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.

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

  1. what if……

    a teacher is…..an individual who becomes increasingly more convinced that teaching is even more of an art and mystery and challenge than he thought

    a teacher is……an individual who knows that wisdom not methodolgy is the fundamental ingredient in his success

    a teacher is…..an individual who recognizes questions not answers as the dynamic of rhizomatic learning

  2. Bravo! A wonderful website for those of us interested in moving toward an educational semiotic. The learning environment as umwelt is wonderful! Our students thrive in the rhizomatic curriculum and learner centered community that we have constructed and I appreciate this space and your words of inspiration very much!
    Warmest wishes Professor Cormier….Clyde

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  4. Hi Dave,
    I have been following your ideas on rhizomatic learning after #ETMOOC, and I find this metaphor powerful, I wonder if it is because it suits my learning style.
    I tend to be “messy” when learning and when teaching too. Note: messy, curious and a questioner.
    I’m trying to be as honest as possible because I want to learn, and I need a helping hand. This year I encouraged my learners to create their own e-books, I teach one to one and am a freelancer, not following any textbook. The first challenge was that the google docs we use to collect students productions and tasks, were so messy it took us (not them, brutal honesty once again) so long that some gave up. But this challenge brought me back to the rhizome metaphor, my first idea was that we were jumping from one thing to the other as we were moving forward and because of emergent needs my students had. Needs sometimes were questions that rose as a consequence of the learning process. The editing was a whole unintentional process of assessment. My students were not only trying to follow and find a logical thread to put their productions together but as they had produced some material at the beginning of the year, learning had happened, their use of English as a second language had evolved, (mine as well) and they wanted to re consider every piece of what they had written.
    It has been an amazing adventure, though there was a moment I thought that we were facing complete chaos and felt that I might have led them to failure. (The Cynefin framework: Simple and Chaotic boundary)
    If I get to understand your view about the syllabus, you are not saying there’s no syllabus, there’s not much content which is quite different. And I like that because again, it suits my teaching/learning style. Every year I sit in front of my computer and try to write a list of topics we are going to work with, and it simply does not work in my classes, my students come to class and they know what they need to learn, or they need different things as we move forward. How can I predict topics? Is it possible in a rhizomatic mind? Yes, yes I am taking things to an extreme, I am aware of this.
    I suspect I might be the only EFL teacher involved in this discussion, but I find this rhizomatic metaphor so attractive that my idea is to discover to what extend it is applicable to different learning environments, like EFL for example.
    If I got everything wrong, please let me know. I am messy but not lazy,
    Thanks Dave

    1. wow. That’s some kind of blog comment. The challenges you are talking about here are very very similar to the ones that i have in my own classes. My students are accustomed to having structure imposed upon them, and don’t always react well to having to impose their own structure. Have you seen my learning contract? Might that help as a model? http://davecormier.com/edblog/2013/05/12/assessment-and-rhizomatic-learning-course-start-tuesday/

      I would love to use your comment as a topic in the rhizomatic learning ‘course’ we are running in January. If you haven’t signed up you should jump in! http://davecormier.com/edblog/2013/12/27/rhizomatic-learning-an-open-course-rhizo14/

  5. Hi Dave me again!
    I know it looks like a blog post rather than a comment, but How else how I could ensure someone would read about my many uncertainties? And it’s a way of expressing gratitude to. I am learning about this with you, from you.
    Your learning contract: I read it, and I am thinking that sty like this could become my “syllabus”. However need to find a way to adapt it to private lessons.
    As I write this I begin to understand something, it’s not about designing our tasks or lesson plans following the rhizome model it’s more about becoming rhizomatic thinkers. OMG! How about that?
    I would love and be even more thankful if include my comment and share or open it for critique. I’ll check this course, though I ‘ll be a co-moderator for two EVO session in January, one about crafting ebooks and the 2nd about mentoring.
    By the way, my sessions have to do with Crafting e-books and mentoring
    One last thing, your book Making the community the curriculum is so ideal to encourage me to keep on this lane. I wish I could learn a little bit more about keeping our digital files.

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  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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