Explaining Rhizomatic Learning to my five year old.

I was challenged by Dean @shareski today on twitter. I’ve decided to believe 🙂 that he honestly just wants a clearer explanation on what rhizomatic learning is… so he posted the Einstein Challenge

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
? Albert Einstein

I’m going to try and do him one better, I’m going to write an open letter to my boy… Oscar, who is five.
This is him.

This is also him… from our podcast about dinosaurs. (i swear he really does know all these words…)

Hi Oscar,

I want to talk to you about charlottetownosaurus #3. I think you did a wicked job of explaining what we know about dinosaurs. I really enjoyed doing the examination of the dinosaurs with you… and am really hoping we can get to number 4 sometime this week. We did ramphoryncus, metriacanthosaurus and pteradactylus. I loved it so much I watched it for a third time today.

There’s something about your dad’s part in Charlottetownosaurus that has been bothering me buddy, and I want to talk to you about it. My part was mostly about asking questions… but i don’t think i did the best job I could. You know how we looked really closely at the dinosaurs to see what we could observe about their features – And we discovered that one Metriacanthosaurus had three toes and one had five? Daddy said “what’s wrong with the [five toed] dinosaur”? You gave a great answer… but i don’t think it was a good question.

I don’t think that’s a good way of thinking about it. We know what the books say about dinosaurs right? We have SIX dino-encyclopedias. And we compared our dinosaurs to those books and to the internet and we found our that metriacanthosaurus was a theropod and, therefore, had three toes. The five toed one was ‘false’. But you know the older books… how they talk about brontosauruses and about three fingered tyranosauruses? Our ideas about things change… we get more evidence… and we get a new hypothesis.

When daddy said “what is wrong with those dinosaurs” what daddy should have said was “How are those dinosaurs different from what we know about them”?

Here’s the problem. Did we talk any more about those dinosaurs after we said “wrong”? Nope. We just put them aside, and moved on. And picked up the next one and said “wrong/right” about it too.

What if I’d asked a different question… like “what would a five toed metriacanthosaurus be like?”

We could have kept talking. Made a new story… and still found out more about how toes are made, the difference between a theropod and an animal with five toes. We could have kept moving… kept talking, kept figuring stuff out.

Instead, daddy decided it would make for an easier show if we just talked about ‘right dinosaurs’ and ‘false dinosaurs’. My bad buddy. I’ll do better next time.

The problem is I should know better. All of the work you see daddy typing into the computer, when i go on trips or when i’m chatting with people on skype… this is what i tell them. We shouldn’t decide beforehand what we’re going to learn. We shouldn’t decide what’s ‘right or wrong or false’ just to make it easier. When we do that… we stop having fun. We stop making stuff up. And we stop creating.

You know those nasty weeds you helped me with in the flower garden? The ones you use the cutters to cut last summer? Those are a special kind of plant… just like the big ones in the backyard that daddy is always digging out…

They’re special because of the way that they spread, because of how hard they are to get rid of. You can pull the tops off them, you can dig down with a shovel like daddy does, but it doesn’t matter… the tiniest piece left in the ground will let it grow back. It’s not like a tree… You’ve seen daddy cut a tree… Is it going to grow back? Yeah… not so much. Those rhizome plants though… they just keep growing and spreading. (that’s what people call them… rhizomes. It’s the part of the plant that helps it make new plants)

That tree, that’s the way that daddy was asking you questions about the dinosaurs. Single ‘false’ questions that just ended when we were done. Daddy decided what would be easier, or what would make sense, and then asked you that question. Those questions ended the conversation. What daddy should have done was taken a lesson from those nasty weeds, follow the toes! Keep moving… follow the story. Pretty hard to stop that, we’d probably still be talking about the journey of the five toes metriacanthosaurus. You got to show that you knew the answer… but we didn’t learn anything new.

Daddy will try harder buddy. That dinosaur box is like our flower garden. We just need to fill it with rhizomes and our stories will never end.


I’ll tell oscar this story tomorrow… we’ll see what he says.

