Rhizomatic Learning – A Pedagogy of Risk

(Source of image: http://jobangel.blog.hu/2013/07/29/kinek_a_kockazata_a_jutalekos_munka)

On Twitter Nick Kearney asked “Are we reaching an understanding of what ‘rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?”

I’m not sure. I think we probably still need a clearer view of what happens or can happen, in terms of learning, in the open space for learning that will be created by taking a rhizomatic approach.

An open learning environment of the type we have experienced in #rhizo14 (Dave Cormier’s open online course on rhizomatic learning),  is associated with ambiguity and uncertainty and puts learners in a liminal space – an in-between-space – between mastery and troublesome knowledge. This is a space of potential risk.

In #rhizo14 the creation of open space has been an integral part of the course design. There has been space to engage and interact in locations of our own choice (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Diigo, Google Hangout), space to follow our own lines of enquiry and space to experience the ideas being tested, such as unpicking the meaning of open sharing, remixing and repurposing information, embracing uncertainty, questioning the authority of knowledge and books, learning in a community, and creating our own curriculum.

Some #rhizo14 participants have given a lot of thought to what it means to learn in open spaces. In the video she created for the Week 3 topic – Embracing Uncertainty, Helen Blunden showed us the physical spaces that she works in, more open than in the past, and shared with us what uncertainty means in her workspace. Keith Hamon has written two blog posts (here and here) about the relationship between structure and space in rhizomatic learning, suggesting that space does not mean lack of structure or boundaries, and that space offers possibilities and structure offers potential. On Matthias Melcher’s blog, Vanessa Vaile posted a link to an article which suggested to her that edges and visual complexity aid navigation in open spaces.  Matthias himself, whilst not writing specifically about space, has discussed rules and patterns in rhizomatic learning,  which seem to me to be related to space. And Mariana Funes in a long post that covers a lot of ground, has some interesting things to say about what ‘safe’ space might look like in an online environment.

Mention of safety in relation to online space raises for me the link between space and risk.  With space comes risk and with risk comes ethical responsibility. I would suggest that the more open the space, the greater the risk for both learner and ‘teacher’, and the greater the ethical responsibilities of all participants, but particularly the ‘teacher’.

Ronald Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty’,  includes a chapter near the end of the book on ‘Space and Risk’.  He acknowledges the ‘virtue of space’ as being freedom, but with this freedom comes a number of risks. He recognises that a common response to these risks in an educational setting is to close down the space, rationalising this as being in the students’ best interests – but as he points out ‘No risk, no space’ – and space is needed if the students/learners are going to become ‘authentically themselves’.

So what are the risks? Barnett sees a number of them.

In relation to curriculum the spaces needed are ‘intellectual space’ and ‘practical space’. We have had both these in #rhizo14. They are associated, respectively, with

  • ‘epistemological risk’ – by following their own lines of enquiry, creating their own curriculum, students may end up with a ‘warped perspective’ or ‘skewed understanding’
  • and ‘practical risk’ – the students may not have the practical skills  to cope with the open curriculum environment – skills such as self-organisation – or the student might be over-dependent on the skills they have and not learn new skills

In relation to pedagogy, we need a ‘space-for-being’ and the risk here is ‘ontological’. A risk to the learner’s ‘being’, i.e. a risk to their identity. This risk is ever present. It is more than a practical consideration. As Barnett says (p.146):

… the tutor has all the time to make judgements about how and when to intervene, to bring individuals on, to divert them into new paths of becoming, to give yet other individuals a new sense of themselves and yet others an understanding that their use of their space is not taking them forward as it should. There is an ethics of educational space, which has surely not been excavated.

… No matter how careful a teacher is, a word, a gesture, may be injurious to a student’s being.

Ontological risk is the greatest risk when opening up learning spaces for both the teacher and the learner. As Barnett also says (p.150) – ‘Space is necessary, but it has to be a controlled space’.

But what do we mean by control and how much control is too much?  In CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC) the space became, at times, very risky for some learners. Following the MOOC a number of us discussed this at length and some of us came to the conclusion that:

Most important of all, negative constraints must be put in place and communicated to the participants.  Secondly, the instructors or facilitators must dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence. (Source of quote: IRRODL)

The difficulty is that open spaces attract a diversity of learners. What is a negatively risky space to one will be a positively challenging space to another.  But whichever way you look at it, risk is a factor of open learning spaces.

So to return to Nick Kearney’s question: Are we reaching an understanding of what “rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?

Well, I think I have some understanding of the uncertainty of the learning process, the need to constantly question and challenge assumptions, and the need for space in which to do this. But I think much more understanding is needed of the complexity of the learning process and the risks that learners and ‘teachers’ are subject to when adopting a rhizomatic approach to learning and course/open space design.


