“I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge” Seymour Papert
Looking at how we structure higher education and the taxonomies we use to support that structure led me to wonder how far our understanding of teaching and learning is led by those structures. Frameworks, Units, Projects, Tasks, like russian matryoshka dolls.
It’s said that we are moving in social political and economic terms away from the hierarchical structures of the top down, one-to-many taxonomies to a more distributed web or net model. The computer interface driven metaphor we’ve lived with for so long of folders, subfolders and files (the office metaphor on our Windows and Mac screens which even features a trash bin, and folder shaped thumbnail icons) is redundant in the distributed intelligence of the net, yet persists.
Rhizomatic learning receives its energy from the relatively new connective power of hypertext and the rise of the net with its infinite points of entry, as opposed to the desktop ‘command and control’ interface. It’s a useful concept as much as an educational theory.
The arboreal structure gives way to the rhizome. It’s important to realise we’re not just talking about an inverted tree symbol. Not a root. A Rhizome is a certain kind of root that can spread out laterally and horizontally, consisting of a series of nodes, with no distinct centre, beginning or end, and no defined boundary. Growth is only restricted by its surroundings. The concept comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, but was articulated as an educational theory by Dave Cormier, who as Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island originally coined the term MOOC.
To Cormier the rhizome is a powerful concept as it “has no beginning or end… like the learning process….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” A rhizome moves, expands twists and turns, throws down roots and pushes up shoots as the context allows. This is a particular type of networked learning. Rhizomatic learning is messy, possibly inefficient, and certainly not regimented and tidy. As an illustration, the Aspen is a tree that has multiple shoots or trunks, sprouting many times and the same plant can cover many miles. Above ground it may look like a forest of many different trees, but it’s actually a single giant sprawling root.
The ‘roots’ of Rhizomatic Learning
“All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants” John W. Gardner
“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”. To Cormier the curriculum-led programmes of universities are just one of the building blocks of learning. He looks beyond this to a curriculum that gets created whilst a course takes place. “The syllabus becomes a garden space, a context setting within which learning can happen and the curriculum is the things that grows there.” Curriculum is an output of a course, not an input.
Formal learning is bound too tightly to objectives, outcomes and (power) systems. It’s about the teacher connecting learners to content through a curriculum. The metaphor of the rhizome is an antidote to our tendency toward reductionism in our teaching, to right answers.
“The abundance of information we now have at our fingertips combined with the indefinite capacity for making new connections, has opened new avenues for structuring our classrooms”. Dave Cormier
If curriculum is an output of a course rather than an input, so how do you teach? A teacher needs to enter a course with an outline of study and focus on helping students build their own curriculum. This allows students to construct themselves as Nomads. Learning is a process of ‘becoming’ and can’t be something that is enforced. We need to create nomads who will create new paths and new connections, not workers. We need to create empowered critical thinkers, preparing people for uncertainty.
To illustrate rhizomatic practice Cormier talks us through a story, almost a parable, about his own journey remembering 2005- when YouTube was just launched, Word Press was starting to be used, and there was suddenly a surfeit of free technology available to use in education – but no-one knew how. There were no manuals or traditions, no curriculum about how to use it all. Despite this practitioners found out that just by talking together and sharing experiences, they collectively learnt how to use it, and developed best practices. The connections that were made allowed the answers to emerge. Our networked technologies make rhizomatic teaching real “We used to have to turn to books to pass knowledge around but with the communications technologies that we have now, we can work with each other in real time to come up with the answers to our challenges. We can use these technologies for more than simply telling each other ‘things’; we can use it to negotiate ideas between us” says Cormier.
The Arboreal University strangles rhizomes
The position of the teacher is based on whole set of power structures that create a reliance on the teacher for setting objectives, assessing progress and giving direction. How can we take people who’ve spent their whole lives believing that this is ‘learning’ and MAKE them independent? How do we make them embrace uncertainty in learning? How do we keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? How do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions? These are some of the awkward questions that arise. Awkward for the learner and the teacher.
Does the University fear the rhizome? Certainly Rhizomatic learning is more chaotic, can’t be standardised, and moves power away from the institution. It also strips away on of the University’s most prized possessions- the Curriculum. A rhizome-led study would potentially cross faculties, and be difficult to budget for. If Network learning is to get any purchase within the university it will need to be arboreal, with separate and clearly delineated root stems, like the computer systems we rely on to keep data fixed. That’s why Universities have a hard time with convergence and interdisciplinarity. They only want arboreal versions not rhizomatic versions.
As Terry Heick puts it archly on his teachthought blog “After all, you–or someone before you–has parsed the universe itself into but a handful of “content areas,” listed exactly what students should come to know, and then placed 30 students by age and geographic location and asked that you lead them all to “proficiency” of each standard, no matter their background, will to learn, unique interests, or, more critically, existing schema”.
However there is a fertile ground, a corner of soil in academia where rhizomatic shoots might break through the concrete. That’s through Adult learning- the Rhizome concept allied with Heutalogical practices would be welcomed by professionals who have a mature view of what networked technologies can offer them. Andragogy suggests the learner needs to know what they will get out of the learning they do, but the heutagogic learner may recognise through their life experience that the community is the curriculum.