Rhizomatic learning – Response for day 2 and 3

I knew i wouldn’t get it done every night… but here is the second attempt at pulling together some threads of feedback and organizing them here for later. (see my intro post if you don’t know what i’m talking about)

A carving Bon brought back from her 2 years in the arctic

A metaphor too far
Terry Anderson layed a pretty heavy critique on the session from yesterday and it falls into three parts all three of which seem to position rhizomatic education and the people in the discussion as people OPPOSED to us having an education system. I don’t think there’s a single person taking time our of their day in that discussion when they could be doing anything else in the world who aren’t DESPERATELY PASSIONATELY devoted to the idea of learning, to having some kind of education system and to education as a concept.

In his critique is of the negative responses to the question “Why do we educate students?”. He notes that there were no responses that said ‘for learning’. I will note that many people in the session suggested that were positive: for innovation, creativity… stuff like that. Here is a link to the slide if you would like to make your own judgement. We were trying to get to the reason behind it… the thing that drives the ‘kinds’ of things we teach. It’s entirely possible that in doing so… we were focusing too much on the negative. A good lesson for all of us… focusing on the negative does not forward a discussion.

Educating for Nomads was being posited as a goal FOR THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

That does leave us with the unanswered question as to why such an eminently experienced, intelligent educator got the impression that we didn’t care about education. I don’t know.

George – Rhizomes, back to basics

In his back to basics post, George challenges me to help him understand why the rhizome metaphor is useful. He describes what he sees as an existing division between formal/informal and facilitated/student driven learning and asks “how is it more than this?” Now that… is a good question.

I see Formal learning is something bound tightly to objectives, outcomes and (power) systems. Informal learning not so much… I see informal learning as the stuff i learn from my buddies. It was this ‘stuff i learn from my buddies’ that had me start this whole rhizomatic thing in the first place as i was trying to understand how the informal community of practice that i was in was responsible for so much of my learning. And, more importantly, how i could devise a way to do it on purpose.

It’s super easy to learn when you find just the right people at just the right place. This, it seems, doesn’t happen everyday… so i set out to try and find a way to explain it so i could have some theory to back up what i was trying to do in the classroom… replicate the ‘learn from your buddies’ style of teaching.

The conclusion that i came to, through reading Deleuze and his rhizome metaphor, was that i was looking at the whole thing backwards. I was thinking that courses were about CONTENT and what i was trying to do was bring people together with the content. What the rhizome metaphor is meant to impart is that the learning process is rhizomatic, it moves, shift, sprouts at different times and places (and different for different people). It’s many. I used to try and restrict the knowledge in a given field so i offered fewer options to my students… now i do the opposite. By starting without a set curriculum, by thinking of the learning process (and by extension the content) as growing OUT of the learning process, i offered up all the options, the ways of seeing things to my students… allowing them to find their own paths… (to be nomads).

This, i would argue, is what the rest of life is like. Why should we teach any other way?

Rhizomes and collonization
Two excellent posts one from one of my favourite online people and the other from my favourite person. One i’ve never met face to face and one i’ve lived with for 10 years. I won’t try to restate what either of them say, but rather try and entice you to read their blog posts with a snippet from them

For instance, the metaphor of the rhizome is a fine antidote to our tendency toward reductionism. This reductionism lies in the background of the interviewers’ attempts to define rhizomatic learning, I think. Like most of us, they want a handy nugget that says, “Oh, yes, that is rhizomatic learning.” The metaphor of the rhizome, however, helps us to see that reductionism is always a fiction. No thing can ever actually be reduced to a discrete thing, or not in reality. We can think of ourselves as discrete and alone in the Universe, a train of thought that usually leads to all sorts of misery and suffering, but none of us are discrete, however convenient or persuasive the reductionist fiction might be. Keith Hamon http://idst-2215.blogspot.com/2011/11/change11-defining-rhizome.html

and this one

We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling. Bonnie Stewart http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2011/11/09/the-rhizomatic-learning-lens-what-rhizomes-are-good-for/

Broad responses from me
It’s been an incredible few days of learning for me. I’ve heard from many thoughtful voices on ideas i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about… some supportive, some critical all well thought out and focused. I really appreciate the time and effort people have taken to interact with the subject and with me.

