Tag Archives: rhizomatic learning

Learning subjectives (#rhizo15)

A drawing I made for #rhizo14, last year

A drawing I made for #rhizo14, last year

I’m partially participating in Website for #rhizo15, an open, online course in rhizomatic learning. During week one, we were asked in a video posted on that site to think about learning subjectives in addition to (instead of?) learning objectives.

The idea seems to be this: we can never be certain exactly what is going to happen in a learning situation, where we’re going to go; we can have a general outline, but things take on a life of their own when we are learning with others. And even the clearest learning objectives are going to be taken differently, interpreted differently, experienced differently by different people.

Here are a few quotes from the video for week one posted on the #rhizo 15 website that are helping me get a handle on what the topic of discussion is:

How do we think about learning and designing for learning when we don’t know where we’re going?
…learning is an uncertain process, life is an uncertain place, right answers are things that will only exist in storybooks.
How do we still provide enough structure that people know what we’re talking about?

It is that last point that I really want to focus on here.

I agree with the point that we can’t ever know exactly where we are going to go in learning, and that everyone’s learning experience will be different. Those things seem quite clear. But I worry that at times we might move from there into saying, well then, let’s embrace the chaos and give the least amount of structure possible.

Kind of like the #rhizo15 course itself, for which the idea of the “community as the curriculum” is embodied in (at least) the fact that the only curriculum given by the person who started the course consists of short videos with thought-provoking ideas and questions. What else happens rests entirely on the actions and conversations of the participants–what they talk about, what tools they decide to use to do so (e.g., see this Vialogues discussion about week 2’s video), what artifacts they create. Who would have guessed ahead of time that a blog post with a dialogue (by Tania Sheko) would have led, within about a week or so, to the creation of a radio play? (A project I missed while I was at a conference, and am very sad about missing!)

Now, I’m not knocking this lack of structure as if it’s never appropriate. I think it works great for a course like this, one that people join into because they are simply interested, have some time to dedicate to it, want to connect with others who are thinking about these topics, etc. And it works well for thinking about one’s lifelong learning in general, as evidence by Sheko’s dialogue on her blog. Of course I can’t know for certain where my life is going to go, so it makes no sense for me to have rock-solid learning objectives ahead of time.

But it seems to me that the situation is, perhaps rightly, different for students who are paying for courses for which they are being evaluated in ways that attach to a record that is important for their future. I feel a moral imperative to provide enough structure in a course that they can have a good sense of what they need to do in order to earn the grade they hope to earn. There is a strong power imbalance going on in a “traditional” course where I am in charge of giving grades, and if they don’t get enough information about what the expectations are then I feel like I would be being unfair to them. So it’s vitally important to me to figure out a way to recognize and value the fact that learning is uncertain, and that it would be best if students can find their own paths and their own means of learning (with the community of the rest of us in the class) while still having enough structure that students can have a fair sense of how they will be evaluated and what to do to achieve the marks they hope to achieve.

Now, if learning subjectives are mostly a matter of giving students more choice, more freedom to decide what they want to focus on in classes, then I’m all for that. As Laura Pasquini puts it in a recent blog post,

The openness of learning subjectives provides opportunities for students to drive the course agenda and direct their interests for topics.

This is something I think would be great to do, and I haven’t done as much of that as I’d like in the past. I have offered students the choice of more than one kind of assignment to do in one of my courses (a paper or a more creative project), and I’m also experimenting, in upcoming courses, with students choosing how they want their course grade to be calculated–which assignments to count for what. I also want to involve students more in assessing their own work (I already have them engage in peer feedback quite often), so that they take more ownership of it than just relying on the instructor to assess it.

I’m also happy to say to my students that I’m not sure where our discussions of philosophy or literature are going to go, that we’re going to get together in a room and talk about what we’ve read and see what happens, that I can’t come up with learning objectives for each class meeting because the discussion may take us in directions I can’t predict. That makes sense to me too.

But a certain degree of structure is still crucial when we’re teaching courses for which we are evaluating others in ways that can affect their future, I think. I wouldn’t think it fair to walk into such a classroom and say to students that I don’t know what they’re going to be doing, exactly, or what the curriculum is going to be; all I know is I’m going to start with a couple of readings and questions and we’ll see what happens from there. That’s a fine and very interesting way to run an open online course–I love learning this way in courses like this, and thrive on seeing the unexpected things that happen! I’m not convinced it’s fair to students we are evaluating to do so.

Learning is uncertain, life is uncertain, but I feel strongly that I need to respect the imbalance of power between myself and my students and ensure that they have enough structure to be able to have at least a decent grasp on what the expectations are on which they will be evaluated. Maybe we will work on these expectations, perhaps a marking rubric for essays for example, collaboratively. Maybe we will work collaboratively on where we are going to go in the course, in a general sense. But regardless how we get there, I do think I want to try to direct the rhizome with some structure.


