No script for rhizomatic learning

I recently went to see the film Mr Turner.  I came out rather wishing I hadn’t seen it. I have always loved Turner’s paintings and at one stage of my life lived within walking distance of the site of his painting of the Crook of Lune.

Crook of Lune, Looking towards Hornby Castle circa 1816-18 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Source of image

Mike Leigh’s film intentionally sought to create a tension between the exquisite, ethereal, yet powerful, paintings and the man that Turner was. As Dave Calhoun says in this review, Turner “grunts and grimaces and gropes his way through life” – and through the film.

But the film did make me want to find out more about Mike Leigh, which led me to the BBC Imagine programme in which Alan Yentob interviews Mike Leigh. I now realise that I have seen other Mike Leigh films. The one that immediately springs to mind is Vera Drake, but what I didn’t know was the process that Mike Leigh uses to create his films and this is not only fascinating, but also, I think, rhizomatic.

In the online description of the BBC Imagine programme is written:

On day one of a Mike Leigh film, there is no script, no story and the actors do not know if they will even be in the final film.

And in the programme Mike Leigh says

I say, come and be in my film. Can’t tell you what it’s about. I can’t tell you what your character is. We’ll invent that as part of the process. And you will never know any more than your character knows.

The whole process seems to be one of improvisation based on deep research of the subject and characters being filmed. For example, Timothy Spall learned how to paint like Turner for the part, but the script of the film was the result of many hours of rehearsals, which relied on the cast to ‘make it up as they went along’.

The programme and the process described was fascinating and sparked off all sorts of thoughts and reflections – too many to write about here – but it did jog a memory of seeing another programme years ago where a group of hopeful applicants for art/sculpture school, turned up for interview and found themselves all locked in a large room with a huge polystyrene block each and no instructions on what to do or what was expected. If I remember correctly they were locked in this room for at least a couple of days or more and finally realised that they had to create something out of this polystyrene block –  that was the interview! This also seems to me to be rhizomatic learning.

There is no script for rhizomatic learning.

16 thoughts on “No script for rhizomatic learning

  1. juandon November 29, 2014 / 5:45 pm

    El futuro es así sin duda, el aprendizaje, la educación, como tales conceptos semánticos, pronto desaparecerán, porque será algo natural, algo obvio, en todas y cada una de las actividades de las personas.
    La nueva sociedad nunca será la prolongación de la anterior, como siempre en los albores de los tiempos había sucedido, esta sociedad va una velocidad exponencial como nunca había sucedido, por tanto las secuencias temporales no se repetirán, el empleo de tecnologías que nunca son de última generación, porque siempre se autorenuevan, hará que todo sea diferente, claro que si ….@juandoming

  2. SheriO November 29, 2014 / 6:04 pm

    Rhizomatic film-making is organic, sub-conscious, and without the bells and whistles of cinematic effects? I’ve seen Mike Leigh films and know about his process. Bravo for him for getting funders without a script.

  3. jennymackness November 29, 2014 / 6:15 pm

    Thank you juandon for your comment. I am not fluent in Spanish, but I think I understand your comment and would like to ask you what you think the role of history is in learning. If you come back, please feel free to respond in Spanish and between Google Translate and my knowledge of portuguese, I will try to understand and respond 🙂

  4. jennymackness November 29, 2014 / 6:19 pm

    Sheri – many thanks for your visit and comment. I found the programme on Mike Leigh fascinating. I suspect there’s a lot more to his process than any BBC programme or interviewer can uncover, so it’s difficult to know exactly how he gets this to work. I doubt that there’s a formula or that it could be replicated by someone else – more’s the pity! At the end of the programme he talked about the work he is doing with student film makers and the film that he will make with them. I would love to be a fly on the wall for that, which would surely be a wonderful example of rhizomatic learning.

  5. Crispin Weston November 29, 2014 / 11:12 pm

    I found Turner excruciatingly dull – not only because it was so slow but also because all the characters seemed to be caricatures. But if other people liked it, so be it: we can all have different tastes in art.

