the rhizomatic learning lens & what rhizomes are good for

Confession: I’m not entirely sure what week it is in #change11.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tricky creatures, their possibilities and to-do lists inclined to slip away from you and multiply like rabbits the minute you look in another direction. Especially this “mother of all MOOCs,” with its 36 consecutive facilitators and topics.

For a lot of us in education, staying afloat in such a sea of participatory learning opportunities is difficult, overwhelming, contrary to a life’s practice of taking what Liz Renshaw so aptly called “the helicopter view” of any learning experience and trying to overview it. MOOCs are big and distributed and decentralized: conversations are happening all over, there are ostensibly over 2000 participants (even if a lot mostly lurk), and basically, there’s almost no way to keep a finger on the pulse of it all.

It’s rhizomatic, meaning that just like weeding your damn garden, what you see and pull up is only a fraction of what’s there.

This is apt, since while I may not know whether it’s week 7 or 8 of 36 in #change11, I do know it’s Dave’s week, and that the theme is rhizomatic learning.

I may as well dive in.

(Caveat here: I am Dave’s partner and while I have thoughts and opinions on rhizomatic learning I do not actually pay nearly such close attention to his work as I, uh, could? Ought to? So this post does not reflect a particularly privileged or informed perspective on Dave’s ideas, but more where they – and the conversation taking place this week in #Change11 – send me.)

As Dave frames it in his introductory post to the week’s course, rhizomatic learning is:

 ”…a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

Sometimes Dave’s work gets taken up either as educational theory or as educational technique. For my part, I don’t think it’s either.

I see rhizomatics as a potent metaphor for conceptualizing the process of learning, and for approaching how we go about learning and working with learning. The value in the idea of the rhizome, for me, is the way in which it foregrounds the unpredictability, the messiness, the connectedness, and the multi-directionality of learning, knowledge, and educational research. I see rhizomatic learning almost as a lens, a pair of glasses one learns to put on in order to view the educational landscape.

These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.

We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling.

And when we try to grapple with the ways in which the discourses of learning and schooling have changed – drastically – in the past generation or so, as we are trying to do with the #change11 MOOC, that colonization often takes over.

Colonization is a harsh word. Education, after all, is a good. Most of us who tend to succeed in it have been taught that from our mothers’ knees. Even those of us who haven’t succeeded – or had the opportunity to succeed – within systematized education have traditionally been made acutely aware of our lack.

I do genuinely believe there can be great value in an education. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, I see education as the worst system…except for all the other ones that have been tried. I place particular import on systems of public education, to the extent to which they help mitigate inequities and create opportunities. Alas, that extent is often profoundly underwhelming.

It is also where technologies and networks and the possibilities of open education really begin to excite me. Because we get the opportunity to rethink or think outside the systemic constraints of traditional education and learning, and to consider what learning and “an education” could mean.

Except then we don’t, all too often. Because we’re colonized.

We conflate learning and schooling. We are subjects of the idea of education as a system, an institution, and so we rely on and replicate this idea in our conceptions of learning: we assume factors like goals and grading and – increasingly – market viability as real parts of what learning involves. They can be, of course. But they do not need to be unless that learning is taking place within the contingencies of mass-delivery and crowd control and normativizing of classed behaviours and literacies that we absorbed with our school milk programs. These practical components of systemic schooling processes are the base map or lens on learning which we, culturally, have inherited.

This idea of systemic education as we in the West know it is not a particularly ancient one. As Dave pointed out in the first post of the week, one of the purposes of mass public education was to train workers. It was also to inculcate what were deemed to be productive civic values in citizens, including a healthy respect for institutional, hierarchical power.

For the last fifty years or so, the idea of that institutional, hierarchical power as natural and good has been broadly challenged- see 1968, deconstruction, Free to Be You & Me, constructivism, and, uh, MOOCs, among other things – but also buoyed up by the rise of neoliberalism and the increasing public acceptance of discourses of corporatism and managerialism in public enterprises such as government and education. It’s a site of fascinating societal struggle. It’s also profoundly self-replicating: we become subjects of the system in school, and then subject others to the operations of the system we’ve come to see as natural and right.

So long as our lenses on learning are actually focused on schooling, we replicate the same colonizing systems. Even where we try not to. Even online, where we don’t have to.

Which is where rhizomatic learning and the new pair of glasses come in.

The rhizome is non-binary, non-hierarchical, and non-linear: it’s also aggressive and chaotic and resists the tree-like arboreal model of knowledge. For Deleuze & Guattari, it is a cultural process that emphasizes “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yeh. That.

I don’t think rhizomatic learning can be used particularly effectively to address grading, or curriculum, or most of the structures of systemic education. The rhizome is not a way of tweaking the systems we have.

The idea of rhizomatic learning emphasizes how ideas spread, popping out roots and shoots. Some of these take on whole lives of their own. Others abort at the bud stage. As a visual image for how learning operates, it enables us to – maybe – break down or see beyond some of the colonized perceptions we’ve been trained to, like the one that makes me feel slightly anxious when I realize I’ve missed an entire week of what’s gone on in the MOOC, say. That’s a perspective trained to assume that a) what’s on offer is what I should learn, b) that a view of the “whole” is possible and desirable and that partiality is less, and c) that missing things in a learning experience is abnormal.

Yet when I think back to my high school or undergraduate “learning experiences,” I begin to wonder if the process of popping out little roots and shoots in relatively unpredictable response to whatever I happened to tune into isn’t what I’ve been doing all along, however much the curriculum and my nice, tidy grades from those days might like to tell another story.

I try to wear my rhizomatic learning glasses when I think about this MOOC. I focus on the connections that occur, the relations between ideas and people and platforms, and the ones that seem to abort. I always think of whatever I might happen to think about the MOOC as if it were a picture of a tiny part of our very-rhizome-infested garden, partial and limited and chaotic and heading off in a tangle of directions.

Slowly, very slowly, this perspective on my own learning and participation and subject position begins to help me alter the way I conceive of education.

And that, my friends, is what rhizomes are good for.