33 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Learning – A Pedagogy of Risk

  1. rdmaxwell55 February 16, 2014 / 6:34 pm

    I was in a MOOC, Accountable Talk, just long enough to get what I thought i needed for a paper I was doing in my Information Literacy and Instructional Design curse. One thing I got out of the course, though, spoke to the risks you have enumerated above. That is, students in an accountable talk setting are accountable, to themselves as individuals, to their collective selves as a learning community, and to the subject matter, or in philosophical terms, to the truth and the advancement of knowledge. Satisfying these layers and levels of accountability and trust may help to mitigate the risks that exist, risks that are always with us no matter what.

  2. Scott Johnson February 17, 2014 / 4:33 am

    Hi Jenny,

    Being and what I am learning are often at odds and directing me into the preferred alignment does not necessarily cause me to become what I have learned. It suits the system to imagine my transformation but that presumptive intrusion on my identity may drive a desire to shake-off such “learning” in order to preserve my own sensibilities. Why is it presumed that what school tells me is always correct? What of the risk of discarding hard won personal knowledge for processed and certified correct knowledge? Without my personal entanglement in the cause and effect stream that created this off-the-shelf knowledge peddled by HE what kind of “knowing” am I engaged in?

    Methods of discovery and explanation built into us seem to force educators into fits of mad correctiveness. “We must be responsible for our learning” sounds like a prelude to having my mouth washed out with soap before I can even start:-)

    This insistence on holding to my own sensibilities unfortunately leaves me without something to display as being learned. I remain incomplete here and there is no peace in this beyond a kind of anticipation. The risk I feel is the urge to grasp any understanding floating by–for the false balance of it.

    My current favourite quote:
    Here quoting Norbert Wiener in Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. New York Avon Books, 1967

    “It is the pattern maintained by this homeostasis which is the touchstone of our personal identity… We are but whirlpools in a river of everflowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”

    Thanks for the posting.

  3. jaapsoft2 February 17, 2014 / 8:21 am

    Is Barnett writing about the dangers of scaffolding in this citation?
    Ronald Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty’, … recognises that a common response to these risks in an educational setting is to close down the space, rationalising this as being in the students’ best interests

  4. jennymackness February 17, 2014 / 4:11 pm

    Ray – I hadn’t thought about accountability in relation to risk – I need to think about it further – but trust, I think, can definitely help to mitigate the effects of risk. Thanks for your comment.

  5. jennymackness February 17, 2014 / 4:14 pm

    Scott – I sense that you are not happy with my post, but I haven’t been able to understand what it is that concerns you or why. Are you saying that open spaces are not a risk, or that they are a necessary risk, or an inevitable risk that we must be prepared to accept? Thanks. Look forward to hearing more if you have time and come back here. Jenny

  6. jennymackness February 17, 2014 / 4:28 pm

    Jaap – thanks for your interest and question. Barnett suggests (p.144, 145) that there are various risk avoidance strategies commonly used in Higher Education (and his book is directed at Higher Ed.)

    – overload the curriculum ensuring that students don’t have time to stretch out into their own space – the rationale is that this keeps both teachers and students safe
    – take a didactic approach to teaching, so confining the students’ space; the rationale here is that this reduces the risk to the teacher’s authority
    – carefully plan the curriculum and then deliver it exactly according to the plan; the rationale here is that this will prevent the teacher/institution being sued

    I would suggest that these are common strategies that we can still see in place today, even though Barnett wrote his book in 2007 – and they are understandable.

    Barnett also writes about courage. It seems to me that teaching and learning in ‘open space’ where risk can be high, requires quite a bit of courage on the part of the teacher and the learner.

    Hope I have understood and answered your question.

  7. tellio February 17, 2014 / 4:28 pm

    If you are interested in some deliberate practice I have tried to apply what little I understand about the values and principles of rhizomatic learning over the first three weeks of classroom work in a university composition class here: http://impedagogy.com/wp/

    Perhaps what we need is more raw stories of successes and failures, narratives of practice, grasps for understanding floating by, and communities that can take the whisps in hand and shape them, smoke sculptors.

    I don’t think I understand the jargon of “dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence”. Seems totally divorced from practice, but that is probably just me. I do, however, appreciate how you are aggregating practice that others have written about especially the discussion of rhizomatic spaces.

    Thanks for the post and thanks for bringing together practice.

  8. carol yeager February 17, 2014 / 5:42 pm

    Having come from “old school” learning … when the term and formal demand of a specific pedagogy was de rigeur … stepping into any open space was anathema to ‘learning’ … risks of coloring outside the lines, or questioning outside the teachers’ concentrated lecture bore considerable negative consequences. Control of learning and delivery of learning objectives was considered a key to successful learning. I know, because I consistently questioned, probed and colored outside of the lines … both figuratively and practically. The consequence was a lowered grade and scorn from pedagogues and peers. This is OK, because I believe I learned a lot more than many others … about myself, as well as about the general world and subjects around me. And, more importantly, about my own learning.