    But as Diana Laurillard points out in the opening chapter of “Teaching as a Design Science”, teaching is not an art – it is more like engineering because it aspires to achieve a particular end. So my question is – what is the evidence that rhizomatic learning (by which I think people really mean “rhizomatic instruction”) actually works? Or is the whole point that, not having a script (or stated objective), that is a question that the proponents of rhizomatic instruction never feel required to answer?

  6. jennymackness November 30, 2014 / 8:39 am

    Many thanks for your comment Crispin. I didn’t find Mr Turner dull, just not enjoyable – but evidently Mike Leigh films tend to divide people such that some think the film a masterpiece whilst others the exact opposite.

    ‘Teaching is not an art’! I hadn’t realised that Diana Laurilllard had said that. I will have to think about it more, but I think that even with more thought I will still profoundly disagree.On the Imagine programme (which I think is still available on BBC iPlayer), it sounded to me as though all the actors were learning all the time from the way in which Mike Leigh worked, although the word teaching was never mentioned (if I remember correctly).

    I agree that there is a difficulty with ‘rhizomatic instruction’, which I take to mean – using your reference to DL – engineering an environment in which rhizomatic learning can take place. I suspect we each interpret ‘no script’ differently and I wonder about the influence of ‘power’ on how the script is created. These are thoughts and ideas that Frances Bell and I are still researching.

  7. Crispin Weston November 30, 2014 / 6:55 pm

    Hello Jenny, Thanks for your reply. Maybe artists, wanting to provoke and question assumptions, are happy to divide opinion, while engineers might be more uncomfortable if there was no consensus e.g. about the best way to build a bridge.

    Unless I misunderstand the concept of rhizomatic, it applies not to the process by which you learn but to the process by which you decide what to learn – and should therefore be applied not to “learning” or to “instruction” but to “education” (“educare” meaning “to lead”).

    In my view there are all sorts of problems with self-directed learning: (a) the learner often does not know what is most valuable to learn, or how best to sequence a series of intermediary steps. And (b) (as I suggest in my first comment), if there are no pre-determined objectives, then there are no criteria against which the success of the instructional process can be evaluated.

    So much the better, you might say, if you have a problem with authority. Isn’t this an age-old issue, central at least to Plato’s Republic, considering the relationship between being an authority (i.e having expertise) and having authority (i.e. having power)? Plato’s position, that you should give political power to those with expertise, raises questions about self-interest and democracy. But the answer to the lesser question, which is about how you acquire expertise from someone who already has it, is surely that you have to some extent to entrust yourself to the authority expert. Diana has also described formal education as satisfying “the need to learn things we cannot know of until we have learned them”. Not only will the leaner not learn what needs to be learned without expert (i.e. authoritative) guidance – but the learner will not even realize that these are things that need to be learnt in the first place.

    So I remain a “rhizomatic” sceptic. It seems to me to be a theory not to improve the effectiveness of education but rather to change fundamentally how education is defined. But perhaps I have misunderstood the theory?


  8. jennymackness December 2, 2014 / 7:53 am

    Hi Crispin – thanks for more really useful thought provoking comments. I think you raise some of the issues that Frances and I are grappling with, e.g. the role of expertise in these open learning environments which I remember was also discussed in depth in CCK08.

    I don’t think working with rhizomatic principles necessarily means that no consensus can be reached or that there is no expertise. In Mike Leigh’s film, the ‘team’ did ultimately reach consensus on how the film would be realised and what it would look like in the end – and presumably the cast did recognise Mike Leigh’s expertise and learn from him.

    I think the engineering example you raise is an interesting one. My understanding (and I am no expert on this!) is that D & G’s metaphor was intended to relate to rhizomatic thinking – thinking which breaks with tradition and can break down hierarchies. I can see that this would be needed even in engineering. D & G also write about territorialisation and deterritorialisation – which I interpret to mean ‘coming together’ and ‘taking flight’. Whilst acknowledging the need to ‘come together’, they say that this should only be a temporary condition, i.e. we should always be open to the dangers of becoming ‘fixed’ in our thinking. I don’t think the rhizome metaphor was intended to improve the effectiveness of education. This is one of the questions that Frances and I are researching – along with the other issues that you have raised.