P.S. When I first heard about the notion of “rhizomatic learning,” it was in a presentation by Dave Cormier that included a discussion of how it is not necessarily a lens through which we should view all learning situations. I discuss that in a blog post from 2013, here (jump down to “when is rhizomatic learning appropriate?”). Part of the discussion there was that rhizomatic learning fits well in situations where there are not clear answers, but perhaps is not the way to go when one needs to learn certain basic facts before moving on to more complex domains where the answers aren’t clear. But so far in #rhizo15 I haven’t heard much or anything in the way of saying that maybe rhizomatic learning is good for some contexts but not all. I’m curious if people feel that it’s okay to not be rhizomatic in some contexts, or in some aspects of a course, or when learning certain sorts of things.




Books, print, recordings & conversations (#rhizo14)

Tonight’s reading, taken Feb. 17, 2014, by Christina Hendricks

For week four of the P2PU course on “Rhizomatic Learning,” we were prompted to think about whether books are making us stupid. How might it even be possible to consider that they could be?

Dave Cormier on print

Dave Cormier explains in his short video introducing the week (available on the previous link). There, he asks us to consider that there is something about print that encourages “objectivity,” “distance,” “remove,” “impartiality” (I didn’t get all his words written down exactly, so I’m just quoting the parts I did write down exactly!). He argues that print tends to move us more towards the definite, the defined, rather than the relational. And he asks us to consider moving more towards orality in learning. This is not to say that books are a problem, but rather that we think about how we learn with books and print in general, and consider both its upsides and downsides.

Here’s a post by Dave that really helped me get my head around what he’s getting at: “Is books making us stupid? Behind the curtain of #rhizo14.” There, he suggests that in moving from orality to print, “We moved from ideas moving towards fluidity to them becoming more truth based,” and he suggests that conversations bring out more complexity while print can lead us to think about things in more simple terms. Here’s the quote from that post that gave me that proverbial light bulb turning on in my head:

The book promotes independence of thought, our ‘own’ ideas and our ‘own’ inferences. It promotes possession. It reifies the things we are reading and makes them a thing that can belong to a person. There is value in this. But there is also a fundamental difference between an idea that I HAVE that I DEFEND against someone else and an ongoing conversation that develops BETWEEN people.

I read this is saying that part of the issue with print is that it encourages us to think of ideas as belonging to their authors. We start to talk in terms of “Foucault’s view,” and “Nietzsche’s view” (I’m currently teaching a course on Nietzsche and Foucault, so they’re on my brain), and try to figure out what their ideas were. Those ideas and arguments become stuck in time, in the same form, for as long as the print exists and people remember it. The ideas are held by a certain person and the arguments are their defense of these ideas, as if the ideas need to stay static. As authors of print works ourselves, we start to think about our “own” ideas and arguments as embodied in the print. Of course, intellectual property and citation requirements in written works add to this sense.

Another part of what I think Dave may be getting at is that in printed works, the “feel” is that ideas are presented with arguments supporting them as if they are to be taken as true, as if there is little conversation to be had because the answer has been given. When we read arguments for positions it can feel like the author is saying: here is what is the case, I’ve backed it up with reasons and evidence, so we really don’t have much to talk about. I don’t know if that’s what Dave means, but I can see how that might be a concern too.

How different is the notion of having a conversation in which ideas develop through the conversation itself, and are not really owned by anyone in the conversation because they emerged out of it. And of course, it’s probably the case that most (or all?) of our ideas work this way anyway, it’s just that the conversations are spaced out further in time (more on this below). How different too the experience of engaging in a conversation with someone about ideas and arguments, rather than just reading those of a distant author in a book. The ideas and arguments become more fluid, change with the conversation.

I really liked this opportunity to think this way about print, as it’s something I hadn’t really considered before. Of course, it’s not just print that does this, since video and audio recordings can be part of the same phenomenon. They, too, freeze ideas and arguments in time, can make us think of these as belonging to a particular person who is espousing them. Indeed, Frances Bell says in a recent blog post that she recorded a video for week four of Rhizomatic Learning, thinking it might be less “book-like,” but that the video itself reifies her words and thoughts just as much as text does, and the comments on the video are a conversation but reified in text (they would be in video too). Her point in this thought-provoking post is that both the reified and the participatory are useful, and can intertwine in complex ways (the video and comments were reified, but also constituted a participatory conversation). You can’t have one without the other, as the title of this blog post states (she notes that this comes from the idea of a “duality of participation and reification” from Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice).

