Rhizomatic learning: what is the problem with that?


It’s the end of the month. The big question that remains unanswered – by me at least – is the extent to which it is possible to offer rhizomatic learning in formal education. As I mentioned before, I can see how attractive it is an option for people before or after formal education. For example, many artists and designers are setting up collectives to pool their ideas and resources. However, can it be done successfully during formal education?

In a sense, it already has. In my view, rhizomatic learning shares a lot of characteristics with problem-based learning (PBL), a model that has been in widespread use in formal education for a number of years.  There is even a university that does nothing else. The major similarities involve…

Crossing discipline boundaries

A good friend of mine once failed a philosophy assignment because his essay was deemed too sociological. The tutor didn’t say that what he wrote was poorly researched, argued or presented. It was simply too ‘sociological’ (i.e. it didn’t fit comfortably into the tutors definition of where philosophy started and stopped). I doubt that exponents of rhizomatic or problem-based models of education would worry whether something was inspired by philosophy, sociology, botany or the mating habits of the Waving Albatross. Neither would they support the idea of parcelling up knowledge into smaller chunks to make them more digestible (BBC Bitesize, I’m looking at you). In that sense, they are both holistic theories.

Starting from experience up rather than expertise down

Both theories start from the assumption that you learning is better when a student is playing an active part in configuring and reconfiguring knowledge based on their own insight. They do not state that ‘here is something to be learned, now go and learn it’. Instead, they encourage learners to connect the process of learning to their own experience in order to make it meaningful to them.


There are differences. The most important – and perhaps obvious one – is that problem-based learning starts with a problem. In the open curriculum of rhizomatic learning you may start with a blank state. In problem-based learning, someone has defined that starting point. They may even have designed the process that the student goes through in order to solve that problem.

It is difficult to imagine formal education starting with such a blank state.  At its best the curriculum is aligned so that assessment follows teaching follows aims. Without this infrastructure in place, I don’t know how a student can make an informed choice about whether to student at institution A, or institution B. Perhaps the real choice is whether to study at any institution. Rhizomatic learning could be, at heart, an anti-institutional theory. It doesn’t make it wrong. It does make it difficult to apply in HE.


The Rough Guide to Rhizomes


As I was cycling home between taxis and showers I was trying to work out what made rhizomatic learning different. It discussed in previous posts it certainly shares a lot of common ground with other theories. As I skirted between a Ginsters van and a bus on Euston road, this following question occurred:

  • Is it best to learn with or without a defined curriculum?

Or, put more flippantly:

  • Is it better to have a guidebook or not?

A guidebook has its uses. If I’m visiting a city for the first time I like to know where the affordable hotels, restaurants and places of interest are. I also like to feel briefed about the local language, customs and transport infrastructure. It saves me a lot of shoe leather and embarrassment.

However, as I faithfully trail around the city clutching my guidebook I can’t help feeling that I’m missing out on something. By doing what I’m being told to, am I blind to the unexpected treasure lying off the beaten track? After all, it’s always nice to boast about that special thing that you stumbled upon (i.e. that other people didn’t).

In this, rhizomatic learning would seem to be at odds with threshold learning. In that theory someone who belongs to a discipline plots a route through the transformative concepts that enable others to experience that sense of belonging. In rhizomatic learning, there isn’t that map. No one is expected to be at A in the first place, let alone progress in an orderly fashion towards B. You are arriving in the city without a clue.

I’ve done this. Many years ago, a friend and I visited Jerusalem. We arrived on the Sabbath day, when the narrow streets were dark and deserted. We hadn’t booked a hotel. We hadn’t done any research. We simply booked travel and arrived. It was scary. It was also exhilarating. In the three days that we spent there we got an experience of Jerusalem that we never would have got on a tour. I don’t regret a moment of it.

Are we denying ourselves similar adventures by signing up to defined curricula, which lay everything out neatly for us? Forget about external factors such as validation or value for money, would I learn most by simply being with other people who also want to learn? Thinking in terms of my adopted discipline of art and design, would potential students be better off setting up a collective than enrolling at College? I’m starting to wonder.

Very tight boxes (part 2)

Let us suppose that the theory of Rhizomatic learning is correct, and that people learn best within an open curriculum that does not define where you start and where you stop. Where does that leave formal education?

Formal education in the UK has tended to become more explicitly labelled.  For example. National Curricula define the school syllabus and subject benchmarking statements set expectations at undergraduate level. What you learn, how you will learn it and how you will be assessed on it are set out in advance in black and white. Can this system accommodate rhizomatic learning?

