Rhizomatic learning, teaching, fact and truth…

… these are some of the ideas that Dave Cormier discussed with Jeff Lebow  –  as part of his week’s presentation to ChangeMOOC.

There is lots to think about in this video. These are some of the ideas I noted in watching it.

  • Positivists can be problematic for an idea like rhizomatic learning, i.e. challenging
  • A metaphor is a lens through which to look at things in many different ways
  • Nomadic learners are independent, take responsibility for their learning  and take decisions
  • A metaphor doesn’t have to answer all questions – it can be limited in scope.
  • A metaphor is not a model or a learning theory.
  • MOOC presentations can lead to collateral damage that can be more interesting/useful than the content
  • MOOC presentations are as much about the methodology of presenting as about the content
  • Repeating a presentation does not guarantee a similar reaction (Dave received a more negative reaction to his second presentation)
  • The presentation can be the buffet model or the single meal.
  • Dave Cormier takes a rhizomatic approach to his teaching and loses at least one student every course. To counteract this he tries to make the process transparent and recognises that the whole course does not need to follow a rhizomatic approach. Tutors can be selective where to apply it.
  • Dave Cormier believes that discomfort is part of the learning process and helps the students to improve.
  • Think about your rhizome within a garden – there is a structure and planning. The structure needs to be strong – not the content – so Dave’s MOOC presentation was structured, otherwise it would have been a coffee shop conversation, but was open to participants following their own lines of enquiry.
  • You can do a lot within a syllabus to frame the way people approach things. Dave talks about creating patterns of behaviour (to me I have always thought about this in terms of helping people to learn how to learn). Covering content should be approached with this in mind.
  • Dave Cormier does not believe in facts.  He thinks they are convenient short-hands. His partner Bonnie has pointed out that the Inuits don’t reify but always relate to context.  So, e.g.  a table is only a table according to the context in which you view it, discuss it, interpret it and so on.
  • We should think about findable versus discoverable when teaching. We can ask learners to find things – which means that they already know what they are looking for – or we can ask people to discover things – i.e. they are surprised by what they find – it is not something they are necessarily looking for. (For me this relates to emergent learning)
  • We should not think of data and evidence in terms of fact.  For Dave Cormier there is no objective – its all subjective. Ultimately either you believe or don’t believe. Evidence does not lead to what is true… A theory is not ‘true’ – it is just the best understanding of what we have at the moment.
  • Science is a history of guesses, e.g. doctors guess about how to treat unknown ailments.

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?

Dave Cormier’s ideas

I’m still thinking about Dave Cormier’s ideas so I listened to his interview with George Siemens which I found on pageflakes http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/archives/003522.html (I do seem to be finding resources of interest, by chance!)

A couple of key points/questions came out of this interview for me.

The interview starts with a discussion about the distribution of knowledge across networks and how the traditional system of validating knowledge through peer-reviewed research articles and the like, is both too hierarchical and too slow in relation to how fast knowledge is growing and changing in today’s technologically advanced world. (DC did – at the end of the interview qualify this by saying that his article was focussed on knowledge about new technologies)

According to DC, although we can still have experts, people these days just can’t individually have the spread of knowledge that is needed, hence the need to be able access networks, scan the internet, read a lot, filter and assimiliate.

Whilst listening to him talking I found myself thinking about the age old tension between depth and breadth in learning. There’s no doubt that increased connectivity will enable increased breadth, but it seems to me that what experts have is also depth. A network seems to me a very flat structure. How is depth built into a network?

Later on in the interview Dave Cormier describes his taught course with no curriculum – again qualifying this by saying that his own curriculum/subject area lends itself to this sort of approach. What really interested me at this point was that he talked about community as a curriculum model.

Now to me, a community is something very different to a network. In the words of Etienne Wenger, ‘every community is a network, but not every network is a community’. In a community ‘there is a level of identification that goes beyond degrees of connectedness.’

As yet, I have not been able to see, feel or identify with a community on this course. I can see the network very clearly, but I don’t feel a sense of community. I suspect that Dave Cormier’s course was successful not because he exploited possibilities of networks and connectivity, but because he established a community.

Where have they been?

I have just finished listening to the UStream session and the very last 5 or 10 minutes made me prick my ears up. The question was put to SD and GS – Give one simple practical suggestion for implementing connectivism in classrooms (with children). The suggestions were

  1. Connect classrooms from people round the world.
  2. Encourage children to work together to participate in a real way to produce something real of benefit to society.

Neither of these ideas is new.  My first experience of networking across schools was when I was at school myself in about 1962 or 63, when a group from my school in the North of England linked with a group from a school in London (which in those days might as well have been in a different country) to work on a project. Since then I have experienced this kind of activity both nationally and internationally, both as a learner and teacher many times. The same is true of working collaboratively on ‘real’ projects to produce  a recognisably useful outcome. Interesting though that collaboarative group work doesn’t seem to have been built into this course. Not yet anyhow.

No – I think Dave Cormier is much nearer what the change might need to be and that is in a negotiated curriculum. We need to start encouraging children to negotiate their own curriculum. Even this is not new. I remember that at least 15 years ago, when teaching 5 and 6 year old children, I once started the half term’s work by asking the class to plan their own work for the 8 week period. They were perfectly able to do this and planned a wonderful topic based on a nursery rhyme, in which they were able to say what maths, english, science, geography etc. etc. we would need to work on that term.

What is new for me – but not completely new is allowing students to negotiate their assessment. I have done this in the past as well – i.e. asked children to work together to determine assessment criteria and then peer assess, but there has always been a limit to how far I have been able to go with this because of quality assurance standards.

It seems to me that for connectivism to be useful to education, some of the issues surrounding assessment and a negotiated curriculum need to be resolved. In particular, I do believe it is very important to determine whether it can be applied to young children’s education.

Rhizomatic education

From the Elluminate discussion on Wednesday I thought this sounded interesting, as, if I have understood this correctly, it does seem that a negotiated curriculum could be a stumbling block for the adoption of a theory of connectivism in Higher Ed.

However, the Connectivism course site seems to be down today and I can’t access the article from there, so I’ll have to troll around on the internet and find it there.

Found it!

Cormier D (2008) Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

This is an interesting article, but I’m not sure that it says anything particularly new. Basically it argues that ‘the need for external validation of knowledge either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum’, can be dispensed with.  The curriculum can be constructed by the learners.

Are we then to dispense with assessment as well? It’s not new that students want control over their learning; they want to follow their individual interests and carve their own path. But my experience is that they also want to know how well they have done, and quite often, if not very often, they want to know how they measure up against their peers. So do we also dispense with this in this model of rhizomatic education?