My reflections

My first thought on considering this topic was: well, the books I read (philosophy, literature, some educational theory, mostly) do not stay the same over time. Every time I read them, and especially when doing so with students, they change. What they say is not so much a matter of what’s on the page, but how it’s interpreted and understood, and this changes between people and over time in the same person. Further, as others have pointed out, including Jenny Mackness on her blog post on this topic, reading printed works doesn’t preclude having lots of conversations with others about those works.

Later, I also thought: I consider at least some books, especially those that are more open to interpretation, as conversations over long periods of time. Whereas a conversation that takes place simultaneously, or in a short period of time, can only include a few people, a printed work can reach many more over longer periods. Socrates and Nietzsche and Foucault are all still talking to us, and we can converse with them to some degree insofar as we read and react to their works. They cannot respond, though, and so it’s a one-way conversation.

Finally, I thought: do I consider printed works as solidifying or at least stabilizing ideas and arguments in the sense that they are presented, with supporting arguments, as “true” and thus do not invite further conversation? The rhetoric with which some works are written, including philosophical ones, can often seem this way. But I think of offering reasons for claims as actually inviting conversation rather than closing it off. By giving reasons for a view, one is suggesting that the view is potentially debatable; for if it were not, if it were clearly true, no one would take the time to offer an argument for it. So in a way, I think of writing arguments for views as inviting others, from many places and over long periods of time, to engage in a kind of conversation by considering whether those views and arguments are valid, inviting criticism as well as potential agreement. We might even say that printed or recorded works can potentially engage more people in conversation with them than simultaneous conversations can do at any one time, since those who miss out on that conversation can’t participate in it later unless it’s written down or recorded in some way. But once again, the “conversation” one can have with a written or recorded work may be one way only (not a conversation with the author), especially if the author cannot respond (though we can still have a multi-way conversation between various readers!).

Thus I think I’m agreeing with Frances Bell that the relationships between more stable works and the conversations with and around them are complex. First, many of our ideas that we write down or record most likely come from conversations (whether through textual or other media), such as in-person conversations, comments on blogs, responses to journal articles, online meetings, and more. But also, once they’re written down or recorded they can be part of several conversations, perhaps even after we’re gone.

Does any of this address the issue of thinking of ideas as “belonging” to their authors in some deep way? Probably not. Inviting discussion of one’s views and arguments puts them up for contention and change, but by connecting them with a specific author we are likely to still them of them as the view of a particular person. I wonder how much that happens in oral conversations too, though? We do, after all, have ways to “cite” oral communication as well as written. And there are so many social and educational structures built on the need to be able to tie ideas to people that it’s hard to avoid thinking in this way. Which is not to say it’s impossible. 

Enforcing(?) autonomy (#rhizo14)

I will walk and walk and walk Flickr photo shared by Fimb, licensed CC-BY.

Week 2 of the Rhizomatic Learning course on Peer 2 Peer University is about “enforcing independence.” In the introductory video for this week (found on the previous link), Dave Cormier asks us to consider how we might help students to be able to be responsible for their own learning, including being able to self-assess the quality of their own knowledge and work, and to self-remediate when necessary. This could include recognizing what you do and don’t know, where there are gaps in your knowledge or skills, how to go about filling those, and then actually doing the filling. With these things happening mostly or wholly on the students’ own initiative. Well, I think mostly so when we’re talking about a formal course situation, since in such situations there will always be an element of external forces (the teacher, the mark/grade, e.g.) playing into one’s learning activities. 

Independence and Autonomy

Dave noted that there is a “primary paradox” in the idea of enforcing independence, which is pretty clear on the surface: how can you force someone to act independently? It seems impossible from the start. Jenny Mackness wrote a blog post this week that addresses this paradox, and suggests that “autonomy” may be a better word than “independence”: partly because many of us don’t necessarily just want students to learn how to learn “on their own” but rather to learn interdependently as well, and partly because some learners will always be dependent on others in some ways (e.g., some with special needs). But also, she notes, the idea of learners being free to decide what they need/want to learn, taking the initiative to do so, and being responsible for the consequences that ensue suggests something closer to autonomy than independence. 

I guess that, being a philosopher, one thing I might do here is go into an in-depth discussion of the similarities and differences between the concepts of autonomy and independence. But I’m more interested in other things, so for now let me just say that to me, autonomy signals more of a sense of having one’s choices and actions come from one’s own will, one’s own choices, whether one is also working with others or also dependent on them for support or not. So in that sense, I agree that autonomy may be a better term.

