Rhizomatic learning? Rhiz016?

[2160 words]

(thoughts reiterated from an earlier FB post)

At the outset of this blog entry, I note that in one sense, I’m “cheating” by quoting myself from elsewhere. I acknowledge that this is not an entirely new or original reflection. It is an extension of some ideas that I have been following, consuming and processing while meandering through other sites. This post takes me in a new direction here, offers a new perspective. It’s a shift, a break, something intrusive in this context. It is a jumping-off point (or as I put it in my earlier post, an “on-ramp”) and it might lead to some additional strands of thought here.

The earlier post was on the page of a FaceBook Group, Rhizomatic learning – a theoretical discussion. That group had arisen out of earlier iterations of a connectivist MOOC that constituted a collective and collaborative learning effort, Rhizo14 and Rhizo15, largely organized by Dave Cormier. I stumbled into traces and archives of those phenomena, Dave Cormier’s scholarly work (along with the work of others, including Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch and many more) and, finally I landed on one post-Rhizo15 MOOC Facebook page, then another, then a Google Plus page on Rhizomatic Learning. All of the texts, images and suggestive videos that I’ve encountered along these lines have been resonating powerfully in my cognitive depths. Over the past year or so, I have been re-reading Guattari and Deleuze (very slowly, in bits and pieces) and I’m particularly intrigued by their model (or is it an image? metaphor? concept? intuition?) of the rhizome. Over the last year, as I investigated and reflected on connectivist pedagogy, I was struck by the many adaptations and iterations that folks have suggested on the subject of rhizomatic learning. Many of those reflections made (and continue to make) a lot of sense to me. So… here is my earlier FB post, which is, at least in part, intended as an impetus to help launch rhizo16  — or something like it — into an active learning phase.*

If one were to suggest a potential on-ramp for a ride through a rhizomatic whirl of thinking, the very notion of the rhizome itself might be a place to start. It seems to me that this broad idea is not so far from the gist of Keith Hamon’s post:


If I were to state my own way of thinking about (or “framing”) the image / model / metaphor / notion of the rhizome, my own thoughts would drift in two distinct directions (probably), influenced by the contingencies of this moment.

On the one hand, I would like to take a closer look at just how the rhizome figures in D&G’s accounting of the human psyche and what its relationship might be to desire, to underlying urges, to unconscious will. How effective a representation is this image, the rhizome, when considering the cognitive and emotional and social dynamics of humans acting in socially-defined or other kinds of constrained contexts?

On the other, I wonder what the rhizome has to say about revolution, or subversive effort or underground pathways for effecting change in a world that oppresses human beings, destroys psyches and livelihoods, destroys and persecutes and generally runs roughshod over peaceful beings? What is the relationship between rhizomatic thinking and democracy? What place does D&G’s rhizome have in the unfolding circumstances of human evolution (biological, cognitive, cultural)?

Finally, in a nod to the departed and regretted Derek Parfit


…does individual identity have any value relative to rhizomatic learning or rhizomatic knowledge emergence? Do individual cognitive beings have distinct value as individuals or does the rhizome move humans toward a “flattened” status as cognitive nodes or agents of equal standing. Does it matter? What motivates learning, then, if not individual curiosity or intellectual drive? What are the ethical implications of rhizomatic ways of proceeding, of knowing?

My apologies for being so long-winded here, but I’m both inspired and intimidated by D&G, by the rhizome, by the notion of rhizomatic learning and by the circumstances in which we live, many of us, in dread and in hope. Those things converged here to speak through me. Is there a conversation to be had?

Here are a few additional comments that I’ll probably try to pursue in subsequent reflections. First, one of the ironies for rhizomatic learning is that rhizo14 and rhizo15 were in some sense “organized” by Dave Cormier. The “rhizome” in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari is non-hierarchical and distributed. The very idea of a single-source “teacher” or “organizer” is somewhat antithetical to the notion of the rhizome. Dave Cormier himself recognizes this tension in one of his rhizo15 posts, dated May 6, 2015:

Week 4 – Can/should we get rid of the idea of ‘dave’? How do we teach rhizomatically?