    I do think that it is important to have some structure and boundaries to push against … I do believe it is important not to be penalized nor scorned for pushing beyond these boundaries. The encouragement to go beyond is an opportunity for some; a threat and risk for others; ambiguous opportunities for all.

    Scott, “Why is it presumed that what school tells me is always correct? What of the risk of discarding hard won personal knowledge for processed and certified correct knowledge? Without my personal entanglement in the cause and effect stream that created this off-the-shelf knowledge peddled by HE what kind of “knowing” am I engaged in? ” resonates within me … thanks for verbalizing my inner demons/angels 🙂

    Jenny, “The difficulty is that open spaces attract a diversity of learners. What is a negatively risky space to one will be a positively challenging space to another. But whichever way you look at it, risk is a factor of open learning spaces.” seems to underscore the risk of “losing control” that many in HE fear.
    Life is ambiguous and risky. Do we learn all of our coping and growing skills in school? I think perhaps not, and learners might do well to recognize that they have many skills to work within open spaces. We all have different preferences and proclivities for learning as you indicate here.

    One size fits all in learning is an erroneous assumption, for sure. That not all can benefit from working and learning in open space is also erroneous. It is important, in my opinion, to facilitate and learn in multiple spaces … defined and otherwise … without penalty. We can adapt and learn and grow in multiple directions with multiple abilities with multiple results. Not all are equal, but all should have abounding opportunities. Rhizomatic Learning is but one of those opportunities and needs to have a place at the table of the feast of learning opportunities.

  9. Scott Johnson February 17, 2014 / 6:16 pm

    Hi Jenny, have to do some more thinking on this. Barnett asks what it is to be a student and it bothers me that he might follow time with a definition from the viewpoint of the institution and not the student. To me, open spaces require consent and, as you say, trust. The presumption that risk can be just poured over an encounter without permission is toying with people.

    There’s a difference between “open spaces” and places where the floor falls out from under you unexpectedly. I’ll be back.

  10. sensor63 February 17, 2014 / 7:52 pm

    ” I think we probably still need a clearer view of what happens or can happen, in terms of learning, in the open space for learning that will be created by taking a rhizomatic approach.”

    I am intrigued by this Jenny and your post as a whole. I shall attempt to answer at length with relation to my own experience as a “foreign language teacher”.

    “We need” I think “we” (teachers/researchers) may
    1) overestimate our ability to understand, to control, to discern what constitures risk/learning/viable/safe space
    2) assume that despite our best efforts learners are not learning rhizomatically beneath the comforting (perhaps for us or them) facade of apparently more ‘structured’ ‘scaffolded’ ‘confined’ approaches.

  11. jennymackness February 17, 2014 / 8:24 pm

    @Terry – thanks for your visit to my front porch – and for sharing your practice. I love this comment – “In this I see a basic rhizomatic principle–never let the institutional imperatives trump community principles and values.” I would extend this from ‘community’ to ‘personal’, because ultimately I think all learning is personal – even though I recognise the role of social learning.

    My experience is that this ( never let the institutional imperatives trump community principles and values) is really difficult to adhere to. I agree that we need more ‘storytelling’ but I also think that it’s difficult to get under the surface of ‘storytelling’. How do we get learners/teachers to tell their ‘real’ stories – not just the ones that they think are expected?

    Sorry that the jargon of “dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence”, didn’t gel with you. I probably should not have posted this out of the context of the paper that we wrote – but basically we were saying that open spaces need some sort of moderation which will allow people to experience positive emergent learning, rather than negative.

  12. tellio February 17, 2014 / 9:48 pm

    Jenny, no problem with your words–probably just means I need to take the time to read your words in context. And yes we do need some sense of control and moderation, but I am not pretty sure that trying to parse it beforehand into positive and negative emergences is possible. Set the initial conditions, observe like a hawk, and get ready to stoop like a falcon as the little mice emerge? 😉 I certainly see myself as the mouse more often than the falcon.

  13. jennymackness February 18, 2014 / 7:12 am

    Carol – I love the image of colouring outside the lines – which fits very well with the idea of moving beyond boundaries and out into open space.

    I can also see that opening up space for learners is a risk for the ‘teacher’ in HE, and in other sectors, which could be equated to ‘loss of control’ – but in writing this post I was much more concerned about the risk to learners themselves.

    It’s not that learners shouldn’t be exposed to risk, but more that as teachers we need to recognise the possible consequences of this risk.

  14. jennymackness February 18, 2014 / 7:17 am

    Hi Scott – my reading of Barnett’s work is that his main concern is the risk to a student’s ‘being’ – their sense of themselves, their identity. Whilst he says that students must have/need space to learn, he also points out the possible ‘dangers/risks’ that students might encounter as a result of this.

