Rhizomatic Learning

I may be carrying the biological metaphor too far, but I am hoping to find a way to understand. I feel a little inadequate critiquing because I’m not sure I can offer something more useful, but I’ll try. 

The elements of the rhizome metaphor Dave Cormier presents that are most useful for me are that learning can take its own path, as well as mutuality, egalitarianism and resilience. The validation of multiple paths with each to its own ends is heartening. I agree that it is necessary to have connection and interaction with others and their ideas. The mutuality or symbiosis shared by different organisms make to one another other successful, each contributing its share to the other. It is further enhanced when the node is not privileged. If I only think about the horizontal and somewhat unpredictable nature of adding a new node that has the same capacities as the first node, then I see egalitarianism and perhaps a nonhierarchical system and certainly resilience. The capacity to regenerate a network or grow new connections even if disconnected from the origin provides hope.

When I think about the how rhizomes work in nature, the resilience is not in the system, but in individual capacity.  The individual has everything needed to carry on. The rhizome is a singular organism and propagates itself by branching and creating new centers, each growing away from itself. The value is that once mature, each center is equal, and apart from environmental influences, identical to the center that sent out the horizontal growth. Its serves the ultimate purpose: reproduction.

The ever-outward branching does not account for unsystematic connections between and among nodes of different types and does not readily adapt to change or learn. With the rhizome, evolution is glacial –  and the common conceptualization of evolution is a branching hierarchical tree. I am looking for something more encompassing and interconnected rather than ever-branching, and for something that is anything but homogeneous and self-replicating.

The network model provides the capacity to connect or add something new and reshape the nodes and the storage capacity.  It’s shape and growth are not fixed, though there may be hierarchy, or not.  The changes that occur because of learning are not necessarily hierarchical. I am thinking of a network that has the capacity to change and include new elements from outside.  However, I have difficulty with the idea that machines store more than information or serve as more than sophisticated calculators, sorting devices, bridges and conduits. Even in Harry Potter, the magical stored memories were of no use until Harry experienced them and made them his.  The use of the words “learning,” “knowing” and “remembering” to me signify some sort of embodiment and sentience that I cannot cede to a machine, device or even a magician’s vial. 

In short, I like the organic nature of the rhizome and the sense of mutuality, but seek more than symbiosis, where the both the individual and the collective adapt to and create new things. Diversity makes it interesting and rich.  I keep heading toward the idea of a learning ecology.  It can adapt, change and even be disrupted and something new emerge and it allows for sustainable gardening. 🙂 The syllabus becomes a garden space, a context setting within which learning can happen and the curriculum is the things that grows there.

The real value in the metaphor is that it provides a way for people to think about abstract concepts and try to examine their own assumptions and preconceptions. For me it is an evolution and slow. 



6 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning

  1. Hi Irene, I'm not sure what blogger requires, you might be able to use your twitter account. Anyway I’m good with the Duncan alias :-). To answer your question, I think I am still thinking and learning about what open means. My thoughts are very incomplete, I think. When it started in the 70s, my institution was able to let the curriculum be open with only one required course for the bachelor's degree and that is Educational Planning. That is the course through which students design their degree and still remains a part of the undergraduate experience. Over the years we have become a bit more prescriptive, in part, because of external pressures (required general education courses), in another part, because the student needs and desires have shifted (many want us to tell them what to do), and partially because we as an institution wanted to do more to ensure quality. The idea that a student can design a degree program that best fits their needs is wonderful, but when they use a program title that has some meaning beyond the college, whether it be a common title like psychology or a title associated with licensure, then it becomes more complex. We offer a way for learners to define their learning needs, but there are other stakeholders in the "product." We do a pretty good job with this, but it is time consuming and involves lots of reinventing the wheel. If someone wants a traditional discipline based field, we should be showing the learners what it looks like, they need not recreate from scratch and then have the faculty decide if they got it “right”. If we know what "right" is, then we ought to be clear about it. In these cases, it seems the responsibility for us is to help learners locate themselves within that frame and help them sort out what they already know, what they can get on their own, and what they need help with. I think that we can be more creative about ensuring quality and wonder if others have ideas about ensuring quality and thus giving real meaning the credential, while still being flexible in what we accredit. That is where I struggle the most. I also think that we need to find ways to incorporate emergent learning, which if not in a standard area that can be tested, requires the use of some sort of reflective and retrospective assessment and evaluation. It means higher ed letting go of the notion that it is the purveyor of content. My institution does this with non-collegiate learning that occurs before matriculation, but has a hard time with the idea that such learning occurs in between the spaces of our courses, without faculty direction. We seem to have two heads about this idea one is egalitarian and the other quite privileged. Open content seems to me to be essential, we need not invest in recreating resources that exist and we ought to share what we create. The share-and-share-alike concept if broadly adopted will go a long way in making resources freely available. Learners can do what they will with them. That means we are not charging folks for the content, but are instead focusing the resources on the things that Siemens recently ,identified as not easily duplicated. I'm sure there is more that I need to learn and would love to hear what you and others think open should mean in higher education. best,Tai

