Questions about rhizomatic learning

This is an open letter to Keith Hamon. Since it is open anyone is welcome to respond, but the thoughts here have been prompted by contact with Keith.

richard-giblett-mycelium-rhizome (For source of image – see References)

Hi Keith – I have been thinking about your invitation to discuss some of the ideas around rhizomatic learning with you further.

I am still finding it difficult to get my head round it – but maybe that’s because I haven’t read enough of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. On one level it all seems so obvious

  • learners need to have autonomy to make their own choices about which paths to follow,
  • life is full of uncertainty and will be more so as the pace of change and information overload increases,
  • there is so much information out there at the moment that there is no point in re-inventing the wheel – we need to share, aggregate, remix, repurpose and share again
  • the shelf-life of knowledge is ever diminishing; there is an increased urgency to be ever critical and questioning of what we know.

These ideas have been around for a few years now.

I’m not even sure that the rhizome metaphor is that new. You yourself have been writing about it since 2009 or before (?) and then of course ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ has been around for much longer.

I have been enjoying your posts and those of Cath Ellis. Cath’s posts in which she is presenting models for rhizomatic learning make sense. She has presented two models.

  1. Learning environments which are designed to take a rhizomatic approach are multi-path – for me the tube map has its limitations, but does make me think of multi-path possibilities. In our work on emergent learning, we have identified multipath as one of the factors needed to promote emergence.
  2. Learners in these multipath environments are nomadic.

Tim Raynor writes in ‘Lines of Flight’:

‘Nomadism is a way of being. It involves refusing to be tied down by set categories and definitions. It is driven by a desire to experiment and explore, to learn, grow, and boldly venture forth on creative lines of flight’.

Not only does this relate to learner agency (one of the clusters of factors we have in our work on emergent learning) but also to learner identity. Learning, meaning, identity and community are ‘deeply interconnected and mutually defining’ (Wenger 1998, p.5).

In our work on emergent learning we have also discussed how ambiguity and liminality might affect possibilities for emergent learning. For us we have always considered that an ‘all or nothing’ approach is not the learner experience. As you have said certainty is important, just as important as uncertainty. In all the factors we have considered that might influence emergent learning, we think of them as being on a continuum between prescriptive and emergent learning, but it is – as you have described it – a complex dance. We have however, through the workshops we have run where we have asked people to draw their own footprints of emergence, realised that the scale is not from negative to positive. Both prescriptive and emergent learning can be positive, just as they can both be negative depending on the context.

I think this idea of ‘push and pull’ has come out in your writing. I particularly like what you have written about creating space. That really resonated with me. In our emergent learning work we have struggled with the notion of ‘open/structure’ – the idea that we need to consider both structure and the spaces between the structure. What are those spaces and how do we recognise them? Structure seems easier to recognise?

You have written:

‘Rhizomatic learners ‘enjoy’ the tensions between closed, defined spaces where the ball is currently (what we know) and the open-ended, undefined spaces where the ball can go (what we don’t know).’

I’m not sure that I would know how to distinguish a ‘rhizomatic learner’ from other learners. As you have suggested, we all ‘dance’ (love that!) between certainty/uncertainty, open/closed, and so on. You have written that ‘the space holds all the possibilities’, which has made me wonder what possibilities the structure holds. Just a thought – I’m in thinking aloud mode!

I think this also relates to the idea of striated and smooth space, of which Sian Bayne has said both are good. Deleuze and Guattari have written that:

‘State space is ‘striated’ or griddled. Movement in it is confined as by gravity to a horizontal plane, and limited by the order of that place to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points.’

I actually equate this to Cath Ellis’ tube map model, but I don’t think this is what she intended. D &G go on to say

‘Nomad space is ‘smooth’, or open-ended. One can rise up at any point and move to any other.’

I find it more difficult to visualise this. I’m not sure what they mean by rise up. And this brings us to the question of what ‘open-ended’ means. D & G have also written:

‘A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’

I don’t know what to think of this. My past experience has suggested that there are always boundaries that we come up against. Etienne Wenger writes a lot about boundaries and that has influenced my thinking. His thinking is that boundaries are valuable – its where the best learning can take place (he often includes this when talking about ‘landscapes of practice’). In our emergent learning framework we have zones, rather than boundaries, but it is possible to fall off the edge of chaos in our framework. And in your wonderful blog post about spaces on a football field you point out that there is a boundary. Do we need boundaries for structure? Is that what we mean by structure? I think that up until now in our emergent learning research we have been thinking of structure in terms of scaffolding or support.

Final question: If a rhizome is ‘always in the middle’ – how does that equate to there being no centre?  I think this question relates to the important points that Frances Bell has been making about power. I haven’t yet read what D & G have to say about power in a rhizomatic learning environment. Where does it fit? How does it fit? Does it fit?

