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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

28 thoughts on “Explaining Rhizomatic Learning to my five year old.”

  1. Thanks Dave,

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to ask better questions. How to encourage students to be more critical thinkers, to analyze the information they encounter and think deeply about things – not because they’re right or wrong – but just because they are. I guess Einstein would strongly affirm that you do indeed have a deep understanding of rhizomatic learning… and now, I have a better understanding of it too.

  2. File this under A for Awesome. Thank you. For the record, my tweet was completely random in that I was sitting in a lecture when that quote was shared. He was talking about the fact that if you can’t explain your theory to a 5 year old, you might not really understand it. I also had twitter open and your name was in the stream. Serendipity led me to asking you if you had shared your rhizomatic theory to Oscar. Didn’t mean to make you work but I’m glad I did.

  3. Hi Dave and Oscar

    First of all, I learned a ton of stuff about dinosaurs, so *thank you both*.

    Second, though, is that you both helped me see how rhizomatic learning is a suggestive way of thinking about the importance of creativity and curiosity, and being able to follow a trail even when it seems to wander off topic.

    As your learner, I was suddenly struck by a question about why plastic dinosaurs have certain features that might be misrepresentative in relation to biological dinosaurs but are actually quite revealing about toy design. Why do their legs point outwards? So they stand up on the bookshelf.

    What made this rhizomatic, for me, is that it’s not something that driven by your agenda for the core topic—the biology of dinosaurs—but by my own interests in the material world of toys. I’m always ready to think about this because I live with a six year old, and I teach in material culture. So as well as learning about dinosaurs I can now head off in this direction that works for me: I can take your story into a conversation that I might have with someone else completely about why other toys are also designed to look a bit like the world we live in, and a bit not.

    But watching you guys on the video helping me understand actual dinosaurs, it’s also clear that some of learning-by-questioning is still pretty focused on the topic and, as you say Dave, on the question of rightness and wrongness. So I wonder if that’s a limit to what makes it genuinely, openly, rhizomatic under these circumstances?

    That’s my question.


    1. Hi Kate,

      I think those limitations are everywhere. I would never claim any process to be ‘totally’ rhizomatic… it’s a goal rather than a destination. A set of principles to keep holding yourself to. -> unbound. see the multiplicity. find a connection. avoid dichotomies. avoid simple comparisons. <- that kind of thing. We do need a context in order to be able to share what we know. learning-by-questioning is one way to setup that context. I could have asked much better questions that still would have provided the dinosaur context without limiting the discussion to things i already 'knew'.

  4. I’m a huge fan of Charlottetownasaurus. You didn’t tell the fine folks they can subscribe in the iToons and that it has had air time on ds106radio back in the day.
    I specifically remember talking with you and Kyle Mackie (probably over twitter) about wanting to hear less Dave and more Oscar. No offense, of course, but seriously it is a joy to listen to him talk.
    Now, months later, watching the video, I think you do an excellent job of talking with him.
    What really strikes me is the number of FACTS! This is both a criticism and a compliment. You don’t believe in facts!! But actually, how incredibly clever because it’s one of the best examples to put under your microscope to study about rhizomatic learning.
    In fairness, it should be argued that you actually foster a great deal of rhizomatic learning by allowing Oscar to move from one topic to the next on his own terms. When he shifted from the toys to the book, you didn’t shut him down and tell him it wasn’t on the lesson plan or the podcast storyboard. You allowed him to share his interest and show his learning in ways he wanted. To me, that is rhizomatic.
    During the COOLCast today, I asked Erik Duval about how much he felt teaching his students differed from teaching his own children. He said not much, except of course, he loves his children more.
    I kind of wish every person taught their subjects as if they were teaching their own children. It would probably make a lot more sense that way.

  5. Here’s a collection of my comments to this post via Twitter:

    Very much so agree w/ thrust of post re. explanations. Here are some ideas to help:

    “Rhizomatic” learning is what happens before we enter school. There we learn that “arborescent” learning = ‘the adult world’.