  2. Hi Tai, I have difficulties posting a comment, it does not want to recognize my blog, so I'll leave a comment here under my husband's (dead) blog, it seems the only way now…(I've wasted half an hour on this already)….. You talk about your course being open, what exactly do you mean by open? I studied at the Open University in Holland (years ago) and it was as close as it could be…..Cheers, Irene

  3. Hi Tai, Thank you for the answer. This prescribed curriculum is common practice in the Netherlands. And the cons are clear, the pros are schools do have to work hard to keep up. (school results on testing are published, so bad schools are known) It does not matter so much on which school a student studies, because for diplomas are standard levels. I am not sure whether pros or cons are in balance. I will think about that. regards Jaap

  4. Hi Tai,Great to learn about your experience. You mentioned that there is some dissonance between the day-to-day and what you are learning and trying to sort out in the course. This sounds challenging. What causes those dissonance? Is openness an opportunity or a disruption in case the of college education? I reckon most colleges are interested in opening learning, but then there are still lots of constraints relating to openness, in view of security and the need of structured and standard curriculum. What do you think would be necessary to overcome those barriers of openness? I think we all share similar concerns and challenges working as educators, especially in this area of openness. John

  5. Hi and thank you Jaap. Your question is very helpful to me. I wasn't even sure what I was getting from the MOOC as I have been following only the bits that interest me. I wasn't even thinking of myself as a student, but obviously I am studying some things. I think of my self as a learner. The learner role for me requires written reflection, even if I don't quite get it. If I just read or watch videos I don't really make good use of the content – I don't learn. I am learning a bit about the possibilities for designing learning and the kinds of tools that are helping learners. Many of those are things that we can do to improve the current delivery and design. We are trying to create learning communities in new programs. One of the most important lessons so far is that higher education ought to invest in the things that Siemens says are not easily duplicated or broadly available: the guidance of a mentor who challenges, guides and supports the learner and the responsible assessment of learning, whether or not it was gained through some ivory tower. Both Siemens and Weller helped with that thinking. I was pretty solid already in prior learning assessment, but what I am finding in the MOOC is helping me think further about new applications for PLA methods. I am trying to think through and write though my thoughts on student learning outcomes assessment. Unless we are careful, it leads to a prescriptive curriculum and I worry the more we measure, the narrower the curriculum becomes. In the MOOC, people are learning the things that matter to them and we don't share the same learning goals and won't have the same outcomes. I see this kind of learning a real challenge to credential in the current climate, but I am hoping to find ways to make it work and reduce costs. When I think about my work, helping faculty design degree programs that can be approved by all of the levels of bureaucracy, there is some dissonance between the day-to-day and what I am learning and trying to sort out in the course. The college I work at is very interested in opening learning. In fact, the original model for the college was the British Open University 40 years ago. I hope what I am learning will help to better understand open learning, which it is to some extent. Anyway thanks for the question and for encouraging me to practice a bit of what you offered in your post. This is a bit more personal than what I have posted. I tend to write essays that are helping me figure things out. Tai

  6. Hi Tai, Nice picture of the butterfly.I am curious, does being in a Mooc help you with your work in the school? Developing programs that meet students needs, you say.Does it help being a student yourself now? (I am not a teacher, so I do not know). regards Jaap

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