Enforcing (?) autonomy

So, is it possible to enforce autonomy? Mackness says no, because as soon as one does so the person is not acting autonomously. I see that, of course, but the issue is pretty complex because we are, one might say, always (or usually?) in situations where there are forces outside of us nudging or pushing or shoving or even forcing us in some direction. Whenever I engage in an autonomous action, from my own will and choices, I’m not doing so in a vacuum, and quite often or possibly always there are conditions outside of me that are shaping my motivation to go in one direction or another. So perhaps it’s a matter of degree: how much external pressure can there be on someone and yet we can still say they’re making autonomous choices?

One of the most autonomous learning environments I have experienced is the open online course, like this one. I choose to engage with the #rhizo14 course, to write blog posts (or not), to comment on others’ posts (or not), to discuss things on one or another form of social media (or not), to stick with the course to the end or to decide to stop partway through. I decide why I’m here and what I want to do and not do. No one is giving me anything in the way of formal credit for this course, and I can probably count on 2-3 fingers how many people at my institution would even have a clue what I’m talking about if I said on my CV I took a course in “rhizomatic learning” (which is actually a pretty big number, when you think about it). 

But am I completely autonomous in what I choose to do or not do in this course? Mostly yes, but there are also external pressures, even subtle ones, even ones that no one is trying to exert. I have had some really excellent learning experiences in open online courses before (including ETMOOC and ds106, and the thing is, I felt like I got so much out of those courses in part because I was very actively involved and there was a wonderful, welcoming community who was too. I keep wanting to replicate that, even though right now I don’t have the time to devote to #rhizo14 to really do so. Still, I feel a kind of pressure to do more than I actually have time to do in order to engage more, to try to get that wonderful sense of community and connection I’ve had before. And, to be completely honest, to feel like others are reading what I have to say and finding it interesting enough to continue reading long blog posts and then hopefully leaving a comment is also a motivation for me. And, to be even more completely honest, I also have this sense that there’s a party going on amongst a number of people I really respect and I don’t want to miss out. It’s like being part of a group in a social sense, feeling like one is doing what others one likes and respects are doing.

Now, I wouldn’t say there is a sense of “force” happening in my participation in #rhizo14, but it’s also true that some or all of those motivations come from pressures I would locate outside of me, even though I’ve taken them in as my own motivations. The ones about wanting others to read what I have to say and to feel part of a party with those I respect–those don’t feel to me like part of my choices, like part of me, but rather things that I experience as coming from external sources even though now they are part of my own motivational set.

In a “formal” course

In a more formal learning environment (by which I mean a school or university, or an online course, or a training course, or other environment for which learners get some kind of formal credit), it seems to me that the external pressures are significantly greater just by the nature of the situation. There is some kind of “enforcing” going on just by the teacher/instructor/professor having the power of granting or withholding credit, as well as, sometimes, marks. Some of these situations seem to involve more enforcing than others, only because in primary, middle and some secondary schooling students don’t have a whole lot of choice as to whether or not to be there at all, nor what, exactly, they’ll be studying (I did have some choice among classes in high school, but not as much as in university. Of course, in university there are still required courses). This means that there is a good deal of pressure on students pushing them towards doing certain things in their learning, and some of that is coming from the teacher.

This is all very obvious, of course, only it’s important to point out when we’re thinking about whether it’s possible to enforce autonomy or independence, because it seems to me that any degree of giving students the chance to be autonomous when they’re getting credit and/or marks for their work also has an element of pressure, of force if you will. Yes, I can say students are free to choose to pursue various areas of study in my class, to go their own route with a project, and in that way I’m allowing them more autonomy than if I didn’t give them these choices; but nevertheless, they have to do somethingand what they choose to do will be influenced in part by what they think will earn them a good mark or at least allow them to pass the class, or what others students will think (if they have to present their work in front of others). They could, of course, just refuse to do anything and fail, or drop the class, but there’s a good deal of pressure not to do that as well.

When I was thinking about whether there are any ways in which I engage in something like enforced autonomy or independence in my courses I thought of things like asking students to come up with their own essay topics, asking them to blog about what they are reading/what we’re discussing and thereby ensure that everyone has a voice (not just those who speak most often in class), giving them the chance to do a different sort of assignment than a traditional academic essay, requiring them to lead class discussion rather than me, and the like. In each of these cases, though I’m giving them some choice in what they want to talk about/how they want to structure their assignments, there is still a good deal of pressure on them that constrains what they actually choose. How many will choose to do a non-traditional assignment when they aren’t used to how such things might be evaluated and aren’t sure how to do them well (even if I provide a rubric), so the safest route is to do what they already know? How many will give a very non-traditional class presentation and lead discussion with a question that really goes far beyond what I’ve said and emphasized in class? In choosing a topic for a research paper, most will go for what seems already “important” in terms of what we’ve emphasized in class and what is most popular in the secondary literature in that particular philosophical area (which differs from decade to decade and century to century). The fact that I’m giving them a mark makes this even stronger.

