Rhizomatic Learning – does the metaphor stand up?

This is rather a bold question to which I don’t have any answers, but about which I do have some tentative thoughts.

Metaphors are a powerful tool for helping people to visualize and think about whatever is being discussed differently, in new ways or with fresh understanding. But metaphors have to be used carefully, or at least with the recognition that they might not be able to ‘tell the whole story’.

What is a rhizome? A scientist would say – An underground and horizontal stem with the scientific properties of a stem:

  1. Support structure – for leaves, flowers and fruits
  2. Storage of nutrients
  3. Transport of nutrients to roots and shoots
  4. Production of new living tissue

So is the ‘rhizome’ a useful metaphor for understanding learning in a digital age? Deleuze and Guattari, used the term “rhizome” and “rhizomatic” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhizome_%28philosophy%29

They describe the 6 principles of the rhizome as being

Principle Meaning (from Deleuze and Guattari)


‘Any point of
a rhizome can be connected to anything other.’ ‘A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains’


Diversity of possibilities


‘There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject. ‘

asignifying rupture

If a rhizome is broken or separated into pieces then those broken pieces can start up again


A rhizome is a map and not a tracing. ‘What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions’


The process of transferring designs and patterns from one thing to another e.g. A technique used by some surrealist artists that involves pressing paint between sheets of paper. See Keith Hamon’s blog post for a helpful explanation http://idst-2215.blogspot.com/2011/02/decalcomania-and-cck11.html

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. danm.ucsc.edu/~dustin/library/deleuzeguattarirhizome.pdf

So, we can see that Deleuze and Guattari have taken some license with the scientific meaning of rhizome.  Despite this the rhizome metaphor has struck a chord with a number of people in ChangeMooc – not least of course with Dave Cormier, who has written some great blog posts this week.

Also well worth reading are:

Keith Hamon  and Glen Cochrane

And interesting although I don’t quite know what to make of it is


and there are others – which Dave refers to in his blog, or can be found in the changemooc blog browser .

My own thinking on this topic has been to consider if and where the rhizome metaphor is limited.  This is not to be negative. It must have captured my interest for me to be writing this at all -but questioning an idea helps me to develop my understanding.

There is one key characteristic of a rhizome that I think has perhaps not been given enough attention in how in might affect the whole picture – the fact that a rhizome is a ‘stem’ (usually underground) – it is only part of the whole plant, which still has roots and shoots.

Whilst the way the rhizome grows and develops is, I think, a useful metaphor for thinking about networked learning, can we/should we separate it from the roots and shoots?

The purpose of the rhizome is to support the shoots, leaves, flowers and fruit. (Not sure if purpose is the right word, but it does raise the whole issue of purpose in learning networks which I might come back to another time.) The rhizome cannot exist without shoots, leaves, flowers and fruit,  and they cannot exist without the rhizome.

So what is the relationship between the horizontal non-hierarchical rhizome and the vertical hierarchical shoots.

Last week Nancy White   referred to the importance of transversal connections – a point made by Etienne Wenger when he talks about the need for communities of practice to be accountable on both horizontal and vertical planes. Each has to work with the other for change to occur – we have to work in landscapes of practice and across boundaries. To what extent does the rhizome metaphor support or limit these considerations? Is it too homogeneous?

9 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning – does the metaphor stand up?

  1. Jaap November 11, 2011 / 10:44 am

    Jenny thank you for your tentative thoughts, compliments for the explicatory table.

    Maybe it is not fair to compare a concept with a metapore?
    When one wants to introduce a new metaphore or concept in a scientific discussion one has to remember Occam.
    We must ask wether the concept of rhizome is better than the network concept.
    A rhizome and a network are both connecting.
    A rhizome has possibilities, like a network.
    Multiplicity is a quality of both concepts
    A rhizome keeps growing when divided, every node of a network could connect to a new network
    Both could be looked upon as a map.
    I guess decalcomania could be done with a network on a paper as with a rhizome on a paper.
    I see some differences:
    a rhizome just connects, in a network different connections could be distinguished (direction and force etc.)
    a rhizome just connects, in a network the connections could be of a higher level as the connected nodes.