  15. jennymackness February 18, 2014 / 7:20 am

    Simon – I don’t think its about control or even scaffolding – so much as awareness?

  16. jennymackness February 18, 2014 / 7:23 am

    Terry – I agree that emergence obviously can’t be controlled, otherwise it wouldn’t be emergence – but once something has emerged, then we can intervene, if necessary?

  17. Scott Johnson February 18, 2014 / 4:23 pm

    Hi Jenny, I really need to read Barnett…Feel caught in a contradiction on this. First I react to the sense of being “told what to do” by getting all huffy (is that still a word?) and then find myself stuck and confounded by it all. Often find myself out beyond the limits of understanding where everything is very interesting but come back with noting that means anything.

    Your mention of “control” got me thinking about this. I student needs to be both in a state of receptivity to newness plus at least partly grounded in their comprehending selves. If that’s what Barnett is saying it makes perfect sense to me. To learn we have to make meanings that work within us to help us take on more meanings–others can lead us to this but can’t do it for us.

    How do we stay intact but soft enough to absorb new things?

  18. Barry Dyck February 19, 2014 / 2:51 am

    The risks you address here have been valid for me in my teaching context as well. Four years ago I started (what I discovered later was rhizomatic) a high school learning environment that intentionally created space for students to explore their interests. The ontological risk was certainly the greatest in year one. I continue to struggle with providing boundaries and structures that enhance learning, that allow for play and discovery and uncertainty and confidence.

    This response from a student shows the open and structured conflict: “Even
    though I’m a person who likes to go everywhere all at once, I like having structure and that lack of structure was maybe not necessarily the best thing because it meant that I could go anywhere and even though I was like okay to do this, there wasn’t really any penalty for not doing it so I knew I could get away with not doing it.” There is a multiplicity at work here and something along the lines of Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of schizophrenia (which I haven’t quite grasped yet).

    My thesis is about the “complexity of the learning process and the risks that learners and ‘teachers’ are subject to when adopting a rhizomatic approach to learning and course/open space design.”

    If anyone has time to skim and provide feedback, I’d love to learn from your experiences.

    Click to access DYCK_Barry.pdf

  19. dogtrax February 19, 2014 / 10:46 am

    I’m still confused but I am comfortable in my confusion about rhizomatic learning. I’ve come a long way since #rhizo14 started, I think, and I recognize that I still have quite a ways to go for this idea of unsettled structures and living “between the lines” of what I know and don’t know to become a natural part of who I am. How that translates into my role as a writer and teacher is something I can’t quite say right now. That’s OK, too.

  20. jennymackness February 19, 2014 / 4:09 pm

    Barry – thanks so much for sharing your thesis. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet – but I definitely will. It sounds like a fascinating study. Presumably you’ve already submitted this? I’m wondering what sort of feedback you have already received. I love the student’s comment that you have posted. Thanks for sharing that too. Jenny

  21. jennymackness February 19, 2014 / 4:16 pm

    Hi Kevin – I’m still unsure as to whether rhizomatic learning is a good metaphor for what we are doing as teachers. I think I agree with Jaap when he writes: “To describe learning we do not need the Rhizome-word.”

    and with Keith when he wrote in his blog post

    “Rhizo14, of course, is focusing on the metaphor-building, intuitive, expansive, open-ended aspect of learning. It should, and I have no problem with this. However, I recognize that this can appear to suggest that rhizomatic learning is all there is to learning. I don’t think this is so…. ” – http://idst-2215.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/jenny-rhizomatic-learners-and-rhizo14.html

    Thanks for your comment – Jenny

  22. Barry Dyck February 19, 2014 / 4:31 pm

    The response at my defence was, “At a gut level it makes sense, but how do you get teachers to change?” There is lots of open space that can be occupied. We just need people willing to enter these uncertain spaces.

  23. jennymackness February 19, 2014 / 6:19 pm

    Hi Scott – I can recommend Barnett’s book. It’s a good read. He starts off by relating learning in Higher Education to bungee jumping

    > “Learning in higher education calls for courage on the part of the learner and a will to leap into a kind of void. There is bound to be uncertainty. A pedagogy of air (as I shall term it) opens up spaces and calls for a will to learn on the part of the student; to learn even amid uncertainty. In the process, it is just possible that the student may come into a new mode of being.”

  24. Scott Johnson February 19, 2014 / 6:59 pm

    Thanks Jenny, will read Barnett. Reading the introduction to the book at Google books I kept thinking about what students are FOR. Not who they are but function do they play in society?
    We need people to go past certainty in order to develop as a society. People to explore and be confused and speculate without having positions to defend or allegiances to crusty old understandings. A kind of foolish person to be built in an odd way like a favourable mutation:-)

  25. sensor63 February 20, 2014 / 7:52 am

    The awareness of our own strength makes us modest.
    Paul Cezanne

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s