  9. Crispin Weston December 2, 2014 / 1:47 pm

    Thank you for your patient responses Jenny.

    I agree that there is a need for processes which break orthodox and fixed thinking – and to encourage the learner to think for themselves and to challenge authority. It has often struck me that the set-up of having one teacher in the classroom tends to habituate children to thinking that the adult world is more consensual than it really is, and conversely to think that challenging received opinion is somehow naughty. I remember the excitement when I first saw my teachers debate with one another. And also to encourage learners to apply the principles they have learnt to widely differing contexts – perhaps it is this contextualisation which can usefully be thought of as rhizomatic? I will look forward to seeing the results of your research! Best, Crispin.

  10. francesbell December 2, 2014 / 5:18 pm

    Thanks Jenny for another lovely post and commenters for this interesting comment thread. I had composed a response earlier today on my tablet but lost the comment. That is not entirely a bad thing since it has forced me to think about what I had written and now I have read some more about Mike Leigh, it’s a slightly different comment – very rhizomatic.

    A connection for me is that I watched Nuts in May (1976) on TV last night and, the previous week, Abigails Party (1977) – two Plays for Today that I remember from the first time around. After seeing them and reading your post, it seems to me that one way for me in which Mike Leigh’s plays seem to be qualitatively ‘different’ from many others is that whilst I enjoy them, they can also make me feel uncomfortable in that I think I can recognise some aspects of myself in the characters that I may usually prefer to downplay. It has left me wondering if his knack for sustaining ambiguity and variety (no straight goodies and baddies there) relates to the ways in which the films develop and emerge. This also could be seen as rhizomatic.

    In response to what Crispin said, I wonder why teaching can’t be both science and art. Thinking about teaching and technology, both can be deformed by a need to demonstrate that they have ‘made a difference’, that there is novelty – learners and teachers are subject to measurement, technology has to report to funders, venture capitalist, etc. All of this serves to deny history, assume that all learning can be measure, all interventions can be determined by outcomes.
    Even De Leuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking acknowledges that trees co-exist with rhizomes. As Jenny says, we are still grappling with ideas and I think that both trees and rhizomes can have some brutal aspects. Regarding the role of expertise, I think that actors who have worked with Mike Leigh and audiences who have been moved by his films would acknowledge his expertise/ contribution. I was interested to read that Mike Leigh resigned from BAFTA and that “The jury [of the Evening Standard Film Awards] refused to consider him for best screenplay as they claimed that his method of involving the cast with an evolutionary screenplay disqualified him. “ Leigh’s experience with the ‘trees’ of the film industry made me think about teachers’ interactions with institutions – the hoops they are expected to jump through, that their ‘excellence’ should be visible, weighed and measured. So Crispin, I don’t think it’s about self-directed learning vs acquiring expertise from a teacher (or other authoritative figure). It’s much more subtle, relational, connected than that and many post-structural theories are trying to grapple with that. For me, I am not sure that D & G are some some of ‘answer’ to grappling with learning and education in a digital context. What I feel much more confident about is the danger of replacing traditional power structures of institutions (schools, universities, examination boards, etc.) with tech alternatives ( automated, testing regimes, teaching bots, social media for social learning, etc.) as if there were some sort of linear progress taking place. The power relations are still there, just played out differently by context. Scripts and objectives aren’t always visible and they are probably changing all the time.

  11. jennymackness December 3, 2014 / 8:10 pm

    Hi Frances – thanks so much for all your comments and interest. I think one of Mike Leigh’s intentions is always to make people feel uncomfortable. I can’t say that I enjoy his films, but they are certainly thought-provoking. And thanks for the interesting link.

