Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach?

It’s my week at #change11. My topic? Rhizomatic Learning.

Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-relicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process. I wrote my first article on the topic ‘rhizomatic education: community as curriculum’ in an article I wrote in 2008.

I’ve been talking about rhizomes and learning for about five years now. I have spent the better part of the last three months trying to collect all those thoughts together and organize them ‘properly.’ The problem with that, of course, is that the whole idea of rhizomatic learning is to acknowledge that learners come from different contexts, that they need different things, and that presuming you know what those things are is like believing in magic. It is a commitment to multiple paths. Organizing a conversation, a course, a meeting or anything else to be rhizomatic involves creating a context, maybe some boundaries, within which a conversation can grow. I’m going to try and create some context for a conversation about rhizomatic learning by offering four questions about education… and explaining how i’ve tried to answer them with this theory.

  • Why do we teach?
  • What does successful learning look like?
  • What does a successful learner look like?
  • How do we structure successful learning?

Why do we teach?
I refuse to accept that my role as a teacher is to take the knowledge in my head and put it in someone else’s. That would make for a pretty limited world :). Why then do we teach? Are we passing on social mores? I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections i would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.

What does successful learning look like?

the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

It is that map that I think successful learning looks like. Not a series of remembered ideas, reproduced for testing, and quickly forgotten. But something flexible that is already integrated with the other things a learner knows. Most things that we value ‘knowing’ are not things that are easily pointed to. Knowing is a long process of becoming (think of it in the sense of ‘becoming an expert’) where you actually change the way you perceive the world based on new understandings. You change and grow as new learning becomes part of the things you know.

Sounds a bit like networked learning…? The rhizome is, in a manner of speaking, a kind of network. It’s just a very messy, unpredictable network that isn’t bounded and grows and spreads in strange ways. As a model for knowledge, our computer idea of networks, all tidy dots connected to tidy lines, gives us a false sense of completeness.

What does a successful learner look like?
In a recent blog post i tried to offer three visions for ‘what education is for’ to help provide a departure point for discussion. Workers take accepted knowledge and store it for future reference. They accept that things are true and act accordingly. The soldier acquires more knowledge and becomes responsible for deciding what things are going to be true. The nomads make decisions for themselves. They gather what they need for their own path. I think we should be hoping for nomads.

Nomads have the ability to learn rhizomatically, to ‘self-reproduce’, to grow and change ideas as they explore new contexts. They are not looking for ‘the accepted way’, they are not looking to receive instructions, but rather to create.

How do we structure successful learning?
Establish a context
As we approach any new endeavour, we need to understand how we can speak about it. We need to learn the language, our timetables… the shortcuts that allow us to be part of a conversation. This goes into our memory. This is good. It helps us see the local context. It is not what i think of as learning… it is one of the building blocks of learning. I think of this as an open syllabus.

Community Curriculum
Gone are the days where we need to painstakingly collect information, package it up in time to send it to the printers and await the return. A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening. The syllabus becomes a garden space, a context setting within which learning can happen and the curriculum is the things that grows there. The tidiest example of this I’ve done are live slides which attempt to give room for the learners to create slides for a presentation.

As an activity for this week I’d like you to take a piece of your own practice and think on it rhizomatically. Does it mesh with what I’ve described here? Are there goals that you want to accomplish that would not be served by a rhizomatic approach? Is there a way to change what you are doing to make it more rhizomatic? What impact would that have? Good? Bad?

I need not tell anyone that they are free to critique these ideas, they are in the open, and critique is one of the biggest reason that I post my ideas. So please, critique away.

I am one of many who found Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the ‘rhizome’ as a useful framework for talking about learning, education and what it is to know. Appropriately, I suppose, there is no ‘rhizomatic learning’ that you can cite and define specifically. You could take Maryanne’s view or like Glynis Cousin use it to critique the VLE or delve into this interesting series of journal articles from 2004. I should probably apologize to these scholars for not having cited their work… but, to be honest, i didn’t know about them until sometime this summer and I have been exploring the rhizome since 2005. For those of you interested in broader exploration of Deleuze in education, google is your friend. I have none of those smart people to blame for these ideas… it’s all me borrowing and twisting some of the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, and, really, from all my network, for my own ends. :)

133 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach?

  1. Thank you for your ideas and the clarity of expression you’ve employed to make them interesting and enlightening. I’m posting a link to this article on my Moodle so that the learners in my courses for new teachers can enjoy it too.

  2. I believe that rhizomatic learning allows students (of any age) to take ownership of their learning, making it relevant and more meaningful to them. By utilizing rhizome learning, students become the curriculum and so teachers and students can move away from prefixed learning outcomes and stagnant curriculum. Deleuze and Guattari (a thousand plateaus) explain that “Becoming produces nothing other than itself” (p. 238) and consider it a creative process and that it is ongoingly happening in the spaces between (intermezzo). Furthermore hand in hand with rhizome the notion of ‘assemblage’ is worth exploring as assemblages are a driving force in learning and intertwine and flow, similarly to a rhizome.

  3. Hi Dave – a colleague just alerted me to this blog, as we’re preparing a chapter bid for a forthcoming book. Have you written anything on rhizomatic education since 2008? I should cite publications rather than a blog (not that I’m decrying blogs, but you know what publishers are like!) I would like to cite your most recent work, if you’ve written since 2008.
    The only other time I came across the term was in the notion of ‘rhizomatic validity’ in research – the kind of uptake, knock-on effect that can happen if a piece of research is recognised as useful and picked up by others. Can’t recall the author off-hand.
    Thanks in advance for your reply.

  4. How can teachers support- intra active pedagogy, use rhizo mapping to understand how, when, where children learn, respect children, offer themselves as a resource and a co-learner, create a milieu in which children can feel confident to explore as well as offer their ideas, happily create problems and work towards many different solutions without having to arrive at a final destination? Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of de/reterritorialisation, which Olsson (2009) explains as a way to view children’s engagement with the world as they unpack a problem- deterritorialise it and then change it into a new problem-reterritorialise it. According to Deleuze and Guattari we can view children as assemblages, which means that they are multiplicities of an “infinitive variety of thought(s), thinking and ideas, many times over” (Sellers, 2013, p. 15) and that children add to their assemblage and constantly become as they add to their understanding and make meaning of the world.

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