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. 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

166 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach?”

  1. Thanks for this. A good read and well researched. You did ask for some feedback on twitter so here goes. All through this piece there appears to be a sense of how teachers can marshall or control rhisomatic learning, for example your activity suggests just that. This is, in my view counter intuitive, and perhaps we should just create the conditions for learning (Rogers) rather than set up any specific curriculum or set of strategies. Rhisomatic x is a concept – an idea – a way of thinking about the way we process information, what I mean is that it is based around an ontology rather than an epistemology – being, not doing. Like you I find the ideas for D and G to be very powerful, but I try to see them as embodied in me as a professional, rather than a technique to apply.
    No criticism intended, but would value the discussion.

  2. thanks for the interesting read Dave,
    how do you decide when your students have enough context to begin to play in your garden of curriculum creation?

    1. Hi lisa,

      That would be an ongoing process. Students are always starting with a plethora of different contexts… sensing for those things is a big part of teaching.

  3. I had the same thought, that the key challenge is to be careful about installing the rhizome as a technique, rather than celebrating it as a force, of which we’re a part. Re-reading d&g, however, the thought about this metaphor is that in proposing a way of unthinking power, it does risk avoiding acknowledging asymmetry. The fact that a firing squad can operate without a general (another way they look at the rhizomatic) doesn’t stop it being a firing squad.

    And I’m not sure, as I’ve been writing on MfD, that the orchid and the wasp are playing the same game, or with the same consequences for each other, whereas the rhizome model suggests that they are, and that they become the same in doing so.

    So the joyful model is the rhizome; the risk is the Borg.

    Is there a way of sustaining a practice of watchful celebration within the rhizomatic, I wonder, and is this in fact where our responsibility lies?

    Thanks so much for inviting comment on this post.

  4. I look forward to your session, Dave, and the post-game discussion via DTLT Today.

    As a metaphor lover, I always dug your rhizome analogy; yet at the same time dont know exactly what to do with it. I think a rhizomatic approach would transcend a setting such as learning/a course, that it is more a ay of being, and talking about applying it in a specific situation in your activity seems to be an attempt at grafting it on to our status quo practices.

    I guess I’d like to understand some examples of rhizomatic behavior in human systems.

    And I’d like to think more about the intent/motivation; in a biological system it is one of adapting a strategy that best assures survival/success of a species, but that is not the same we would take in an approach to learning. Or is it?

  5. Porque ensinamos- inicialmente para transferir conhecimentos acumulados , oficios..
    depois por que conhecimento – poder podem ter parentesco…
    depois, com a historia da civilização, estamos em mudança para ensinar com o intuito de que muitos erros não se repitam.

    Aprender com sucesso sera observar a transformação , a mudança de uma pessoa. Eu penso a Educaçao como uma plantaçao, onde o professor podera ter estimativas sobre as sementes que jogou sobre o aluno, mas que na maioria das vezes nao podera comprovar , um a um, por causa das geraçoes!

  6. Dave-
    Two thoughts.
    The first is easy — your name is not appearing next to your comments; the default “Admin” is. Hey, sorry–I am process oriented!
    For the second, this form of learning you are describing seems to be advanced, or perhaps workplace, learning. By this I mean not having a set curriculum (which is something that may be needed in an undergraduate or earlier level of education where there is a set amount of content that is often required by the powers that be), so that learners have more of an internal need or want to know the material (cf. Knowles). Is this what you are talking about?

  7. @Davd-
    I can’t help find it ironic that comments do not post directly to your blog, and that they require moderation. Seems strangely controlling and non-immediate to me. Have you considered a Captcha system instead (more immediate and welcoming)?

  8. Hi Dave,
    I find the conversation re learning and setting the context for learning interesting. There are some points that I believe help create stronger students/life learners/contributors to debate that don’t appear in the description above, apologies if I missed it somewhere. These are the ideas of challenging ideas and peer review. The rhizomatic metaphor above seems like a perpetuation of the same ideas/network which can be fulfilling on the surface however what about the deeper roots and meaning based on challenge and debate? I believe institutions would do well to force students to challenge their own theories as well as those of others to truly unpack their thoughts and define their ideas more clearly and with passion backed up by evidence and peer-reviewed research (not only networked or anecdotal research).

