Tuesday, September 27, 2011

We are Pando: Rhizomatic Learning*

Candid (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
It is an unbearably hot day as my husband, son and I slowly motor home to New Jersey from Washington D.C.  From the back of the car I can hear my son talking and I turn and see him hunkered down in the seat, wearing headphones and holding his phone in one hand.

Who are you talking to?



Yeah, Tom from London.

‘Tom from London’ is a 13-year old who plays Minecraft on my 12-year-old son's server.  He and a dozen boys, ranging from 9- to 15-years-old from North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, are avid Minecraft players on the server. Their play represents a contrasting way to think about learning from what is offered as usual fare at schools.  James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes (2011) might classify the boys’ play as an example of a passionate affinity space where “people organize themselves in the real world and/or via the Internet (or a virtual world) to learn something connected to a shared endeavor, interest, or passion” (p. 69). 
I think of passionate affinity spaces as rhizomatic and want to suggest that such learning offers us an alternative to schooling.  A rhizome, the horizontal stem of a plant, usually found underground, sends out roots and shoots, each of which can be self-sustaining.  Margie Driscoll (2004) defines rhizome as:
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 (p. 389).

Now think about the boys and their play. They hail from across the globe and horizontally connect with one another in this passionate affinity space where they learn deeply.
For more than a decade, I have been considering how the rhizome might function as metaphor and model for education.  The traditional view of education situates schooling as a function of transference of expert-determined content from teacher to student. U.S. school systems tend to rely on hierarchy as the privileged school organization method used to distribute content and pedagogical practices, most often in the form of sanctioned programs developed by external experts and then purchased for teachers who are told to transfer the content to students.
The Constancy of Waves (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
In contrast a rhizomatic learning community is a fluid collective where participants dwell in the middle of things and where learning emerges informed by a blend of explicit and tacit knowledge. In conceiving of rhizomatic learning, it helps to think of learners resembling a sea of "middles,” who are continuously formed and reformed based on alliances determined by needs, interests, directions, questions, redirections, assessments, and commitments. Unlike the design of many traditional schools, a rhizomatic learning space is based on joining and rejoining.
In rhizomatic learning, thinking resembles the tangle of roots and shoots, both broken and whole.  Problem framing and decision-making rest with all learners. Again, Driscoll’s description of rhizomatic learning is important. She writes:
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).
Historically, when confronted with student achievement concerns, there has been a tendency to tighten control in an effort to increase learning largely because what has counted as knowing has been limited to a perceived ‘set’ body of content.  Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) describe this learning :
…as a series of steps to be mastered, as if students were being taught how to operate a machine or even, in some cases, as if the students themselves were machines being programmed to accomplish tasks. The ultimate endpoint of a mechanistic perspective is efficiency: the goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can (Thomas & Brown, Location 327 of 2399).
In this mistaken schema, knowledge has been consistently situated as stable—as that which can be listed in a set of standards and given to teachers to transfer. 
But we know that knowledge is not stable (Schon, 1983; Thomas & Brown, 2011). Thomas and Brown state, "[m]aking knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game” (Location 503 of 2399).   Knowledge actually has never been stable, but given the disruptive power of the Internet, what counts as knowledge is a shifting matter that is more easily recognized, especially by those holding power whose concept of knowing in the past was often situated as truth. One only has to think of the Great Chain of Being to understand how the sanctity of knowing was often a matter of power.
In contrast to such certainty, Thomas and Brown posit that there is a new culture of learning informed by
a massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything…[and] a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within these boundaries (Location 63 of 2399).
This new culture of learning is inherently rhizomatic as it orients itself horizontally, not vertically, requiring us to value tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge--knowing more than one can tell--requires a decidedly different type of learning environment than what is currently favored at school where knowledge transfer is the privileged method. Tacit knowledge is not acquired from other; it requires learning through mind, body and senses and is facilitated by experimentation and inquiry.
At Play
For gamers, like my son, experimentation and inquiry are the methods most often employed when solving design and game-based problems. For the last several months I have been researching the learning that takes place inside my son’s Minecraft play with his on-line friends.  Five dominant learning trends have emerged out of this rhizomatic environment and one societal insight.
1.    Play matters and is a means by which learners come to know their relationship to others. The learning that happens between and among the boys is play-based and informed by their interest in experimenting and imagining. For example, my son developed a vending machine in Minecraft. Originally the buyer would place a coin in the machine and would receive however many items as s/he wanted.  This proved to be a bit impractical and over time rather dull and with the help of another player, my son modified the idea so that one coin would get a player one item. This idea was later modified again so that the player would also get his coin returned along with the item. To make these alterations required changing the wiring so that the machine reset after the item was delivered and that the delivery of the new item and the return of the coin were synchronized. Making these changes happen required playfulness, not linearity. As my son explained, “I had to fool around a bit and test out ways to make the pressure plate work. I couldn’t see how it would be possible.” When I asked him why he would return the coin to the player, he said that he didn’t want to exclude anyone from playing. Whereas everyone on the server had some coin they could use, not all had the same. “I wanted them to make a commitment by playing a coin, but I didn’t want to take their coins. We’re friends.”
2.    Sustained conversation represents the dominant method for inquiry and is suggestive of the boys’ emerging sense of agency. My son engages in sustained conversations via Skype with the other players in order to brainstorm, innovate, find multiple solutions, complete tasks, hypothesize, and engage in play. Talk is important and in the horizontal world of game playing, it is not limited to or controlled by a teacher. John Goodlad (2004) reported in his research about schools that teachers “out-talked the entire class of students three to one” (p. 229). Central to these learners’ Minecraft play is the sense of agency they possess. Thomas and Brown (2011) explain, "unlike traditional notions of learning which position the learner as a passive agent of reception, the aporia/epiphany structure of play makes the player's agency central to the learning process. How one arrives at the epiphany is always a matter of the tacit. The ability to organize, connect, and make sense of things is a skill characteristic of a deep engagement with the tacit and the process of indwelling" (Location 1381 of 2399).
3.    The players participate in collaborative knowledge-making (Cormier, 2008) in which they share screens, work in tandem, continue and revise one another’s tentative ideas in an effort to solve design problems and complete tasks. Engaging in trial and error, experimenting, making use of on-line and off-line resources, and altering established models are some of the ways the boys accomplish game-based tasks. Interestingly when I ask my son how something in the game came to be he is unable to attribute it to a single player. The knowledge produced does not belong to one person, but rather is composed collectively. Dave Cormier (2008) explains, "rhizomatic model of learning…is not driven by predetermined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process" (np).
4.    These rhizomatic learning spaces the boys inhabit are inherently native to their own ground even as they involve learners from across vast geographic spaces. Membership in the game shifts and changes across time and expertise is not determined by social markers such as age, race, or credentials—although gender does seem to be a condition presently.  As learners work alone, in pairs, small groups, and large collectives--new alliances form and break. The boys’ game playing represents a rhizomatic map; an open possibility that is: “detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted, to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2002, p.12).
5.    The players choose to participate in hard work each and every day. They set tasks to be completed and establish timelines to do so. As Jane McGonigal (2011) reports: “Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves” (p. ). Choice matters and learning is fun, although sadly most of the boys do not seem to characterize their play in the games as learning. The exception to this is the boy from Canada.
6.    Game play leads to developing novel products in the virtual world that could have implications in the actual world. For example, a few months after my son viewed images I had made in Camden, NJ of partially demolished and boarded buildings, he showed me a self-repairing bridge and building he had designed in Minecraft. He suggested that if infrastructures such as buildings and bridges could self-repair, then people living in urban areas where poverty and societal neglect have dominated the landscape would be able to live in better conditions.
When I ask my son what he has been learning he says he’s learned how to work with others; how to search, locate, and evaluate information; how to run an effective server and negotiate a contract with a company to host the server; how to barter services in exchange for money to pay for the server; how to explain an installation process of mods to others; how to create a mod; how to anticipate a partner’s play in a game; how to build a structure with someone not in the same room; how to imagine a place and build it; how to give and take ideas; how to make mistakes in order to progress in a game; how to build a design based on someone’s idea; how to script; how to model; how to resolve social problems when they arise; how to use resources, online and offline, to guide building; how to make games inside of games; how to make films and upload them to YouTube; and how to narrow the focus of a film. During this learning, the boys are also learning about one another: siblings, where they live, currency, geography, food, politics, and all things Minecraft. My son is adamant that this playing is not learning.
It's not like school, he tells me repeatedly.
Sadly, I think he's right.
Applying Rhizomatic Sensibilities to ‘Learner’ Design

Counting (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
So, if rhizomatic learning such as my son experiences in his game-playing is not like school, how do we begin to make the necessary changes so that children choose to work hard and learn deeply?  Continuing the current push by federal and state governments for increased school standardization is not an answer. An important shift needs to occur in order for the tight grip of school standardization to be loosened.  Thomas and Brown (2011) identify three critical dimensions of learning: knowing, making, and playing. Such learning is antithetical to standardization. 

We need alternatives to the traditional method of industrial schooling.

As we begin to name alternative learning experiences, such as passionate affinity spaces, as viable learning--the idea of school as the de facto response to the question--“How do we educate children?”--will be challenged.  Certainly, there have been alternatives to traditional school raised and offered in the past.  What makes these times different is that in the past, it was difficult, if not improbable, to connect innovators who were challenging the status quo of schooling.  That is not the case today. Mass can be built by connecting those of us offering alternatives. Connecting with one another is rhizomatic.

So it is not a single reform method that is being offered. We have been too long trying to find a single reform. Rather, to disrupt the established power of schooling requires a long tail revolution. Chris Anderson explains:
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers.
It's not about offering the reform answer, but rather remaining in the middle where connections can be made and remade.  It's about each of us doing great work, not work that needs to be replicated, but rather work that is unique, native to its own ground.  The challenge is to know we are there and to connect our work.
To connect great work is an antidote to mass standardization.

Leveraging social media to share stories and work, to try on tentative ideas, and to establish patterns are all critical.  Connecting and showcasing the small triumphs that alone may feel insubstantial, yet together represents a mass.
This is the work before each of us. On my own, I am one person.  Alongside you, I am  Pando**, a rhizomatic triumph.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Chris. (2004). The theory of the long tail. Retrieved on July 27, 2011 from: http://www.squidoo.com/longtail .
Cormier, Dave. (2008). “Rhizomatic education: Community as curriculum.” Retrieved on 2.28.11 from http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/ .
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.
Goodlad, John. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McGonigal, Jane. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.
Schön, Donald. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
Thomas, Doug & John Seely Brown. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Create Space: Kindle.

*This post is cross-referenced . It serves as the forward to the the new text, be you: [a quiet revolution] and also a slideshare of the book which is so much bigger than this single post might ever be. It exemplifies rhizomatic thinking and being. This text has been reviewed and responded to by Monika Hardy and Thomas Steele-Malley, both of whom greatly helped me to clarify my intentions when what I wanted to say was still quite cloudy. Love you guys.

**Pando: Also known as the Trembling Giant, Pando is a clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen located in Utah. Each genetically-identical individual tree (or “stem”) is connected by a single root system. Spreading across more than 100 acres, Pando is believed to be over 80,000 years old and collectively weighs over 6,600 tons, making it the heaviest organism on the planet, as well as one of the oldest." from Leaf and Limb Tree Service blog


  1. love it Mary Ann.

    and you as well.
    thank you for sharing your expertise/thinking/desire to change.

  2. I think of this as a work that created rhizomatically. So many voices I try to echo. Appreciate the book and your work, in particular.

  3. This was tweeted out by Dave Cormier ages ago. I read it and it keeps coming back to my mind. Thanks for this. I'm still processing.

    1. Thanks so much. Glad it is a work you return to.

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  5. This is very inspiring. But could I ask you to unpack the wonderfully evocative but (for me) not quite understood, metaphoric phrase "sea of 'middles'." It's "middles" I don't grasp.


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