Chelsi's Educational Musings

The Roots of Rhizomatic Learning

Posted on: October 26, 2011

Roots by mutbka, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mutbka 

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?



12 Responses to "The Roots of Rhizomatic Learning"

Hey Chelsi,

I also have found myself questioning what I teach. There are a lot of outcomes to cover but I agree that we should use rhizomatic learning where and when we can. I am currently teaching the water cycle to my grade 8s. Instead of reading the 6 pages of text (in French) and answering questions, we googled the topic in French. Each student on his/her own got some guiding words and then just went to work. It was amazing how engaged in their own learning they were. In this case, they were very quiet. Next, they have to build a water cycle model of their choice. It’s funny how so many of them want an outline, a description, a rubric to tell them exactly what to do. I said just do it. I want them to get used to finding the answers for themselves and learning for themselves. I am hoping that they will CHOOSE to remember this learning because the learning will be their own.

I agree that building relationships is extremely important with our students. Not only does it help with learning opportunities but we are models for our students in regards to caring, compassion, respect, love etc. I know that when we aren’t looking the students are still looking to us to set the example. I only hope that some people (educators) see our rhozamatic models and it “catches” on…isn’t that what a rhizome is suppose to do? Infiltrate and take over?

Your water cycle project sounds really engaging (and a bonus – they were quiet haha!). I have no doubt that they will remember the information much better because they found it on their own.

Let’s hope that rhizomatic learning does catch on. I imagine, like anything, it will take time, but maybe our future careers will be based on it.

You’ve concluded your post with, what I think is one of the most important questions facing educators. I originally went to university to become a public school teacher, but gave up because I couldn’t answer that question. So I became a librarian instead, which allows me to be part of the learning process, but not the assessment game. I think the fact that you are continuing to grapple with this question, to feel the frustration, and to be seeking answers to it is a demonstration of your commitment to your students and your strength as a teacher. Its probably one of those questions that has no answer, but is enriching through the process of continually trying to find one.

Wow, thanks for all of the kind words, Kevin. I really appreciate it! I envy you for not having to deal with assessment. It really DOES strip the creativity out teaching and learning in many aspects. I would much rather if we could simply assess effort. How do you give a percentage to phys. ed. or art? It seems unnecessary. Thanks for understanding!

Greetings from Coquitlam, BC.
Here is a journey I took with some grade 8’s a few years ago:
…and the lessons learned from the experience:

“Do it when you can.” Sound advice!

Hi Dave!
Thanks so much for the reply! I checked out your class’ project and read through some of your reflection. What a great project! The students must have loved having so much responsibility over their learning AND the ability to use technology so much. I bookmarked your site so that I can show my own students what other students are able to create! Thanks for sharing!

It was supposed to be a blogging project but our lousy computer lab stopped loading the blogs once I got all my students signed up… So that night I went home and learned about wikis. Two days later, and one day ahead of my students, I started this wiki project.
What impressed me more than anything was how many of my students were working on the project all through the afternoon and late into the night… and also how many of the students were editing their own work.
I don’t think this project had the rigour I would have now, but I learned so much from this project. Also, just last year a student from the project reconnected with me on Facebook. He told me that he often went back to the wiki as a ‘first stop’ when doing a project in high school.
Enjoy the program and as you try things in your classroom… Be brave! 🙂

Sometimes what we can do is to make sure our students see that there can be – using Dave’s basic images – worker, soldier and nomadic ways to success. It was great to read through your working out of these ideas based on how you are as a learner and how you want to be as a teacher.

As a learner who uses the nomadic mindset to understand other mindsets, I see now as a teacher that success comes in a classroom when all these learners and pathways to learning mingle, mix, make ideas happen in a room.

Of the 40-some teachers I encountered while a public school teacher, I can count 9 who believed and enacted this, or only 1/4 of my teachers. Therefore, I did most of my learning in extra-curricular activities where equal measures of practicing routines and pursuing self-directed learning were expected. As a uni teacher now, I – like you – place those relationships with students and their relationships with the world at the center of study so that rules, invention, focus and exploration all shape learning.

Thanks for a provocative post.

I’m really glad that you mentioned what Dave said about doing it when you can, because I’ve been feeling pressure, not from having to deal with curriculum standards, coverage and outcomes, but from having too many students (which I mentioned in the session). I’m leaning toward easier management and away from the chaos I’d love to do, so it helps to be reminded that I do create openness and learning options in many ways inside my classes. So what made you feel better made me feel better too! 🙂

[…] stuff, and I wanted to move on with my work but felt stuck. Then one of Alec’s students, Chelsi, wrote a post that reminded me what Dave had said in response to a question about dealing with standards, that he […]

[…] about cyberbullying, but I prefer reading personal testimonials.  David Truss commented on one of my recent blog posts and shared a project that he had completed with his class where they created Wikis.  Interested in […]

[…] this class, and that was something that I had not experienced within any class I had taken.  In my post about Dave Cormier’s presentation, I stated that rhizomatic learning “can move in […]

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