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Rhizomatic Learning – too cool for school? February 10, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, research.
Tags: , ,

It doesn’t usually take me this long to get down to writing a post, but reflecting on the Rhizomatic Learning (RL) session with Dave Cormier has had me stumped … as indeed it did Dave. It’s not that it’s a particularly difficult idea, making as it does a metaphorical link with the way certain plants propagate as part of their growth process.

reed rhizomes

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Science and Plants for Schools: http://flickr.com/photos/71183136@N08/7095841451/

The main aspects include how easily and rapidly rhizomes spread, how haphazard growth can be via multiple paths (responding as they do to local environment) and the degree of resilience they exhibit (when rhizomes are severed, the parent plant continues to grow and the severed sections can form new plants). These factors are also found in certain learning situations, MOOCs in particular, but community-centred situations in general, which means RL can provide a model for describing learning under these circumstances. I can also see how learning rhizomatically helps deal with complex situations and help prepare learners for uncertain futures. Having telegraphed its arrival I’m going to jump in with the ‘BUT’ (and this is I guess why it’s taken me so long to write this post), there are aspects of RL with which I feel less comfortable. These fall into three camps: the first being how far the rhizome metaphor holds up in describing learning ecosystems, the second in how applicable it is to my continued experience in pre-higher education and the third is that RL might just be a bit of a cop out.

Rhizomatic individuality

When rhizomes grow, though they do respond to their environment, the degree to which they interact with it is questionable I’d suggest. There’s no interlinking, no connecting, no collaboration, co-operation or symbiosis as there might be in a learning community. Indeed this can be taken even further and rhizomatic growth (or learning) can have destructive effects as Kaska discussed here. I also wonder too about the true resilience of rhizomes; clearly they are incredibly persistent within their own niche, but what is their fate if transplanted to a completely new environment? And I guess that takes me to my second point …

Too cool for school?

Primary and secondary education (K-12) is dominated by formal learning and whilst a little non-formal might sneak in the back door, there is neither room for, nor acceptance of informal learning. Organisational structures, timetables, schedules and calendars, externally mandated curricula, school buildings, cultural inertia, educational dogma all serve to exclude informal learning. I’d argue its an environment entirely hostile to rhizomatic learning. Or to flip it around, the needs of the learners might not be best served by applying the principles of RL; they are after all dealing with neither complex nor chaotic circumstances, their curriculum is not ‘the community’ and though we might wish to ‘make them responsible for their own learning,’ whilst teachers and schools exist to take the fall, that’s going to be an incredibly hard sell to society. In all fairness, Dave C is not claiming that RL applies in all circumstances and maybe I simply have to accept that unlike behaviourism , cognitivism or constructivism, I’ll struggle to find a place for RL in school. Yet perhaps this is the source of the discomfort and disconnect I feel; the tension that I know exists where the immediate future of our learners is pre-ordained and clearly laid out, yet the future beyond their school is far from certain and their learning needs might be better served by a more rhizomatic approach.

Copping out?

Having an ‘open syllabus’ where the ‘curriculum is the community’ and where learners determine their learning paths and success criteria, are all highly laudable aims, but I wonder to what extent they shift the responsibility away from the ‘course’ leader, thereby making their job a whole lot easier. No syllabus, no learning outcomes, no testing. It sure makes it a whole lot harder to be called to account by your line manager/employer if the learning experiences of your learners are less tangible. Or maybe it’s actiually the opposite and proponents of RL have a much tougher job justifying their existence when the evidence of their learners’ progress doesn’t conform to conventional structures (strictures?)?

Perhaps then I’m looking in the wrong place for instances and applications of RL? I simply need to content myself with the fact that my own learning is often rhizomatic. It’s often chaotic, dealing as it does with complex issues in preparation for unclear futures. I determine my learning pathways, explore a plethora of different avenues and decide for myself when journeys are complete. My curriculum is indeed my community and maybe that’s enough … for now.


1. crackedmedia - February 10, 2013

Hi Ian
this is a very thoughtful post and i agree with most of it. There is a problem with how you set the argument up. The rhizomatic element of the concept is not a metaphor, not ever. This is made very clear in D&Gs thinking. To think in metaphors and worse to mimic is to loose the possibility for becoming a body without organs. The key is that it is not like a rhizome, it is a rhizome.

ianinsheffield - February 11, 2013

Caleb, thanks for pulling me up on that and though I’m unlikely to read D&G’s work in the full, I’m grateful to a link Christina Hendricks provided (http://dac-marleen-anne.tumblr.com/post/20898864900/deleuze-1925-1995-and-guattari-1932-1990#notes) which I found helpful in fleshing out what you (and Dave) mean.