My point is that there is always some element of pressure, of nudging of learners by the instructor, by other students, by the social and disciplinary milieu in which their learning takes place. So perhaps the paradox of enforcing autonomy is a matter of degree. At what point do my requirements for my course move from leaving space for autonomy with an acceptable amount of pressure from me and others on what choices are actually going to be made, to exhibiting a problematic amount of force? Perhaps the more space I allow for students to make autonomous choices the better, and yet perhaps even then I’m still, just by the nature of my role and the social situation in which it inheres, doing some “enforcing.” 

On cheating and philosophy (for #rhizo14)

I’m participating (as much as I have time for, which isn’t much) in a course on Peer 2 Peer University called Rhizomatic Learning, run by Dave Cormier. The first topic for this course is on “cheating as learning” (here’s an intro video about the topic).

My day job takes up all of my time and more, so when I kept finding myself unable to sit down and write a blog post, I took a cue from Scottlo over at ds106 radio, who often does live broadcasts or recordings while in transit–in the car, walking, etc.

The only problem with this one is that I was rushing to get to work, walking quickly, so I got pretty out of breath sometimes talking at the same time!

I realize that by recording rather than writing this I am limiting my audience to those who don’t mind taking 15 minutes to listen to something and try to remember enough to maybe comment. I’m also limiting my own future use of these thoughts, because it’s much easier to go back and skim something than to listen to it all the way through. It’s very hard to “skim” an audio recording! But it worked for the purposes of me not having much time to sit down and write. Hopefully I’ll be able to write posts for later on in this course.

For now, here are my thoughts on what “cheating” might mean in terms of questioning rules of traditional practice when teaching philosophy.

Resources on rhizomatic learning

For anyone interested in rhizomatic learning, as discussed in my earlier blog posts (here, and here), you might also be interested in the following.

I recently came across this glossary entry for “rhizome,” via a tweet by George (@reticulatrix). It is from a Theories of Media Keywords glossary, which appears to have been created by students in a course from 2004. I found this discussion of rhizomes extremely clear and grounded in theory. Especially helpful is the contrast between rhizomatic models and “tree” models.

In addition, through a comment on one of my blog posts, I found this blog, by Keith Hamon, called Communications and Society. It’s subtitled, “A blog to support Keith Hamon’s explorations of the rhizome,” and there are many, many posts there about rhizomatic learning. He discusses numerous theorists whose views are relevant to this topic. I plan to spend some serious time exploring Keith’s posts. He has continued the conversation started on my blog over at his, and he recently joined etmooc. I look forward to learning more with him!

Finally (though this does not exhaust the resources out there, I’m sure), I found this article by Tanya Sasser over at Hybrid Pedagogy. In this article, entitled “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” Sasser argues for a rhizomatic learning approach to first year composition courses. It’s a good example of how to apply rhizomatic learning to a writing course. I have to think about it more carefully, but I plan to comment on this article soon. I am in agreement with the basic idea, but still am a little hesitant. Probably that’s because I’ve been fully immersed in, and convinced by, the idea of using rubrics and step-by-step learning for teaching writing. Still, I’m questioning at least the rubrics part–see this post.

Do you have any other rhizomatic learning resources you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf, Flickr (links below)

In my previous post I talked about the notion of “rhizomatic learning” and how it might be implemented in a philosophy course. Here I bring up a worry and a question, things that came up for me after I thought about this idea further.

A worry

I worry that rhizomatic learning, at least as I described it in the previous post, might promote learning within already-established interests, beliefs, values, etc. What I mean is, if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned. One of the many roles that instructors can have is to goad students into investigating and questioning their own beliefs, values and assumptions–as we philosophers might put it, to act as Socratic gadflies.

In my own connected, networked learning experiences I have tended to focus on those people who agree with me, on sites that talk about things I’m already interested in, etc. If I am pursuing what is most meaningful to me in my current state of being, as rhizomatic learning suggests, then I am missing things that might be meaningful in the sense of jarring me, showing problems with my assumptions, and perhaps also pointing out that the way I am speaking and acting might be contributing to exclusion or oppression of others.

This kind of problem could occur with any practice that focuses wholly or mostly on getting students to pursue their own learning paths according to their own interests. If we only ask them to look into what seems most interesting, what they’re excited about, they might miss out on exposure to things that they aren’t interested in but that can really be valuable for them in terms of thinking critically about their own views.

Two things came to my attention this week that really brought this concern out for me.