Additionally, that same tension, that sort of question — What is the role of the individual identity, the ego, in rhizomatic learning, which is non-hierarchical and values no part more than any other part? — resonates for me with the work of Derek Parfit, both his Reasons and Persons and, more recently, On What Matters. It’s not that I know the work of Parfit well, but I find the thrust of some of his fundamental ideas important. One of those is the way in which Parfit seeks (well, sought) to reconcile deontological ethics with consequentialist ethics, partly by de-emphasizing the status of the individual and/or questioning the value of “personal identity.” That move seems to correspond in some ways to the de-centering and de-hierarchizing aspects of the rhizome. However, de-emphasizing the individual also raises issues, specifically about authority or competence for “certifying” or “verifying” learning. Those sorts of hierarchical modalities constitute significant chunks of the socially useful enterprise of schooling, so how can rhizomatic learning coexist with “education”? (I’m referring to degree certification, adherence to very strict, even inflexible disciplinary standards, the expectation that ostensibly masterful teachers will ascertain the validity of subaltern and supplicant students’ learning, and those verifications operate through mechanisms like “seat time” and teacher-constructed and teacher-controlled “tests” which remain, after all, the fundamental tools of intellectual apprenticeship in what we call education, along with other forms of extremely hierarchical approval / certification processes that undergird the functioning of schools and universities.) Is it possible to make rhizomatic efforts comply with the needs, rules and structures of educational institutions?

And more along the lines of an eventual launch of rhizo16… is the rhizome itself valid as an idea? Can we critique it? Are there ways to revise and reconstitute the rhizome? Must we accept the “authority” of Deleuze and Guattari? Or are we allowed to make of “the rhizome” what we will? How does one think about the rhizome rhizomatically? What of D&G’s project to rethink psychoanalysis and to offer an account of the human psyche that diverges from both Freud and Lacan? Where exactly does the rhizome fit into that scheme? Does it lead us to useful or productive territory for thinking about how we humans act, about how we are motivated, about what we might do under the pressure of tyranny or perceived danger or extremely discomfiting asininity in our societies? Can the rhizome undergird or facilitate or foment revolution?

Obviously, I have a lot of thinking — and reading and exploring —  to do before I can claim to have the least little idea about what “rhizomatic learning” is. What I can say is that my strong intuition is that Guattari’s and Deleuze’s “rhizome” as applied to learning is rife with connectivist and revolutionary potential.

As I think I made clear recently in my initial post, I believe in the value of dynamic, learner-centered, self-motivated and autonomous learning that employs dialogue and collaboration to extend and refine individual investigation and reflection. I value “learning for the sake of learning” — that is, engaging in discovery and idea formation because the content one is focusing on and/or the process of learning are fun. In my own life, that kind of learning looms much larger and has deeper resonance than learning for extrinsic motivations. To put it another way, the best learning (in my view) is self-motivated, driven by the learner’s curiosity, interest, and sense that the learning content/activity/context has relevance and meaning. In my case, learning for purely extrinsic rewards (grades, diplomas, certifications, rewards, reputation, advancement) is significantly less effective and far less enduring. Given my overarching attitude toward learning, I would say that this MOOC will offer me a lot.

Let me explain. I am interested in the future of education. I am very interested in learning theory. I believe that reflecting on these topics are highly relevant for me — and, indeed, are relevant for any curious and thoughtful person working in higher education. In other words, my motivation for engaging with the themes of this MOOC is quite high.