There are tons of other cool blog posts and links out there… but i trust you have other ways of finding them. Search for the hashtag on google, follow the daily, follow the tag on twitter, join the Facebook page. There is little that is more rhizomatic than a MOOC 🙂

Rhizomatic Learning – Responses for day 1.

So I’m facilitating this week of discussion on some stuff i’ve been talking about… and people are talking back. This openness stuff is for the birds 😛

Wow. some kind of a day. I make no promises of being able to do this all this week… but i’m going to try. I know if i don’t make some comments about stuff right away, I will lose it. And there have been some amazing things created yesterday and today. (don’t know what i’m talking about? I’m fascilitating an open course this week… see the course page)

Giulia Forsythe (and cogdog)
First nod has to go to the breathtaking bit of work pulled together by Giulia Forsythe. If you ignore her overly kind bio, you’ll see a stunning piece of artwork describing her feelings about rhizomatic learning. She’s challenged people to add a new soundtrack.. AND Cogdog took her up on it. If you’re unfamiliar with what a ‘remix’ is… this will clear that up for you. I’m working on my own overlay for Giulia’s work which i hope to have done by the end of the week… but i’d like to address something in Cogdog’s video.

Roots vs. Rhizomes.
When Deleuze and Guattari chose the ‘rhizome’, and the reason i find it appealing, is that it is always a multiple. There is no ‘plant’ (singular) or tree or some single entity that starts and ends. No roots of a tree that serve that single tree. A rhizome moves and expands twists and turns, throws down roots and pushes up shoots as the context allows. When you look at a patch of japanese knotweed or aspen… you are seeing something that is many. I think this distinction is important 🙂

Several comments in yesterday’s post inquired after ‘motivation’ in rhizomatic learning. What encourages the learner through the process… what gets them to engage? This is certainly a challenge. Of course, its a challenge for any model. The big obstacle, i think, is that most students are accustomed to an entirely different model. Some general comments

  1. ‘successful/good’ students have decided, in many cases, that their motivation is ‘doing things right’. My classes are a struggle for those students.
  2. In the best cases, motivation is something that is part of the learning process. It is the REASON the student is there… but this is not usually the case.
  3. I’ve found that rhizomatic learning motivates those not motivated by ‘doing it the right way’.

Facts Facts Facts
suifaijohnmak wrote a very interesting, penetrating response to rhizomatic learning. There is a point at which we started talking about facts… and i have funny feelings about facts.

Basically… i don’t believe in them. I know that’s an odd statement… but i mean it directly. I don’t BELIEVE in them. I don’t think that the things we point to as simple components “WWII started in 1939” or “Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen” exist on their own. Implicit in them is a whole bunch of things unsaid. What does it mean to start a war? War for whom? Does it make sense to call it a World War? Do we actually understand what is happening inside an atom? etc…

Yes. They are good shorthands for everyday conversation. Getting students to be able to repeat this ‘facts’ allows them to be part of a discussion that could allow actual learning.

Community vs. Peer Review
There were a few comments about the validity of ‘just getting stuff from the community’. Many, many people in my community get their research peer-reviewed. Some of them also apply equivalent rigour to the work that they post on their blog. Some of their blogs are reviewed (mine certainly is toughly enough by times) by the same people who do the peer reviewing for journals… except that it is done in public. ALL KNOWLEDGE is created by people. Saying that you are getting your curriculum from the community doesn’t mean, in any way, that what you’re working from has less rigour.

Challenge in rhizomatic learning
A couple of comments about this… which i can’t seem to find right now. The model breeds challenge… lots of it. Come out to see the event tomorrow…

I love the title of this blog. Music for deckchairs. A nice (if tangled) set of comments on the reality of the standards agenda and how this conflicts with rhizomatic learning. Yes. There are realities that we are bound by… this is how i handled grading during the last ‘graded version’ of a course like this.

I read lots of interesting posts today, many of which i did not do a good job keeping track of… sorry for those folks who didn’t get cited here. I’m sure there are some i didn’t read, but there were lots that i read and pulled together for these responses… lets see what tomorrow brings.

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. 🙂

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