First, I received this post from the Tomorrow’s Professor email list (the link to the post is to a blog that’s hard to read because there are no paragraph breaks; it’s easier to read once it’s at the Tomorrow’s Professor site, but it’s not there yet. Soon it should be: search for post 1225). It’s from a book by Mark Tennant called The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2012). In this excerpt, Tennant talks about different ways of conceiving of autonomy and what it means to promote autonomy for students in teaching and learning. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but just look at a couple of parts of it.

In the first part of the post, Tennant discusses the “humanistic” version of learner autonomy, which (he claims) underlies “learner-centred” educational practices inspired by Carl Rogers, among others. Tennant quotes Pratt and Nesbit (2000) on the topic of learner-centred education:

This was an important discursive shift….Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner’s experience and participation….Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning….The learner’s experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher’s expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator (p. 120).

In the learner-centred view, the instructor is a neutral, nonjudgmental facilitator.

 In the last part of the excerpt, on “critical” autonomy, Tennant notes that those who adhere to the “critical theory” view of teaching (e.g., Stephen Brookfield and Jack Mezirow),

… don’t accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners—quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. …. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners’ assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires.

Much of the point with critical theory is not just to question assumptions and how one has been socialized, but to do so in order to combat inequality and oppression–it can often be the case that the dominant discourses in which one is raised and feels comfortable, that shape one’s assumptions and beliefs, perpetuate oppression in subtle ways that are not obvious unless pointed out.

The second thing I came across this week was a blog post by @Edu_K, which raised the issue of rhizomes easily becoming “weeds” in the sense of taking over gardens:

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

To me, this sounded like what can happen in face-to-face courses, where ideas that are shared by many end up becoming dominant, either because those who disagree aren’t comfortable speaking up because they may feel they are alone, or because of the power of popular views to seem right and gain more and more adherents–creating clones. Similar things can, of course, happen in larger groups of connected persons.

I suppose this concern with rhizomatic learning could be mitigated through ensuring that one’s networks have people in them who act as gadflies, who make good arguments on the “other” sides of what one already thinks, who point one to new resources that make one reconsider one’s beliefs–even if only to decide one’s original beliefs are right and reaffirm them. And somehow encouraging ourselves and others to listen to those people, rather than rejecting them out of hand (as happened with many people in their encounters with Socrates, if Plato is to be believed). But if that is hard enough for us to do as instructors (at least it is for me), then it’s likely hard for our students to do as well. And we can’t do it for them.

A question

The more I think about it, it seems that rhizomatic learning is something many people do for much of their lives–at least insofar as we have connections with others, we are often continually learning from them, and forming new connections when we need to learn new things. The technologies of the 21st century have made our capacity for connections grow exponentially, so we are no longer able to connect only with those that we already know, or can be introduced to by those we do know. We can connect much more quickly and easily with potentially thousands of people around the world.

But if it’s the case that many people often learn through connections with others, whether within or outside of educational institutions, then why not think of the courses we teach as just part of the connections students are making in terms of their lives as a whole?  They have connections with their family, friends, people on social media, their fellow students, and also with us as professors. We, and our classes, are another connection in their lives.

Some of those connections, on blogs and Twitter and more, will speak as experts, as authorities, as providing top-down information transfer. Why can’t we do some of that in our courses too, since we do have useful information to share, and still think of their whole learning process as rhizomatic, even if in our particular course the learning is more top-down rather than lateral? This isn’t to say that there might still be areas in which the teaching and learning should, appropriately, be more rhizomatic (though the above concern still holds), but rather to say that maybe all learning is part of a bigger network each person experiences in their lives (or rather, one of a series of continually changing networks, to keep to the rhizome idea).

I don’t know if this is a criticism of rhizomatic learning or not, since Cormier specifically says it’s not appropriate for all teaching situations so information-transfer in courses sometimes is appropriate. But perhaps even that is part of a larger sense of rhizomatic learning?


I’d love to hear your thoughts on my concern and my question(s)! Are there dangers with learner-centred models such that they don’t emphasize enough the important role an instructor could play as gadfly, or the need to seek out gadflies? Is most or all learning already rhizomatic?

——– UPDATE ———-

In a Google+ conversation, Shuana Niessen said the following about this post: “This Ted talk (http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk) adds to the problem of learning that caters to our own interests and choices rather than challenging us to move beyond.”

This is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, talking about how search engines and other applications (like Facebook) filter internet content for each one of us differently, based on our activity within them. Obviously, this is for marketing purposes, but the result is that we may think we have access to all kinds of information, views on different sides of issues, etc., and we are finding a path of our own through that. But often our access is very small, actually, filtered already before we even get to it. Thus, it’s hard to do rhizomatic learning well in the current internet environment, because we may not even be able to make the connections or find the information that would help us think more critically.