To that, I would add that the specific questions asked and the seemingly connectivist modalities of this MOOC are likely to work very well for me, particularly if I am able to find a few student peers whose interests and enthusiasms resonate in some way with my own, folks with whom I can engage in productive dialogue and debate. If the discussion forums ever work the way that they ought to, I suspect that I’m likely to encounter others who, like me, draw a sharp distinction between learning and education and who would be willing to explore the complex relationship between the two. I hope that I’ll be able to have some lively exchanges about learning as a driver of education in the future and perhaps even consider ways in which the enterprise of higher education, indeed, education in general, might be rethought to facilitate, guide and support learning in a more effective and sustainable way.

As I think about the future of education, I am convinced that many stakeholders in the educational enterprise will need to rethink the basics of what they are doing. Why educate? To what end(s)? What does society need education systems to do? Is education exclusively about creating competent workers? Is it exclusively about “learning for doing,” so to speak, or manufacturing, or performing needed services, etc.? Is it about “learning to be”?  Ought universities teach students to be lifelong learners? Should universities teach students to seek wisdom? Or help them learn how to balance their lives? Or exercise self-control? Or engage in deep reflection for spiritual and intellectual growth? Is it about filling brains with information?

To evoke another dimension… technology is potentially both a complicating factor and a highly effective pathway as we think about the future of education. That is, computer-mediated communication and digital tools do not constitute a solution per se. Indeed, blind or unthinking appeals to technology or imposing the use of specific apps or devices without good support or good justification are, as pedagogical choices, likely to create more problems than they solve. On the other hand, if education is understood as a process of supporting, connecting and guiding autonomous learners, then computer-mediated and digital communication, collaboration and information-sharing can potential be affirmed as a valid and valuable infrastructures and/or pathways of learning and education, if not an obligatory route. Where and how technology plays a role depends on the needs of learners, the context in which learning takes place, societal parameters, and another multitude of factors.

To do a better job of facilitating learning and creating better experiences for learners, we need to increase our understanding of the cognitive processes involved and we need to assure that educational processes, educational pathways, educational tools and teaching strategies align with how learning actually works in the human brain. We need to be clearer and more explicit about the goal(s) of education. We need to employ approaches that support those goals. Is the main goal of education the socialization of human beings into into learning communities? Is education about the acquisition of skills and socialization into professional practices? Is it about teaching individuals to assume greater autonomy for their own educational achievement and greater effectiveness in living satisfying and ethical lives? Those are three very different kinds of learning.

I do not have answers to those questions, although I have some intuitions about how we ought to think about them. At this point in my journey through this MOOC, I have begun formulating what I believe are pertinent questions about the future of education and I am pondering the relationship between “learning” and “education.” In my view, those results alone signal real promise as I begin to engage with this MOOC.

* Since writing this post (and the earlier one), I have been thinking about my intention of “launching” rhizo16 or something like it into a “active learning phase” and I realize that if one is truly talking about rhizomes and rhizomatic learning, it is ludicrous to think that anyone can “control” it or “start” it or “stop” it. So I’ll focus on my own questions and investigations to see where they take me, not rhizo[N].


2 thoughts on “Rhizomatic learning? Rhiz016?

  1. I was part of a few past iterations of RhizoWhatever and I still am trying to figure out what rhizomatic learning is (D/G confuse me).. but the journey has been the learning itself and worth every head-scratch about theory…. It’s interesting that people can come across some of the Rhizo work years later and still find value in its threads. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hi Kevin. Thanks for sharing. I found your comments illuminating and helpful. As you can see, I’ve added a bit of new language to the blog post above, particularly the final note preceded by an asterisk. Instead of trying to provide an “impetus” for another iteration of RhizoWhatever (by the way, I love that formulation), I think I’ll focus on my own learning, on the cognitive hyphae, tendrils, roots and shoots that my curiosity and thinking send out. The idea of “initiating” or “directing” RhizoWhatever, I now realize, is silly, although I can follow my own thoughts through the treasure troves of others’ work to feed, sustain and grow my own learning. I think that I have a lot of head-scratching before me. And thanks for your earlier contributions to those RhizoWhatever threads that I have found intriguing and valuable — and that I’m still working through.


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