So, with respect to rhizomatic learning, I feel comfortable with the notion of nomadic learners in multi-path environments. I’m less clear about the topography of this environment and the relationship between the horizontal and vertical at various levels of understanding, such as the structure of the learning landscape and the power relations within it.

I would welcome your thoughts on some of these questions.


Bell, F. (2013). Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking.

Bayne, S. (2004). Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. Vol 1, No. 2.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press

Ellis, C. (2013). Model one: maps 

Ellis, C. (2013). Model two: nomads

Richard Giblett (2009). ‘Mycelium Rhizome’. Pencil on paper. 120 x 240 cm, $11,000 incl gst, unframed Retrieved from:

Hamon, K. (2013). Encouraging Autonomy is #rhizo14

Hamon, K. (2013). Uncertainty in #rhizo14

Rayner, T. (2013). Lines of Flight. Deleuze and nomadic creativity.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Gumtau, S. (2012). Footprints of emergence. IRRODL.

21 thoughts on “Questions about rhizomatic learning

  1. keith.hamon February 7, 2014 / 4:37 pm

    Jenny, this is a stunningly fine post, and I’m honored to be included. I thought I would reply in a comment yesterday, but my mind is racing, and I want to give your ideas as much careful consideration as you have here. I’ll try to have a post in response by Sunday, but let me point out that your post exemplifies what cMOOCs do best: push us into those rich boundaries between what we know and don’t know. Whether we call it connectivism, rhizomatic learning, or emergent learning, it’s my favorite place to be: a zone of engagement and performance, where I always learn so much. Thanks for opportunity to map some new territory.

  2. jennymackness February 7, 2014 / 6:41 pm

    Keith – thanks for your initial response. I’m looking forward to more 🙂 You have a way of being able to put into words what I think but haven’t been able to articulate. This is an example:

    > those rich boundaries between what we know and don’t know…….. it’s my favorite place to be: a zone of engagement and performance, where I always learn so much.

    Thanks 🙂

  3. Simon Ensor February 8, 2014 / 8:58 am

    Hi Jenny. I much appreciate this synthetic piece. I don’t know how you connect rhizomes and chaos theory as I have not as yet taken the time to map it through. However, I instinctively feel that line drawings of rhizomes and 2d images of networks are an obstacle. We need to deanchor our concentration on ourselves and connections. We are also limited by not taking into account wider ecological factors on behaviour.
    This article is a starting point for further reflection. Would welcome feedback.

  4. jennymackness February 8, 2014 / 5:07 pm

    Hi Simon – many thanks for your comment. I have not connected rhizomes with chaos theory but we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I) have reference complexity theory in our work on emergent learning.

    We too have struggled with how to make our ideas, our framework, our landscape for open learning appear as 3D in a 2D format (i.e. in a journal paper, or on our wiki). We have tried to explain this with a few images and now we are trying to automate the drawing of our Footprints of Emergent – (See our open wiki for our ongoing work - – but we haven’t yet cracked the 3D nut! I think though that we have made a good attempt at taking into account wider ecological factors on learner experiences. See the new mapping sheet on the drawing footprints page –

    Apologies for the wiki. We know it needs tidying up. This has been on my list for weeks!

    Thanks for the link to the paper which has been an interesting read. You might also find this one interesting:

    Morrison, K., 2008. Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1).

    Let me know if you struggle to find it and I can send you a copy by email if you are interested.

    Not sure if I have given you the feedback you were looking for. Were you wanting me to comment on the paper?

    BTW the line drawing I used for this post is there simply because I find it a very beautiful drawing – not for any other reason ☺

  5. jennymackness February 8, 2014 / 7:58 pm

    Hi Simon – another response. Since my last one Matthias Melcher has posted an amazing gif on our wiki – – which depicts our view of the 3D landscape we try and describe in 2D in our Footprints of Emergence paper.

    I have also made a comment about the paper you referenced in your comment on Heli’s blog –

    Thanks for all the thought provoking.


  6. Simon Ensor February 8, 2014 / 8:38 pm

    Thanks Jenny. More reading to do!! Very stimulating – thanks!