    I agree with you that teaching can be a science and an art. For me, the science aspect is rather thrust on teachers – at least it has been in recent years. All that planning and filling in planning templates. All that structure. All that measurement. I remember a young teacher saying to me, quite a few years after the introduction of the National Curriculum for Schools and when endless schemes of work were being thrust on schools, that she didn’t have to think any more. She only had to pick up the scheme of work and teach to it. That seemed very sad to me, especially since she was a gifted, creative teacher. When I first started teaching, there was none of this – no schemes of work and lots of opportunity for creativity. Of course, both approaches have their benefits and disadvantages, but currently I think that there is more of a need to see teaching as an art than as a science.

    I really like your last sentence – “Scripts and objectives aren’t always visible and they are probably changing all the time.” I agree with that too ☺

  12. CogDog December 3, 2014 / 9:31 pm

    A fascinating metaphor and useful for thinking about how we approach a group experience. I’m not familiar with the Leigh or the movies made this way, but like a course, he has a topic in mind, right?

    A difference seems to me is that he invites people to show up, does he work with anyone that shows up? And the atmosphere they work in must be intimate, intense, highly personal. What happens if one actor gets too busy with a day job, another she loses interest, a third maybe she just stops coming?

    Leigh may not have a preconception of the plot, but he does seem to bring a depth of experience, intuition, a willingness to experiment, to take control and lose control; as always even if not a controlling dictator, his influence seems paramount.

    I struggle with pitting Art vs Science; it seems to ignore the parts of art that are methods/procedure based (mixing paint, tuning an instrument) and the parts of science that are creative and unstructured (the “what ifs” part). I’m firmly in the camp that teaching is something that has aspects of both.

    But I love the emphasis of “not having a script” when so much in the field is forcing people to be more formulaic and measurable.

  13. jennymackness December 3, 2014 / 10:03 pm

    Hi Alan – thanks for your comments. Yes – Mike Leigh films start with no script. I only know a little about how he works from the BBC Imagine programme. And Yes, he definitely has a topic in mind. For example, he wanted to do the Turner film for many, many years before he was able to raise enough funding to be able to go ahead – and even then my understanding is that it was made on a very small budget.

    He also carefully selects the actors he wants to work with. It isn’t the case that anyone can show up – but I did get the impression that the working atmosphere is very intimate, intense and highly personal.

    My interpretation of the way he works is that he could be thought of as a researcher. He leaves the script open for the actors to create, and over many weeks of improvisation and rehearsals, he is observing and collecting data. He then spends some time going through it all and deciding what is needed for the film and the filming – so ‘Yes’ his influence is paramount – or not so much his influence – as his expertise, his knowledge of what will make a good film.

    Clearly the actors must have complete confidence in his ability to pull it off, although in the Imagine programme, they did discuss one time when this process failed and weeks of improvisation ultimately were abandoned. Mike Leigh put this down to his own state of mind (evidently some sort of break down) – which again demonstrates how important his influence is. I would say that there is both science and art in his work and what he is doing.

    It must take a lot of courage to work in this way, as well as a lot of knowledge and expertise.

  14. jennymackness December 4, 2014 / 8:36 am

    Alan – just one more thought in response to your first sentence – “A fascinating metaphor and useful for thinking about how we approach a group experience.” When I mentioned Mike Leigh’s way of working to a friend, his immediate response was that it was a similar way of working as T-groups. Have you ever used that approach?

  15. Nick Kearney December 8, 2014 / 10:45 am

    I think educare/educere derives from the roots “ex” and “duco”. So that the meaning is actually to “lead out”, or “bring forth”, rather than simply to lead. This distinction might be helpful.

  16. jennymackness December 8, 2014 / 5:47 pm

    Hi Nick – Thanks – yes that is helpful. I think this is how I have always understood teaching, i.e. that ‘care’ is a crucial element, but have never articulated it like this. ‘Leading out’ and ‘bringing forth’ suggests a nurturing element for me.

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