  9. It occurs to me that learning is rhizomatic at most any scale you choose to consider it — from the level of complex networks of neurons in a single brain through the level of complex networks of social and educational institutions to the level of complex networks of cultural evolution. It’s rhizomes all the way up and down.

    And each scale interacts with and affects each other scale, so that we are left to contemplate networks within networks. It can be quite daunting, especially when we are trying to figure out how to show up for tomorrow’s class with a lesson that might actually work for most of our students.

    Dave suggests an answer with the concept of contexts, which I take to be rich ecosystems with enough texture that students can find something to anchor to. This is much like a MOOC, where each participant (student) must find a point or person that anchors their engagement with the whole. It can be a blog, a presentation, a tweet, or whatever, but we all need some point to which we can attach and from which we can view the whole rhizomatic structure. This implies a multiplicity of views and as many entry-ways into the structure as there are participants. It’s the complex interaction of each participant with the structure that defines the learning for that participant. The learning of one may or may not be similar to the learning of another in the same MOOC, or class. Our mistake has been to think that this is not okay. Rhizomatic thinking says that it is okay.

  10. Hi Dave,
    This is why I joined #Change11
    First time I have run across the rhizometric learning metaphor . . . and I love it! Explains how I learn and why there is so much ‘stuff’ in my garage that I’ve sort of finished using. I’ve used it to learn and now I’m off learning / using something else.
    The problem in my teaching practise on which I have to think about more is:
    Why don’t the students I teach (who I am sure learn rhizometrically as they are lower quarter maths students) transfer what they have learnt in Maths or Science or Workshop into other subjects?
    What do I need to do in my Maths class to encourage this? So that the rhizometric learning I know they do, can cross between the boundaries of ‘subjects’ which we impose on them.
    Great area for me to think about and work out how to alter my teaching practise.
    Thank you very much for starting this thought process. Cheers – Barry.

  11. Hi, Dave. Interesting thoughts. One comment in your posting that caught my eye was on transforming learners (versus filling their heads for factory work). Mezirow and Cranston work with transformational learning, which seems to be a powerful learning approach where learners shift in their thinking and experience something. It can be emotional as well as impact the body-mind. A good explanation is provided on this page: http://www.lifecircles-inc.com/Learningtheories/humanist/mezirow.html

    I am not sure if you were thinking along those lines but thought I would share my insight.

  12. There is no doubt in my mind that we experience the world in a rhizomatic fashion, making connections in ways that are personally meaningful and relevant at a given time. I am nevertheless troubled by a number of questions: Is learning synonymous with experiencing, or is one subsumed within the other (and depending on the event, the one or the other may be the more encompassing “entity”). Whereas experience develops according to the metaphorical rhizome, is learning necessarily rhizomatic rhizomatic in all contexts? How does the organizational structure that inevitably underlies a teaching context affect the learning process? Can most organizations afford to support instructional structures designed for rhizomatic learning (and maybe this is itself a contradiction in terms)? We have only to think of the revolutions in terms of traditional separation between disciplines and assessment emphases to realize that on an institutional level, this is likely to meet resistance in many places. These questionsoccur to me despite / because of my long-term attraction to the ideas of D & G.

  13. Hello Dave. A very stimulating reflection you have here. I came across it while double checking the spelling of rhizomatic (hahahahaha). There’s a discussion about the implications of postmodern thinking in education on Linkedin. It would nice to know your feedback.


  14. I’m wondering what some folks have done in the actual classroom (if anything) that would begin to incorporate these ideas. Alternatively, I’m also interested to see what people think about Alison’s comment, that the rhizomatic approach is one that is to be embodied in the teachers (and the students, it could be suggested) and not something that could be explicitly “done.” Very interesting thoughts here, including the commentary. Thanks for posting.

  15. Very interestng article. A useful metaphor for describing the learning process. I would welcome a few tips for designing instruction in this way.

  16. Dave –

    I applaud your idea(s) for the most part, but as a perennial skeptic /.contrarian two questions come to mind.

    Specifically, did rhizomatic teaching (if any) at Harvard, Yale, Oxford, etc.set the stage for the financial crisis of 2008 or could it have prevented the debacle?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

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