  7. balimaha February 10, 2014 / 1:12 am

    Hmm what a thoughtful post. I stopped for a while to ponder the “having no center” but “always in the middle” and as a metaphor, to me, the “middle” here does not mean exactly in the center, but meaning not at any extreme edge, somehow connected to all/many others. This is my understanding of it visually as a rhizome. No one spot is clearly the center of it, and every spot on it seems to be somewhere in between the others rather than at an edge or beginning or end. Also, the idea of no beginning or end, to me, comes from the fact that if you take a part of it away, it grows, and the rest continues to grow.
    Now I have engaged with this all much less than most ppl here, and i tried reading D&G but it got over my head mostly(need to focus more) BUT i do think one can work with the metaphor using one’s own experience. I agree lots of the ideas are not “new” but i find the metaphor sums them up nicely in one word: rhizome.
    I think the “no center” is like in this course if Dave was not there. But even though Dave is there and theoretically central (someone showed him as most mentioned on tweets for example) it is not really that clear. Many of us are in the middle and connected to each other. No one person or idea is central.
    I also thought the fact some of us are taking other MOOCs together like futureed and discussing them on rhizo14 was an exampe of connections flowing outside what was the original rhizome. Whatever that means.
    I am writing all this just to express my understanding of the embodied experience of rhizomatic learning as i have experienced it in the past few weeks. It may be completely different to how others wh have been reading, studying, living it for many years think of or conceive it. But this understanding of it that i am developing as i learn from everyone else is helping me think about my own practice

  8. danceswithcloud February 12, 2014 / 6:48 pm

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post – and for the Comments that followed. For me the issue with Boundaries is dependent on location: political boundaries of exclusion – bad; magical, mystical boundaries for crossing over – intriguing. Not so much a boundary as an event horizon?

  9. jennymackness February 14, 2014 / 6:46 pm

    Maha and Sandra – thanks to you both for your comments.

    Maha – I find the idea of centre/no centre a bit of a problem in relation to the rhizome metaphor. I am still trying to think this through, but it seems to me that in any ‘course’ there will necessarily be a centre – even if it is designed on network principles and is very distributed, as for example, CCK08 was. This centre can be more or less evident, more or less important, according to the course philosophy and whether that philosophy can be adhered to. I think I still need to be convinced that ‘No one idea or person is central’. Still thinking!

    Sandra – I like the idea of boundary as an ‘event horizon’. That would certainly fit with what Etienne Wenger says about the value of learning at the boundaries. I am also thinking of ‘permeable’ boundaries which are dynamic, flexible and ever shifting. Still thinking here too 🙂

  10. Roy Williams February 18, 2014 / 11:34 am

    Jenny, and all, lots to think about …

    Perhaps we could combine (and mix) metaphors a bit, and think about learning (and language) as de-centred-with-nodes.

    So, decentered …
    … because the meaning of a sign comes from its use (Barthes’ “every use becomes a sign of itself” – from hand-axes to mathematical notations) within a community of users – and the community is dynamic, it’s an emerging ecology which has no permanent centre, if a centre at all. (No ‘ultimate signifier’, in the language of deconstruction, all we have is difference / différance).

    Similarly with the use of material artefacts, where repeated use similarly creates ‘residues’ – innovative materials and social forms (hand-axes, mobile phones, tribes, families) that become part of the physical and social furniture.

    And ‘nodes’…
    … i) some ideas become knowledge: e.g. Seymour Papert’s ‘powerful ideas’ or Meyer and Land’s ‘threshold concepts’. ii) some practices become established, routinised, some into ‘memes’ (social practices), some of which get further rendered into ‘temes’ (technical practices – see Susan Blackmore’s “genes, memes and temes” on Youtube).

    And some of the knowledge and practice becomes more formalised, and even more abstract and decentered in the concepts, algorithms and technologies of science, which builds capital – intellectual capital, manufacturing capital, networking capital, etc, which can be used by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

    But, you might say, this still looks beguilingly like a ‘centred’ approach – building up intellectual capital through a series of cumulative nodes (Newton’s famous saying that he was not that innovative, he was merely ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’). But this too is dynamic: Newtonian physics gets displaced by relativity, gets displaced by quantum mechanics, all of which might one day get displaced by a Unified Field Theory, etc, etc.

    So, finally … ‘decentered-with-unstable-nodes’ …
    …is about as far as I can go (wearing my semotics / deconstructivist / post-modernist hats). I am not sure a rhizome on its own captures enough of it for me – Bateson’s ecology of Mind works better at an abstract level, and Kevin Beiler’s images of the Douglas Fir/ Micorrhizal Fungi ecology ( works better, for me, at a material level – as you know, Jenny – you have cited this elsewhere in these discussions.

  11. Ryan Tracey October 22, 2014 / 11:00 am

    Thanks Jenny for opening your letter to Keith for us.

    I too have been deliberating over similar questions about rhizomatic learning, and I’ve posted my thoughts to my blog:

    I would love for you to add your thoughts in response.

  12. jennymackness October 22, 2014 / 1:48 pm

    Hi Ryan – great to meet you 🙂 I have quickly read your blog post – it’s so good to read someone else’s perspective. I’m not a quick responder I’m afraid – need time to think! But I will think and respond on your blog. I have also tweeted your post to Frances Bell and Mariana Funes, who I am collaborating with to research the experience of Rhizo14. In fact I must now get back to the lit review that I am steeped in at the moment!
    Many thanks for contacting me.

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