I’m neither a student of philosophy, psychology nor a social scientist and have to struggle to grasp concepts from these domains, let alone articulate my subsequent thoughts. Coming from a scientific background, for me rhizome has a specific biological meaning and any other usage of it must refer back to the original, hence my misinterpretation of it as a metaphor. I stand corrected.

Forgive me, but I’m not sure I follow what you mean by ‘becoming a body without organs.’

crackedmedia - February 12, 2013

Oh boy that question is a tough one. A very generalised response is to think about organs as fixed structures, ones that need to be maintained etc. D&G’s theories all line up so in the rhizome case imagine the plant as a body without organs – there is no centre or heart, there is no trunk or fixed structural points. D&G are interested in becomings – always becoming and never centralised structure etc.
This is why the rhizomatic learning is so problematic and why so many in this MOOC don’t feel comfortable buying into it.
I wrote a blog about why using 30 year old french post-structuralism won’t stick here: http://calebketmooc.tumblr.com/

ianinsheffield - February 12, 2013

Thanks for answering that so cogently Caleb; I now see what you’re saying. Unfortunately however, I think I’m still carrying too much logical, concrete, scientific baggage in my thinking to appreciate the value of D&G proposing a ‘body without organs’ as a useful term. But philosophical argument is a domain with which I have little experience and my naivety is doubtless shining like a beacon, so apologies for that.
Thanks for the pointer to your post, though I may need Philosophy 101, 2 and 3 before I can add to your thoughts 😉

2. davecormier - February 11, 2013

Very compelling post. Let me set aside the places where we clearly agree and address the concerns that you express.

The first is the extent to which the metaphor is extended. I’m not, in reality, using the term ‘rhizome’ in relation to the plant function itself, but rather in relation to the work of Deleuze and Guattari and their usage of the term. I do tend to falter in my description of this in my attempt to both present the idea and not overly focus on what can be for some “obtuse french postmodern philosophy”. They themselves reject the idea that they use the term as a metaphor at all.

I think we can all agree that learning can have terribly destructive effects. The things we can learn are tied to our own social/emotional journey, for instance, and getting out of sync with that can have terrible side effects.

Yup. Schools can be destructive to rhizomatic learning… but they don’t have to be, and not all the time.

The open syllabus certainly leave me, as a facilitator, in a far more difficult position. I still want each of my students to ‘succeed’ i just want them to the architects of this. I want their success to be something that is self-directed enough that when I am no longer around they can still continue working. This in no way is meant to suggest the absence of structure. not at all.




ianinsheffield - February 11, 2013

Dave, thanks so much for clarifying a few things for me. Apologies for my misinterpretation of rhizome as metaphor – as I mentioned in my reply to Caleb’s comment pointing out the same, it’s my background getting in the way.

Sorry if I intimated that schools actively quash the possibility of rhizomatic learning arising, just that they’re not fertile grounds for it (darn, there goes the botanical metaphor again!). The constraints from central government and perhaps societal expectations which determine *what* our students must learn (and perhaps more significantly how it should be assessed) mean that educators (who are themselves held to account for their students’ learning) will take what they perceive to be the most effective way of ensuring they deliver. Needs must … sadly.

I can certainly conceive of a variety of topics I might ‘teach’ (global warming, the origins of the universe, alternative energies) which would benefit from rhizomatic exploration, but would I dare to? Were I still teaching that is? Heck yeah!

3. Claire L. Sweeney - February 13, 2013

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.

4. Tracing the spaghetti – Marginal Notes - February 1, 2017

[…] for the aforementioned happenings (although Deleuze and Guattari do not claim it as such). I wrestled with the rhizome a few years ago during a Rhizolearning MOOC … and lost! Although I’m now a little further […]

5. Which theoretical framings did you consider and why did you settle on ANT? – Marginal Notes - November 30, 2018

[…] of occasions, but they are currently undertheorised. I’d also dallied with connectivism and rhizomatic learning, but as theories, these too are in their infancy. Quite an opportunity to make a contribution one […]

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