The obvious answer is no, it can’t. It is difficult to create a ‘garden space’ for learning, when – at some point – someone is going to sit in judgement and decide whether you have met the required standards (i.e to differentiate between those who have passed and those who have failed).  As such, there is an argument that the current educational system has more to do with educating children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century than it has on helping people to learn. In this view, formal education might be a barrier to learning rather than a catalyst for it.

If formal education is failing its students then perhaps we should look to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) to fill the void. In this model, students create their own journey from  learning materials that are freely available. Setting aside the issue about the authority of those materials (many of which are produced by the same educational institutions that MOOCs are threatening to supplant) the key differences as I understand it are commitment and validation.

Signing up for a programme of study in a formal institution is a commitment. It is a financial commitment, a time commitment, and a personal commitment. It says ‘ I want to learn this so much that I’m prepared to devote my time, resources and energies to doing so.’ Even if the educational experience is a poor one, that single act of publicly committing to your learning may act as an incentive to sticking at it. Equally, if you pass that course, it is also a public demonstration of your ability to learn and your competence to practice. As I’ve mentioned before passing your test does not make you a good driver, but I’d rather be ferried home by a taxi driver that has.

I worry with MOOCs, and with rhizomatic learning more generally, that you lose that sense of commitment. I may want to learn biomedical engineering, and have the resources to do so at my fingertips, but what is stopping me from being distracted by a million other things demanding my time. Without the ‘threat’ of assessment, what keeps me going? Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I am uniquely fickle. I suspect I’m not. I suspect that there are a lot of us who find it easy to start but difficult to see it through to the…

How does your garden grow?

Rhizomatic learning is a concept first developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and later expanded by Dave Cormier. It takes as its starting metaphor the image of a Rhizome, the creeping rootstalk of a plant. It presents learning as a messy cat’s cradle of ideas that can be approached from any number of ways.

In Dave Cormier’s excellent blog posting on the subject he offers the following quote from Deleuze and Guattari:

“The rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple pathways and exits and its own lines of flight” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 21).

He goes on suggest the qualities of successful learning:

  • Learning is making connections
  • Learning is a process of becoming
  • Learning changes how you see the world

So far, so conventional. However, the key distinctive quality of rhizomatic learning is that it has no fixed entry or exit point. As such, Cormier advocates an ‘open syllabus’ that provides a place for learning to occur but does not parcel up knowledge into discrete components. He describes this as a ‘garden space’.

This notion may not sit comfortably with modern educational institutions, which have moved in the direction of describing learning in more exact terms. It is difficult, for example, to imagine writing learning outcomes for a rhizomatic course. Perhaps that is why its advocates have seen the advent of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) as a more natural fit for their ideas.

So, does rhizomatic learning run counter to threshold concepts? Can learning be labelled? If so, does it become as robbed of animation as a butterfly pinned to a display?

In defence of the PLC

I think one potential of the PLC is the formality of it – if this group has a formal responsibility for students’ learning there should be a big incentive for focused collective learning that improves the students’ lot.

So, for example, if you thought about UK Heads of Department of economics across UK universities being part of a PLC, alongside others who teach and have an interest in teaching economics, then this could be a very powerful group in terms of taking  teaching forward.  Through the Heads of Department, learning could be disseminated and put into action. Presumably this could work similarly at University level, too.

As for the student voice? I think this would be part of the collective learning – being able to understand the student perspective and what makes for effective teaching is part of the journey to improving teaching.

So for me, CoPs still feel a little serendipitous, a more organic mushrooming of people with common interests if you like – PLCs, with a shared vision (which presumably would change and be refined over time) suggest the potential for a more focused drive to improve learning.

PLCs and bees

So my questions for last time were: what are the incentives for joining a professional learning community and what are the disincentives for leaving?

I wonder if the incentives are mainly pedagogical or strategic? I’ve talked before about whether collective learning is better than individual learning so the arguments are the same (sharing of ideas and perspectives etc.). However, I wonder if many of the reasons that people are attracted are more strategic than that: mutual support, the power of the collective voice, career progression etc. If so the PLC’s become a fantastic vehicle for learning to take place, but are not in themselves a pedagogical invention. That is not a criticism of course. A bee is not a pedagogical invention, but we’ll miss them when they are gone. And they make honey.

Perhaps another potential danger of a professional learning community is the ‘professional’ bit. Does this automatically exclude students? If so, perhaps we’re only hearing one side of the story (albeit with different tones of voice). On the educational development course that I tutor on, I feel that one of the most valuable parts of the experience is remembering what it is to be a student. When an assignment is rushed or handed in late the once-tutor-now-student is painfully reminded that students do not belong in a special category of awfulness. We are all sometimes motivated by deadlines, unprepared, confused etc. This is not because we are students but because we are all occasionally flaky people. Do PLCs exclude the student voice and, in doing so, miss half the conversation?

Ros, do you have any final words in PLC’s defense?