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.


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