Friday, May 6, 2011

A Brief Introduction to Rhizomatics Via Sheri Leafgren’s Reuben’s Fall

prepared by Jane M. Gangi, Ph. D.

Last semester Driscoll (2005), in Psychology of Learning and Instruction, discussed rhizomes in connection with constructivism:

The rhizome is a tangle of tubers with no apparent beginning or end. It constantly changes shape, and every point in it appears to be connected with every other point. 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)

Driscoll thinks of “spaghetti”; Eco thinks of “marbles”; I think of daffodils.

Sheri Leafgren (2009) thinks of Reuben’s fall:

Reuben fell. My professional life defined itself eighteen years ago when Reuben fell on the hard school-linoleum floor outside my classroom door. I was a young(er) person and a more naïve teacher at the time, blithely enjoying my lively class of kindergartners, covertly noticing some of the more interesting children in the kindergarten class down the hall, and on that morning, fully engaged in minding the interactions of the children in my own classroom when I heard the hard smack and muffled grunt signaling Reuben’s fall. When I went to the door to see had happened to disturb the commonplace silent, gender-based, double-lined trek connecting Mrs. Buttercup’s kindergarten class to the restrooms at the end of the hall, I witnessed a significant event.
            In the aftermath of Reuben’s fall, Julian—one of those spirited, full-of-verve, curious, “bad” children whom I had coveted for my own classroom—had left his place in the back of the line to reach Reuben where he had fallen near the front of the boys’ line and, as I  arrived at the door, was helping him off the floor, asking, ‘Reuben, are you okay?’
            As the other children steadfastly maintained their places in their straight, silent, boy and girl lines, Mrs. Buttercup shook her head, held up two fingers, and said to Julian: “That’s two, Julian. You are out of line and you are talking. You’re on the wall at recess.” (p. 15)

As a result of Reuben’s fall and Julian being made to stand on the wall, Leafgren conducted research on disobedience and wrote a dissertation. Her dissertation resulted in the book, Reuben’s Fall.

James Baldwin
“The greatest achievement of art is the ‘laying bare of questions which have been hidden by answers’” (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 110). So, asserts Leafgren, is great research.

Theoretical Framework
The theoretical framework for Leafgren’s dissertation (and book) comes largely from Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari (1987): “In developing a comparison between a rhizome and a tree as a metaphor of the contrast between two forms of logic, they name the tree’s linear structure—from roots through the trunk, to the branches—as a metaphor of the fixed, determining and linear logic that explains things in terms of cause-and-effect relationships…” (p. 36). In contrast with this vertical structure is the rhizomes lateral structure.

Leafgren’s 5 lines of inquiry on classroom disobedience:
1.     Disobedience (and childhood itself) as a form of deficiency (developmental, moral/religious, social, and behavioral) and/or as problems to be solved.
2.     The need for a particular order and control in schools and the means of achieving child compliance—and, as a result, “a positive, productive classroom atmosphere conducive to student learning…
3.     The teacher’s perspective and role in children’s moral and social behaviors, and the complexity of child compliance. Often discussed from a constructivist perspective in comparison to the more behaviorist approaches in the two prior categories, the goal here, however, is the same—to assert the authority of the teacher, but as a moral authority instead of a coercive one.
4.     The political, philosophical, and spiritual constraints of school morality. Within this category are researchers who study the state of school itself and authors who, with a more philosophical bent, write about the ideals of school(ing) in contrast to what they perceive as the state of school.
5.     The value of dissent and noncompliance toward an authentic democratic good life, reflecting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s caution: “your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none” … (p. 19)
Leafgren’s rationale for using rhizoanalysis as methodology:

…identities grow and shift rhizomatically. And so, ways of researching with children also need to be rhizomatic—overlapping, multi-focal and shifting with time. Rhizoanalysis challenges the idea that one moment in a child’s life may be “caused” by his/her stage of child development, his/her gender, his/her teacher or by what another child said or did. Scientific findings of research using the representational “tree logic” of cause and effect are difficult to implement in education because humans in schools are embedded in complex and changing networks of being and social interaction. As each participant in every interaction has variable power to affect one another from day to day, and in the ordinary events of life, the generalizability of these educational research findings is greatly limited (Berliner 2002, McNaughton 2003). The non-representational lateral logic of rhizoanalysis serves to create tensions related to “changeability, diversity, ‘noisiness’ (complexity)” and so highlights the complex and shifting links between…gender, cognition, class, race, culture, obedience, and compliance as the links shoot in unpredictable ways into a particular moment in a child’s life…. (p. 22)

Leafgren’s Research Questions:

1.     In what ways do the kindergarten children disobey in the context of the kindergarten classroom?
2.     In what ways are the kindergartners’ moments of disobedience representations and enactments of something more than merely disobedience?
3.     In what ways are the kindergartners’ moments of disobedience opportunities for responding to others in caring, ethical ways and for acting out the possibilities that a spiritual childhood provides, such as reverence, awe, wonder, reflection, vision, commitment and purpose; and the sensitivities in awareness sensing, mystery sensing, and value sensing…? (p. 83)

Connections between rhizoanalysis and “Dissent and the Democratic Good Life” (Leagren, 2009, p. 77)

Butchart (1995)

Since the fifties, disciplinary literature has fallen silent on the long-term social objectives of school discipline, stressing the immediate control of students. The emphasis has shifted from ends to means and strategies. Rather than developing philosophies of discipline linked to visions of a preferred social order, writers have developed systems and models whose only criterion for success is their short-term goal of classroom order.

Dewey (1985):

[Democracy is]

Simultaneously a way of life, an ethical ideal, and personal commitment. Specifically, it is a way of life in which individuals are presumed to be self-directing and able to pursue their own goals and projects. No society that maintains order through constant supervision and/or coercion can be rightly called democratic. Further, individual benefit and the common good are mutually enhancing in a democracy. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 119).

More from Deleuze and Guattari:

Rhizomatic thought is multiplicitous, moving in many directions and connected to many other lines of thinking, acting, and being. Rhizomatic thinking deterrorializes arbolic striated spaces and ways of being. Rhizomes are networks…build[ing] links between pre-existing gaps between nodes that are separated by categories and order of segmented thinking. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 90).

Rhizomes are about mapping new or unknown lines and entry points, not tracing which records old lines or patterns. (as cited in Leafgren, 2009, p. 23)

In conclusion, Leafgren (2009):

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I worry about small things being lost. Children are not just small things themselves—they are great appreciators of small things: a silly joke, a fly crawling on the window, a ray of sunlight, a tickle fight, a secret” (p. 248).

“The memory of Reuben’s fall forever serves as a symbol of my resistance to order for the sake of order, valuing control over concern and sacrificing kindness to a keeping of the rules” (p. 253).

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning and instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Leafgren, S. L. (2009). Reuben’s fall: A rhizomatic analysis of disobedience in kindergarten. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

For Further Reading
Deleuze, G.
Guattari, .

More Thoughts
George Betts (creator of the Autonomous Learner Model) at the University of Northern Colorado was invited to study high school drop-outs. By hanging out on street corners, he gradually coaxed them back to school. Once there, he gave them IQ tests, which showed them to be off-the-charts (NOTE: I am not a huge IQ fan [see S. J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd ed., for the whole sorry history of IQ testing]; they are easy to undertest and hard to overtest, so that is where Betts’s information is helpful).  Betts called them “disenchanted” and tried, in the Autonomous Learner Model, to formulate ways that would make school more engaging to bright, although often disobedient, students.


  1. Jane this is a wonderful post. I hope that I have the capacity to see the Reuben in every child. You have given all of us much to contemplate.

  2. Jane has a way of doing that Deb.