The filter bubble website and blog has much more information on this. Thanks to Shuana for pointing all this out to me…I had heard of the issue, but didn’t know about Pariser and his work.


Image: Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf; CC-BY 2.0


Works cited

Pratt, D.D. & Nesbit, T. (2000). Discourses and Cultures of Teaching. In E. Hayes and A. Wilson (Eds), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning in philosophy courses

I recently watched Dave CormiersIntro to rhizomatic learning” presentation as part of my participation in etmooc. Here, I’ll explain what rhizomatic learning is as briefly as I can, discuss what it might look like in a university level philosophy course, and ask a few questions.

In the next post I explore a possible critique that I’ve been mulling over. I’m not just assuming here that rhizomatic learning is a good thing (though obviously I find it interesting enough to write about), but rather just at this point examining the idea to help me better work to evaluate it.

What is “rhizomatic learning”? (according to Cormier)

I expect there are numerous views on what rhizomatic learning (or rhizomatic education) are, so I’ll just stick to Cormier’s view here for the sake of clarity. The following is just a brief summary of some parts of his view. If you would like more details, you can watch Cormier’s presentation for etmooc on YouTube, or read his paper on the topic, published in 2008 and posted on his blog, called “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.”

In his etmooc presentation, Cormier started off by suggesting that the “best learning” has to do with helping people deal with uncertainty, to figure out how to make decisions and choose the paths they should take when faced with situations in which the outcomes are uncertain. Education is tricky because we don’t know exactly what sorts of knowledge will be needed in the future, the changes different fields will undergo, the changes new technologies will bring, etc. So encouraging good decision-making and creative problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to continually guide one’s own learning to gain new knowledge as needed, are critical.

Cormier then introduced the idea of the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning, as “a model for learning for uncertainty.” I didn’t remember what “rhizomes” were, as it’s been quite some time since I took a botany course, and I’m not much of a gardener. Here’s what I found: some plants (such as ginger, hops, asparagus, and bamboo) have rhizomes, which are stems that are usually underground, and that have nodes from which the plant can move upwards to create above-ground stems, leaves, etc. So, if you have some asparagus in your garden, for example, you won’t just get one clump of it; the rhizomes underground will move horizontally and you will get above-ground asparagus stems popping up in numerous places.

by Rhian vK

“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, from Flickr (links below)


A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Rhizomes are very resilient as well; such plants are very difficult to get rid of, in part because new shoots can arise even if you break up the rhizome. As Cormier put it in his etmooc presentation: you can take any part of a rhizome and drop it somewhere else, and the plant will start to grow again. This idea of propagating laterally, rather than horizontally, is important in Cormier’s view of rhizomatic learning–this sort of learning takes place through connections made amongst groups of people, forming a network, rather than through knowledge or information-transmittal through experts (top-down) such as instructors or researchers publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Since in many fields “[i]nformation is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt,” it makes sense to develop environments where “collaborative learning construction” can take place (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”). Such environments include wikis, collaborative documents, as well as environments such as the “personal learning networks” made possible by sharing tools such as Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking and social curation sites, and more. In these collaborative spaces individuals come together in various groups to learn and to create knowledge. Each individual may be a member of multiple groups, and these groups form, change, disband, reform continually.

Cormier also gets some of his ideas for rhizomatic learning from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I haven’t read the book, but found these brief notes on Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of rhizomes useful (I got think link from a google doc linked to a post on Dave Cormier’s blog).

My sense of rhizomatic learning at this point, then, is that it is the sort of thing that is happening in etmooc, as well as informally by many, many people around the globe working with the kinds of social tools noted above, but also working in face to face situations with others. It’s probably the kind of learning most of us do in lives outside of educational institutions.

But Cormier seems to be arguing for it also to be part of more “formal” education. Instead of instructors creating a curriculum in advance that is the same for every student in the course, the community of learners constructs the curriculum.

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Note that in this quote Cormier says the community not only creates the curriculum, it is the curriculum, an idea he reiterated in his etmooc presentation. I am not entirely sure what he means by this, but perhaps the thought here is that as the community changes (and it is always changing–if not in terms of people coming and going, then in terms of what people say and do in it, what they share and discuss, never remaining static), so does the curriculum. “A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening,” Cormier says in a blog post called Rhizomatic Learning: Why we Teach”.

What is the role of the instructor in rhizomatic learning environments? Here’s what Cormier says:

The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

In rhizomatic learning environments, then, what is learned and how is shaped by a community of learners, and this changes constantly. I imagine that for a formal educational environment, one could have students set out what they’d like to investigate, help them with the tools they can use to investigate it and to form a community of people to help (a “personal learning network,” e.g.). I also imagine using a grading contract; that’s exactly what Cormier did with one of his courses last year.