    “Arborescent” learning is centered in experts, institutions, and looks like ‘power over’. “Rhizomatic” is de-centered in encounters, becomings, and looks like ‘power with’.

    “Rhizomatic” learning unfolds with messiness; “arborescent” folds, privileges learning from controlled/expert sources.

    “Arborescent” learning has a traceable path between start & finish. “Rhizomatic” learning cannot be traced, only sketched.

  6. love this…. all of it. from shareski’s tweet to your assumption to royans interest… so very Rhizomatically nomadic.

    one of my fav parts…rhizomatic expertise… especially seen at 5 min in. which makes me wonder… who’s explaining rhizomes to who…

    thanks guys.

  7. I teach in a school in India and enjoyed thoroughly the story and the thread.
    My question and challenge is how does one keep asking the right question of the five year old that allows them to explore their own inner world and behaviour while constantly learning about it……
    What was different about the way you did this today……that allows for self reflection as behaviour changes.
    The Arborescent approach has to do with crystallisation which we call “attitude” in later life….if you see my meaning?

  8. Thanks Dave – Dean’s challenge is a good one and this helps further unpackage rhizomes for me…I am going to post this on twitter for my PLN as part of my #I’msharing challenge (inspired by @shareski) in #eci831.

    Thanks again

  9. Hi Oscar and Dave,
    What is the difference when we say educating is an art? How would we teach if we would say teaching is an art?
    What kind of art is teaching like? Is it like architucture? Like ballet? Like music making?
    Would the world be different when teaching and education are arts?
    The science of dino’s and prehistoric dragons is about facts, about three toes or more toes. Is Education a science like dinology?
    Have a lot of fun, Jaap

  10. Wow, Dave, this is fantastic. I had a similar sense as Kate of wondering if you’d explore with Oscar the reasons why toy dinosaurs were made in a ‘false’ way and that might have led to a whole other thing about manufacturing, marketing, etc. In any case, beautiful letter and great video!

  11. Thanks Oscar and Dave,

    I liked the part where we got to see the notes clearly. Field notes are pretty important when rummaging through boxes of dinosaurs. The brain in your hand might notice something the brain in your head missed.

    Dave, I’ve noticed you seem to speak of rhizomes as individuals. We had a morning glory vine in our vegetable garden I battled for years. Whether it was up the tree, draped over the fence, under the retaining wall visiting next door or sunning itself on the lawn it always was a singularity–even when hacked into many segments. That plant had many interests and existed in many places as a root, a twisted climber, an explorer, a self healing victim of chemical attack next door and the more I taught it where not to grow the smarter it got at avoiding me or amusing itself by learning new tricks.

    Rhizome metaphor is a great one. Many things that are one, one thing with many experiences, thoughts and curiosities.

    I wonder if an octopus is a bit like a rhizome? It has branches that can regrow and more than one brain in one place. Or maybe it would rather be an octopus than a model of something else?


  12. This is wonderful, Dave. I’m impressed how the serendipitous question by Shareski led to a wonderful insight for you, Oscar, and the rest of us. How rhizomatic.

    What this makes me think of of is the use of questions as anchor points. It seems a bit contradictory, but I think it might be spot on. Questions as anchors. I think I like that.

  13. Hi Dave! Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this post. I want to start by saying that giving Oscar the medium to showcase his expertise was a smart way to encourage him to continue his process of inquiry into a subject he was/is passionate about. That is powerful stuff when a parent is able to provide that type of environment in the home. On the other hand, when you mention the faults of your good intentions, it should be a reminder that teaching is a deeply reflective practice. I would argue that there is no perfect lesson. That with some critical reflection, we could have always done something better. That is part of the challenge of teaching. I appreciate your honesty in pointing out ways in which you could improve upon your questioning to open his mind and extend the inquiry even further. I think you have showcased some valuable learning, both from Oscar and from yourself.

  14. Love it. Looking forward to hearing your report on how it goes with Oscar. I think it will be interesting to see what direction he takes the story 🙂

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