be a nice starting point. An introduction to the language of knowledge in a given field. And, maybe most importantly, it’s MUCH much easier to test. The rhizome part, the underneath connection of the ideas of all those researchers, the voices of those who can’t or won’t comply with the majority view… that lies underneath. It resists being defined, is almost impossible to test for, and like the damn japanese knotweed in my back yard, impossible to get rid of.

The challenge
I’ve been trying to get to the third of my rhizome articles for over a year now. I’ve been trying to distill the balance between certified knowledge and rhizomatic knowledge so that i can talk about what it would really mean to teach this way. It is, essentially, the difference between ‘food plate’ and the subtleties of diet. People need to understand the underlying language of an industry before they can engage in a debate about varying degrees to which given ideas are useful. And, at the same time, i think its silly to wait until people have gotten a doctorate before we reward them for thinking that way.

In the process of coming to know… we need to have some sense of what the words are… and then we need to be able to follow the paths that the rhizomes have made. You can start at the food plate… and then follow down the paths of knowing to a discovery of the fact that you feel awful because you are glucose intolerant. Or, as @robpatrob has discovered for himself, the paleo diet.

I want my kids on the coming to know path… to understand the surface and dive in after the messiness underneath. What i don’t know, is how to make an education system look like that.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

4 thoughts on “Coming to know – the path of the rhizome”


    Hi Dave yes I enjoyed reading the link to Marys post and now reading Peters post above after yours I’m wondering if the emphasis in the “classroom” was to find out as much as possible about oneself and how the weakest link in my story might connect with the project/ problem/topic at hand. Find the patterns that link me (learner) personally. These could be serendipitous more likely the unconscious and the not necessarily obvious nor important. The messiness reveals patterns but unique for each consciousness. It cannot be packaged into a graphic organizer. It’s more like a mystery. I know as an artist when I am working it’s full of those connections that I don’t see until later and wow just the intention of focussing on something brings it forth in ways I couldn’t have planned. I
    hesitate to write because I haven’t read all of
    your literature and I have not thought about it so
    long and hard. And I may embarrass myself! Embarrassment too is messy! but are there ways that you could consciously make space for connections by getting students to first connect with themselves then mixing things up and finding the loose connections and associations before exploring how they might relate in an obtruse or direct way to topic? Mary discussed the students passion for motorbikes as a way in…as a designer we are trained to juxtapose and make something new out of several disparate sources. Training us to form connections that maybe arent obviously there? Artists too…and alerting learners to those connections between
    class/group members, emphasizing them, cultivating them as you are intimately and acutely

    I liked the way the ‘messy’ which both yourself and Pappas describe is individualized, unique unknown, it’s not a series of preconceived
    sequences with homogenous outcomes.

    It’s like in a rhizomatic rhythm one needs to open up relationships to oneself to the other etc and keep awareness engaged to locate the overt and covert patterns in these relationships/ connections all the while traveling the length and breadth of the topic/ project/discourse.

    The tremendous trust you have in yourself and
    your process is brave, exciting and awesome.

  2. Maybe the problem or issue here is that we’re trying to locate this, to spatially define where the rhizome is. You said that you wanted O & P to be in that classroom. But the reality of the rhizome metaphor is surely that O & P are individual plants with their own rhizomes and they shoot out both spatially and temporally. I’m edging around the idea that you can’t teach with a rhizomatic model in mind, you can only learn with a rhizomatic model. If that is the case, then any learning space that is developed with this in mind needs only lay down the fertile soil between the learning objectives and trust the student?

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