    I would say the concept of rhizome does not add much to the network concept.

  2. jennymackness November 11, 2011 / 3:54 pm

    Many thanks for your interesting comments Jaap and for the reminder about Occam’s razor.

    I have found during this Mooc, that most of my thinking has been around comparing or looking for differences between one way of thinking and another, and trying to work out how these might help in application to practice. So for example the difference between the collective and the individual in Alison Littlejohn’s week (and consideration of the individual has also spilled over into other weeks), the difference between facilitation, social artistry and teaching in Nancy White’s week, the difference between connectivism and constructivism through John Mak’s blog post and the difference between rhizomes, networks and systems this week.

    Quite a few times I have wondered whether we are simply introducing new terms for doing the same things – but as Nancy commented, sometimes a new term or metaphor gives us a jolt, to shake up our thinking a bit and help us to question our own thinking. Even if these ‘jolts’ don’t ultimately change our thinking, I think they are still useful and for me, stimulating.

    I haven’t yet sat down to try and pull together where all this is taking me in terms of my thinking about change in education. I’m not sure yet where the rhizome idea fits in with this and whether it has anything significant to add or say. Still thinking…. 🙂

    Thanks Jaap.

  3. Giulia November 11, 2011 / 7:56 pm

    I agree with Jaap. This is a great post. I am taken by some of your links, in particular to the illustrations but I also really appreciate your table. Overall you have given me more to think about and consider. Thank you.

  4. jennymackness November 11, 2011 / 8:35 pm

    Giulia – thanks for your visit and comment. I’m glad you liked the link to the graphics. Your own graphic was great – but you have probably realised that graphics don’t quite do it for me – much as I appreciate the skill involved. I couldn’t do it:-) I need a Table or similar – something linear (am I really admitting to this in public!). I’m a really step by step person and usually very slow steps – so the chaotic nature of rhizomes and moocs is a bit of a struggle! But I do like to see the diversity of approaches so it was great to see how you interpreted the rhizome concept – and what others made of it.


  5. Keith Hamon November 12, 2011 / 3:06 pm

    Jenny, thanks again for a wonderful post, and about one of my favorite topics: the rhizome. I think you ask the key question about any metaphor: is it useful. For me, the rhizome is a useful metaphor. I think it’s obviously useful for Dave Cormier as well. I suggest on my blog why it’s useful to me, and the answer is long, so I won’t repeat it here, and thanks for the above link to my posts.

    Does this usefulness suggest that rhizomes can function as a rather complete system, a theory, for learning? I don’t think so, at least not in the truncated, almost poetic, form that Deleuze and Guattari leave us in A Thousand Plateaus. Perhaps others such as Dave Cormier will expand this germinal metaphor into a workable theory, but I don’t think it has happened yet, and I’m suspicious about it ever happening. There’s something about the rhizome that doesn’t like theory-making. It’s too much like tracing and too little like mapping, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terms.

    As a metaphor similar to love is a rose, the rhizome is a starting point for exploration. And like all metaphors, it eventually breaks down and must not be held accountable for strict verisimilitude. Actually, in their discussion of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari do not mention plant systems as often as they mention animal, language, social, and thought systems. They are not literally talking about plants.

    I encourage you to pay attention to the rhizome as a metaphor, and please continue to challenge it. The rhizome does involve itself with chaos, and it attempts an engagement that recognizes chaos without trying to whip chaos into shape. I don’t know that D&G are totally successful, but they are very exciting. They give me more good thoughts per page than most anyone else.

  6. jennymackness November 13, 2011 / 6:18 pm

    Keith – thanks so much for your comment. I have really been enjoying your very informative blog posts – thank you.





    I agree that the rhizome metaphor is useful, but ‘incomplete’ in the sense that it leaves some – if not many- questions unanswered.

    An interesting thing for me is that my background is science education – so I come with what some might consider quite a lot of ‘baggage’. On a personal level I have to consider what I need to ‘unlearn’ in order to move on in my thinking. So for example, should I get down there in the middle of the spaghetti bowl or should I maintain my distance. Which will give me the best perspective? Do I need both?

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