Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rhizomatic Learning

Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome, 1959
‘Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.’ A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari.
Sylvano Bussotti, Rhizome (1959). Found here.

For several years now, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as a metaphor for learning and a model for education.  I tend to agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (2002) who in writing about the tree as the long standing metaphor for knowledge and learning said, “We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much" (p. 15).

In their stead, Deleuze and Guattari offer the rhizome. Rhizome? Yes. You know rhizomes: think ginger. A rhizome is the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground. From the plant's nodes, it sends out roots and shoots.  The rhizome is all about middles. The tree is a symbol of hierarchy.

A month ago, my friend Jane, a professor at a Connecticut University posted this definition of rhizome:

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. (Driscoll, 2004. Psychology of Learning and Instruction, p. 389)

So today as Scott Klepesch, Deb Gottsleben and I were visiting English teachers, Cathy Stutzman and Meg Donhauser and librarians Heather Hersey and Marci Zane from Hunterdon Central Regional High School (HCRHS) in NJ, I began to see what the rhizomatic classroom might resemble.  Cathy and Heather partner, as do Meg and Marci,  in the design and teaching of a student-centered English class. I became intrigued a few weeks ago, when I had read a post Cathy had written describing the learning happening in Meg's British literature class. Cathy wrote:
Meg’s class is run like a choose-your-own British literature adventure! Students move through literary eras together, but they choose their own texts and areas of focus. Students track their learning by basically writing their own learning plans. They identify standards they work toward, they write their own questions, and they identify their own understandings. Meg conferences with them, monitors their progress, and teaches them to question and reflect. I love this whole concept. It makes learning collaboratively differentiated and amazing!
I contacted Cathy and she was kind enough to extend an invitation for us to visit her American literature class and Meg's British literature class today.  Each class met for 80 minutes and was populated with junior and senior students.  There was so much to comment about given all the progressive learning I observed, but for this post I am limiting my comments to describing how each class was inherently rhizomatic.

In defining the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari (2002) write that it:
has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb 'to be,' but the fabric of the rhizome is conjunction, 'and . . . and . . . and' (pp.24-25)
Today while observing, I noticed how the classroom dynamics in each room were rhizomatic. The learners (students, teachers, and librarians) resembled a sea of "middles" in that they formed and reformed alliances based on need, interest, direction, redirection, assessment, and commitment.  Unlike the design of many teacher-directed classrooms, the rhizomatic classroom is based on joining and rejoining as opposed to a hierarchical structure where the teacher determines the content and the method to "dispense" knowledge or perhaps even to occasion learning through experiential design. 

The rhizomatic classroom requires a shift in teacher talk from telling to inquiring alongside students; from talking a lot and often to listening and conversing.  Such shifts reveal the uncertainty present in dynamic learning. As Meg explained planning happens in conjunction with and response to what is happening in the classroom. There's no Sunday planning for the week in the traditional sense. What happens on Monday will inform Tuesday and so on. As Meg said, it's all about conversation.
Image found here.
Perhaps what was most significant is how the rhizomatic classroom reveals the fallacy of content-driven teaching as the method that better ensures there are no wholes in students' knowledge.  Often I hear educators explain that they like the idea of student-centered classrooms, but worry that students won't learn as much as they will not be determining all of the content and sharing their insights and knowledge with the class.  They worry that although they might teach students A and B concepts x and y,  neither will learn concept z as only student C will have occasion to learn that.

So it was interesting when I asked the teachers if they missed teaching whole class texts and Cathy said at times she did.  She referenced how much she loved teaching The Great Gatsby and yet she was quick to explain that in teacher directed lessons, just a few students might understand the points (concepts x, y, and z) she would be highlighting and stressing. I thought about how her description so matched my memory of my own teaching and realized that there are always wholes in what we know.  Cathy added that now her students are learning more as they are all learning all the time, instead of the occasional connection to what she was directly teaching. The students determine which concepts and skills connected to standards they will learn, how they will learn, which texts they will read/view/hear based in part on teacher-recommended author lists and informed by their interests and how they will represent their learning.

In the rhizomatic classroom, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole.  Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners: teachers and students.  Right before we were to leave, Heather told a story about a student who was studying modernism and postmodernism and struggling with how to represent his learning.  After some discussion with the boy in which Heather learned that he was passionate about motorbikes, she asked him if he thought he could represent what he had learned using motorbikes.  Do you think you could find some connections that would show what you learned? The student found the idea challenging and interesting and began thinking.

Throughout the visit as I observed and interacted with the teachers, my colleagues, and the students--it became obvious that Marcy Driscoll's description of learning as rhizomatic was recognizable. She wrote:
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). 
The learning we watched today had not been predetermined or orchestrated via a single point (teacher). Instead, as students worked solo, in pairs, small groups, with the teachers, or us--new alliances were formed and broken leading to the potential of new connections being learned/unlearned/relearned.

Work Cited:
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. (2002). A Thousand Plateaus Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum. 
Driscoll, Marcy P. 2004. Psychology of Learning and Instruction, 3rd Edition. Allyn & Bacon.


  1. Hey there... will seems to think that we have something in common.

    and am currently trying to get the third one written...

    I like the 'both broken and whole' piece here. It's dirty and wholesome. It's the way that knowledge actually is, rather than the way we try to package it so that it can be measured.

    knowledge, like rhizomes, resist the static

  2. I am so grateful that I was able to see Cathy, Heather, Meg and Marci in action. I learned much from this visit and have reflected on how it will inform my own practice. Thank you to everyone involved yesterday!

  3. It would be nice to organize newsrooms applying this same thinking: a conversation with communities/readers/writers creating sites, newspapers, magazines. Much of what is said in discussions about education can be replicated in a journalism/media context.

  4. I'm a real fan of Deleuze's and Guattari"s rhizome theory. I have about twenty pages of ideas on this written and need to revisit it. You've given me some good ideas and have helped me flesh out some ideas I've been thinking about communication. Thanks so much.

  5. @Dave Read the work you cited. that you began with Ibsen's An Enemy of the People spoke volumes.The emphasis on collaborative knowledge making is critical. Thanks:)

  6. @MHS Learning Commons Agree. It was a great day of learning for all.

  7. @Roland Hadn't thought of the newsroom, but then again, why not? Wd imagine that one truth may well fit multiple disciplines and institutions.

  8. @Glenda, wd love to see more. Perhaps you will consider publishing in ReMix?

  9. Hmmm... I'm not convinced. Seems that the best teachers do both (encourage learning dialogue while unveiling cogent points) - driscol's description kind of frightens me, as I long for some anchors in this accelerating world of distractions. Great teachers bring their craft to the classics, and thus morality perservers.

  10. I am not following your logic, nor do I understand the either-or dichotomy you suggest. Perhaosyou could explain more as I would like to understand your point.

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