Rhizomatic Education

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Concept by David Cormier. See also: Rhizomatic Learning


This article was originally published in Innovate (http://www.innovateonline.info/) as:

URL = http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=550&action=synopsis;

Blog version at http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/


David Cormier:

"In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions." (http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=550&action=synopsis)


David Cormier:


"Knowledge as negotiation is not an entirely new concept in educational circles; social contructivist and connectivist pedagogies, for instance, are centered on the process of negotiation as a learning process. Neither of these theories, however, is sufficient to represent the nature of learning in the online world. There is an assumption in both theories that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.

A botanical metaphor, first posited by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), may offer a more flexible conception of knowledge for the information age: the rhizome. A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat (Cormier 2008). In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target."


"In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions:

- The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

With this model, a community can construct a model of education flexible enough for the way knowledge develops and changes today by producing a map of contextual knowledge. The living curriculum of an active community is a map that is always "detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits":

- If the world of media education is thought of as a rhizome, as a library à la Eco [in The Name of the Rose], then we need to construct our own connections through this space in order to appropriate it. However, instead of that solitary groping made by Brother William, we see as our goal the co-construction of those secret connections as a collaborative effort. (Tella 2000, 41)


"In a sense, the rhizomatic viewpoint returns the concept of knowledge to its earliest roots. Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of "I can" and "I recognize." If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

Indeed, the members themselves will connect the node to the larger network. Most people are members of several communities—acting as core members in some, carrying more weight and engaging more extensively in the discussion, while offering more casual contributions in others, reaping knowledge from more involved members (Cormier 2007). This is the new reality. Knowledge seekers in cutting-edge fields are increasingly finding that ongoing appraisal of new developments is most effectively achieved through the participatory and negotiated experience of rhizomatic community engagement. Through involvement in multiple communities where new information is being assimilated and tested, educators can begin to apprehend the moving target that is knowledge in the modern learning environment." (http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=550&action=synopsis)


The need for more speedy learning

David Cormier:

"the foundations upon which we are working are changing as well as the speed at which new information must be integrated into those foundations. The traditional method of expert translation of information to knowledge requires time: time for expertise to be brought to bear on new information, time for peer review and validation. In the current climate, however, that delay could make the knowledge itself outdated by the time it is verified (Evans and Hayes 2005; Meile 2005). In a field like educational technology, traditional research methods combined with a standard funding and publication cycle might cause a knowledge delay of several years. In the meantime, learners are left without a canonical source of accepted knowledge, forcing a reliance on new avenues for knowledge creation. For instance, a researcher exploring social software use must rely at least in part on online knowledge repositories because current information on the terminology used in these areas is simply not available in any exhaustive or definitive form in books or peer-reviewed articles (Nichol 2007). Information is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt.

In fields frequently affected by the gatekeeping practices of the traditional publishing industry, professionals in fields such as the science of spectroscopy are turning to online community learning spaces or collaborative document holders such as wikis. The wiki, or any collaboratively constructed document for that matter, solves a number of issues inherent to the expert-driven model as it has the capacity to be more current than any expert-assessed content package or traditional publication can usually be. Wikis and similar tools offer a participatory medium that can allow for communal negotiation of knowledge.

Collaborative knowledge construction is also being taken up in fields that are more traditionally coded as learning environments. In particular, social learning practices are allowing for a more discursive rhizomatic approach to knowledge discovery. Social learning is the practice of working in groups, not only to explore an established canon but also to negotiate what qualifies as knowledge. According to Brown and Adler (2008), "The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning". Several communities on the Internet offer some idea of what can be accomplished in a participatory social learning environment where knowledge is being negotiated. Social learning is particularly valuable in fields where the parameters of knowledge are constantly shifting and a canon has not yet been solidified. Educational technology is one such field. Alec Couros's graduate-level course in educational technology offered at the University of Regina provides an ideal example of the role social learning and negotiation can play in learning. Students in Couros's class worked from a curriculum created through their own negotiations of knowledge and formed their own personally mapped networks, thereby contributing to the rhizomatic structure in their field of study. This kind of collaborative, rhizomatic learning experience clearly represents an ideal that is difficult to replicate in all environments, but it does highlight the productive possibilities of the rhizome model." (http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=550&action=synopsis)

Gaming as Rhizomatic Learning

M.A. Reilly:

"For more than a decade, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as metaphor and model for education. The traditional view of education situates schooling as a function of transference of expert-determined content from teacher to student. U.S. school systems tend to rely on hierarchy as the privileged school organization method used to distribute content and pedagogical practices, most often in the form of sanctioned programs developed by external experts and then purchased for teachers who are told to transfer the content to students.

In contrast a rhizomatic learning community is a fluid collective where participants dwell in the middle of things and where learning emerges informed by a blend of explicit and tacit knowledge. In conceiving of rhizomatic learning, it helps to think of learners resembling a sea of "middles,” who are continuously formed and reformed based on alliances determined by needs, interests, directions, questions, redirections, assessments, and commitments. Unlike the design of many traditional schools, a rhizomatic learning space is based on joining and rejoining.

In rhizomatic learning, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole. Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners. Again, Driscoll’s description of rhizomatic learning is important.

She writes:

Break the rhizome anywhere and the only effect is that new connections will be grown. The rhizome models the unlimited potential for knowledge construction, because it has no fixed points…and no particular organization (p. 389).


We know that knowledge is not stable (Schon, 1983; Thomas & Brown, 2011). Thomas and Brown state, "[m]aking knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game” (Location 503 of 2399). Knowledge actually has never been stable, but given the disruptive power of the Internet, what counts as knowledge is a shifting matter that is more easily recognized, especially by those holding power whose concept of knowing in the past was often situated as truth. One only has to think of the Great Chain of Being to understand how the sanctity of knowing was often a matter of power.

In contrast to such certainty, Thomas and Brown posit that there is a new culture of learning informed by a massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything…[and] a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within these boundaries (Location 63 of 2399).

This new culture of learning is inherently rhizomatic as it orients itself horizontally, not vertically, requiring us to value tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge--knowing more than one can tell--requires a decidedly different type of learning environment than what is currently favored at school where knowledge transfer is the privileged method. Tacit knowledge is not acquired from other; it requires learning through mind, body and senses and is facilitated by experimentation and inquiry." (http://maryannreilly.blogspot.com/2011/09/we-are-pando-rhizomatic-learning.html)

Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common‎

"In an essay on rhizomatic education, Dave Cormier proposes the following:

“In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process”.

He continues by stating: “Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum”.

Not only does the community become the curriculum, but also displaces the need for external validation, according to Cormier.

There are many aspects in the notion of rhizomatic learning that resonates with me.

There are however two aspects that worry me.

The first aspect that worries me is the notion of the ‘community’ as something that is not affected by power-relations embedded in gender, race, geo-political, socio-economic and cultural histories and realities.

We forget that communities are convened/established based on certain shared epistemologies and ontologies. Communities do not only include, but per se also exclude. The criteria on which membership of communities are based are embedded in power-relations and as the massacres in Rwanda, Herzegovina and other places show – these criteria can change overnight. You may be part of a community when you go to sleep, and wake up to find that you are excluded based on religion, gender, HIV/AIDS status, culture, language, employment status or a range of other, often arbitrarily chosen criteria.

Biesta (2004) in a wonderful article “The community of those who have nothing in common: Education and the language of responsibility” (Interchange 53/3:307-324) quotes Bauman (1995) who warns that all communities create ‘strangers’ – those who do not fit the epistemological or ontological maps of those on the ‘inside’. Communities either force strangers to become assimilated into the meta-narratives on which these communities are based; or excommunicate these who do not ‘fit’. Bauman (in Biesta 2004) calls the assimilation of the ‘other’ “anthropophagic” which literally means “man(sic)-eating” – transforming those who are assimilated into undistinguishable (and accepted) members of the community.

When strangers or those who do not ‘fit’ into or accept the founding meta-narratives of a community are excommunicated, they are banished and vomited out – which Bauman calls an “anthropoemic” approach.

Peaceful coexistence between communities is often (mostly?) based on a careful balance of interests and power/benefit relations.

So while Cormier and others (seem to) celebrate the end of the “sage on the stage” or experts; I suspect that the community and/or network has now taken over the role of the ‘one’ person who decides what to include and exclude. Though knowledge and knowledge construction does look different in a networked age and resemble rhizomes, these networks and rhizomes may not be so neutral as we would like to assume (see Castells 2009 “Communication Power”)." (http://opendistanceteachingandlearning.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/a-tentative-socio-critical-exploration-of-rhizomatic-education-change11/)

More Information

From the bibliography:

Brown, J. S., and R. P. Adler. 2008. Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and Learning 2.0. Educause Review 43 (1): 16-32 http://connect.educause.edu/Library/EDUCAUSE+Review/MindsonFireOpenEducationt/45823 (accessed May 27, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5XebnBMZ4.

Cormier, D. 2007. Membership, collaboration and the interwebs. [Weblog entry, March 24.] Dave's Educational Blog. http://davecormier.com/edblog/?p=95 (accessed May 27, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5XebgJkGU.

Cormier, D. 2008. Rhizomatic knowledge communities: Edtechtalk, Webcast Academy. [Weblog entry, February 29.] Dave's Educational Blog. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/02/29/rhizomatic-knowledge-communities-edtechtalk-webcast-academy/ (accessed May 27, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5XfE5yYAY.

Tella, S. 2000. The concept of media education revisited: From a classificatory analysis to a rhizomatic overview. Media Education Publication 8. http://hrast.pef.uni-lj.si/~joze/podiplomci/FRI/mep8/Tella_mep8.pdf (accessed May 27, 2008). Archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5XedAvMUG.