The Roots of Rhizomatic Learning
Posted October 26, 2011on:
Before I begin my post about last night’s EC&I 831 class, I have to share something that demonstrates the endless possibilities of online learning. I was talking to a student after school and asked her what she was doing tonight. She is Muslim, and she informed me that she has prayers for two hours tonight. I asked her if she worships at home or at a Mosque, and she said that she does her prayers online! I asked her about it and she told me that she and her siblings follow an online teacher who leads their prayers from 7:00-8:30. Students from all over tune in so that they can participate. I found it very fascinating that a formerly very “traditional” practise is being taught online, making it more accessible to children and adults alike. It was also neat to see that children ten and under were participating in their own online community. What a great time in which we are living!
Last night, we were lucky enough to have Dave Cormier present to our class about Rhizomatic Learning. Prior to class commencing, I read Dave’s blog about Rhizomatic Learning so that I could be more prepared for his presentation. I recommend checking out his blog, as I ended up spending time reading about more than just Rhizomatic Learning!
Dave began by asking us why we educate. After a number of responses, he informed us that there are three kinds of outcomes within our education system – workers, soldiers, and nomads. He said that we originally began to educate to produce workers – people who were obedient, passive, and their learning could be measured by our standards. This was the traditional way of educating, often referred to as the “assembly line” method. Next, there are the soldiers. The soldiers know more than the workers; they are in charge of establishing what is to be learned, what competence is, and how we will measure that competence. The soldiers are essentially the teachers. Dave writes in his blog post defining the roles of the three outcomes and explains that “[The soldiers] are the defenders of memory. They are the ones who establish what things we currently know that the worker should remember, and then establish the system by which we will measure that knowing.” The more we study in this class, the more I question what I teach. How much of what we teach is now important? It used to be that we needed to remember information. In today’s day and age, we have access to facts at our fingertips. Thus, we must teach students HOW to obtain knowledge, solve problems, and discern what is truth and fiction from all the data to which they have access.
Our traditional school system has been based on soldiers training the workers. Dave’s third outcome, however, is one that is less common in our society – that of the nomad. The nomad is a creative thinker who is not afraid of divergent thinking. Nomads carve their own paths, create their own meaning, and learn things because they need to, not simply as an objective or a memory test. The nomads do not learn from rote memorization, but from the knowledge that comes with experience.
After establishing the three outcomes, Dave explained the definition of Rhizomatic Learning. Before we understand this learning style, it is important to understand what a rhizome is, as Dave uses the rhizome as a metaphor for his proposed learning environment. I was unfamiliar with this term, so let me explain. A rhizome is a type of plant that is incredibly resilient, aggressive, and chaotic. It is difficult to contain, follows its own path, take off in random directions, and cannot be controlled. I guess it is like twitch grass to the extreme! When given the chance, a rhizome takes off on its own, and its roots are incredibly deep. Dave compares the rhizome to the learning environment suitable for nomads. This class gets chaotic, can move in multiple directions, and it is unpredictable. It is open-ended, experiential-based, creative, and not based on memory, but on forming knowledge. There is no curriculum because learning from EACH OTHER is the curriculum.
As I was learning about this theory, two thoughts were going through my mind. The first was that I would love to have a classroom of experiential learning at all times. I thrive on creativity, and I love seeing my students be creative and “in it,” as Dave referred to the real, true grasping of knowledge. Having ended yesterday’s school day with a hands-on, messy science experiment and watching my students really understand and be involved in the concepts we were studying, I agreed with how important and exciting this Rhizomatic Learning can be. I also understood when Dave explained this kind of learning as messy (it was!), loud, less structured, and much more difficult than a worker-soldier type of classroom. This kind of learning is what the students remember because they CHOOSE to remember it, not because they have to. This part of me was all for Rhizomatic Learning.
Then, there’s the Type A part of me that says, “But what about the curriculum? I can’t just teach whatever the students feel like learning or where the discussion takes us. I have content to cover! What about my DNA, RAD, and school goal scores? All of this chaos will be so tiring and quite frankly, somewhat scary!” Then, Dave said something that I feel was the most important part of his presentation. Someone (I think it was Kelly?) asked him how it is possible to teach in this fashion when we have the K-12 curriculum to cover. Dave replied, “Do it when you can.” I felt much better and more confident hearing that it ISN’T completely possible, nor effective, to completely throw away the curriculum. Instead, we SHOULD have a guide to follow and parameters set, but that we should also leave room along the way to let our students learn things that are interesting and important to them. I think that Dave was saying that we shouldn’t always be teaching them WHAT to learn, but giving them situations to figure out HOW to create their own learning.
In my teaching, I feel that establishing a relationship with my students is extremely important. Not only does that allow me to understand their personalities, family situations, and needs better, but I am able to understand what is important to them. I cannot build an entire curriculum around their every desire, but as Dave explained, I can fit their interests into my plans whenever possible and allow that to become part of the curriculum. I have been working more with inquiry-based projects, where we study a certain concept, and the students can work on a project of their desire in the way that works best for them. For example, I had a class last year who were quite difficult. However, they were intensely interested when stories of animal cruelty were brought to school during our daily Current Events discussion. (I find that a ten minute discussion each morning pertaining to the world’s events can lead to excellent discussion and can allow me to understand what the students are passionate about.) I decided to take hold of that interest level and planned my writing lessons around animal cruelty. The grade six writing outcomes stated that I had to teach persuasive writing, so why not make it about something that mattered to the students? We researched a lot of animal cruelty incidents as a class, and then they were free to create a project that educated others about animal cruelty. The students completely ran with the project and wrote letters to MPs, baked dog treats to sell to raise money to donate to the Humane Society, created posters to present to other classes, made t-shirts, and wrote reports to read to friends and family. This was far less structured than a ‘typical’ writing class, but the results were much more thorough, creative, and meaningful for the students. It was definitely Rhizomatic Learning at work. The students’ interests dictated where we went with the project rather than the outcome telling them where they should go.
Dave made another statement that resonated with me. He said that “people always want to know what success looks like in order to reach it.” We then discussed how this kind of thinking stifles creativity, as the only objective is to do what is deemed successful by the assessor. I really struggle with this concept because of the standardized testing that we have to complete each year. We have a reading assessment (RAD) and math assessment (DNA) that are completed at the beginning and end of each year. I will not even go into detail about these tests, as it will turn into pages of me ranting about the reasons why I feel they are so ineffective. I just feel that in university and in our graduate studies, we are taught to teach with nomads, rather than workers, in mind. When we get into the school system, we are so stifled by so many standardized tests, objectives, and outcomes that must be met or else we look incompetent as teachers. I will try to keep Dave’s statement of doing what we CAN do in mind when I feel frustrated by the school system’s objectives. I am wondering what anyone else does to balance the demands of meeting objectives and standards with trying to create a more rhizomatic learning environment?