When is rhizomatic learning appropriate?

Is Cormier suggesting that all learning should take place through the rhizomatic model? Definitely not. He said in his etmooc presentation that for learning situations in which specific kinds of knowledge must be gained, rhizomatic learning is the wrong way to go. In addition, if a body of knowledge that needs to be learned is stable, then rhizomatic learning may not be appropriate and information transfer more so. Also, as Phil Macoun noted in a blog post, if there are certain basic principles and foundational information needed in a field before learners can really benefit from discussions within a wider network of other learners, researchers and practitioners, then more “traditional” learning approaches would seem to be best for those earlier steps.


 Cormier explained this point in his etmooc presentation by using the Cynefin decision-making framework from Dave Snowden. Explaining this framework would take an entire blog post in itself, but thankfully Cormier has a post that does so. Rhizomatic learning is appropriate for situations that fall into the “complex” part of the framework, where, as Cormier puts it, there are no clear “right answers.” There is no obvious “best practice,” and we can’t just turn to experts to find out what to think, what is right to do, or what counts as true knowledge. Snowden says in the video linked above that in the complex domain, outcomes are uncertain and unpredictable; cause and effect relationships can’t be known in advance, only in hindsight. One can only engage in experiments and see what happens to determine the best course. This is the domain where novel practices and knowledges are tested and may be adopted, instead of seeking to find already-established solutions from experts. The Cynefin framework is much more complicated than this, but I won’t go into its other parts here.

This is enough to suggest that rhizomatic learning is not so great, perhaps, for basic mathematical skills or some aspects of science education, but it might, on the other hand, be useful for philosophy. We deal in questions that are still open in many ways (though there are some recognized procedures and accepted truths, there is much that is still negotiated and a good deal of room for novel approaches and arguments).

Rhizomatic learning in philosophy

What would rhizomatic learning look like in a postsecondary philosophy course?

For an introduction to philosophy course, e.g., one might allow students to identify what philosophical questions they are interested in, and then provide them with the tools to find out what others have said about those questions and to formulate their own response. The common instruction in the class could be on things like: what common philosophical questions are and a chance to develop your own if you don’t want to pursue one of those; what arguments are, how to evaluate them, and how to construct your own; how to write philosophy essays, etc. Then students could spend part of the class time and part of their own time doing research to work on their questions.

I can imagine this happening in groups within the class, so students interested in the same areas could work together, and thereby build a small network. Then the groups could create wikis, videos, slideshows, or use other means to share what they have found with the rest of the class; individuals could share what they have developed as their own views on the questions separately, perhaps.

The professor could also suggest web resources for certain kinds of questions, and any social networks related to people interested in philosophical issues, as well as social bookmarking sites that might have good links.

This could work for an intro to philosophy course in which the students involved don’t need to gain knowledge of the history of philosophy so much as get a taste of what philosophers do. For courses that are required for majors, and in order for students to take more upper-level courses that rely in part on knowledge of certain aspects of the history of philosophy, then a more focused approach is required to ensure that students are exposed to the necessary authors and texts.

Questions and concerns:

— I can think of a few websites with philosophy information that would be good for introductory-level students, but not many. Of course, they could work to find others that I don’t know about. It would help if there were more open educational resources available in philosophy.

— I’m not sure how I would introduce students into a wider social network of people that could help them with their questions. I guess I could try to include more philosophy teachers in my own PLN (so far it’s mostly people talking about education generally), and connect students that way. Ideally, I would help them connect with other students investigating similar issues (outside the course), so they could learn and generate knowledge together…but I honestly don’t have a clue how I might go about doing that.

— Why only point them to other websites and other people to connect with? Am I not a good connection to have, and shouldn’t I share my own knowledge as part of this community creation of knowledge? Perhaps the idea is to work more one-on-one with individuals or groups on their own projects, and be part of their network that way? That would be fantastic, if only it were possible in intro-level philosophy courses in a large university (ours are about 150 students or so). They can work together as teams on specific questions, but I don’t have time to offer directed help to each team.

— How is this different from students getting together in groups to do research projects and then presenting them to the rest of the class? Is it that one should be helping them develop a larger network to discuss their projects in, rather than just doing research and discussing within the small group?

— If the previous point is the case, then I see this being difficult to do in a short (13-15 week) course. Building that kind of network takes a long time, and then discussing things within it takes awhile too…I doubt there would be time to do it in a single semester/term.

Your comments

 I’m wondering if I’ve misconstrued anything about rhizomatic learning here, or if there are other ways it might be used in a course like philosophy. Or any thoughts about my questions, above?


“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

Cynefin Framework, CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons