Exploring rhizomatic learning – activity 20 of the OU Open Education MOOC


Dave Cromier considers the nature of  joined up learning networks.

I used to live next door to a reclusive old lady whose neglected back garden was like a jungle. Once a year she would come out armed with a range of electric tools to blitz everything in sight but obviously it all just grew back again.

Leggy raspberry plants were the most pervasive and these would spread over into my garden. These had long passed the time when they bore fruit so they were just an eyesore with prickly stems.

This all goes to prove that everything in a garden isn’t always lovely and that even the most perfect seeming eco-system sometimes needs a helping hand.

This came to mind after watching Dave Cormier’s video, Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education (2012).

The American Heritage Dictionary define a rhizome – pronounced ‘rise-ohm’ – as “a horizontal, usually underground stem that often sends out roots and shoots from its nodes”.

Cormier likes the idea of things growing out of plain view which have no real start and no real end. His organic metaphor contrasts with the conventional idea of educational networks as something more clinical and organized with lots of clean lines, neatly connected.

What Dave Cromier thinks he thinks.

What Dave Cromier thinks he thinks.

At the heart of ‘Rhizomatic Learning’ is the notion that courses should never be structured too rigidly. He believes, rightly in my view, that standardised testing just encourages cramming while looser systems are more conducive to creative thinking.

It follows from this that any open course worth its salt should leave space for the nurturing of ideas. Doubt is a starting point for discovery since it fosters the healthy idea of learning as a process of problem solving.

All this is easy to sell with attractive examples like aspen trees or bamboo shoots but I think some of the weaknesses of the model are unwittingly exposed when he also refers to “nasty rhizomes”.

Cormier puts Japanese knotweed in this category and my rampant raspberry plants would also be in there too! He sees the non-weed potential thus: “the tiniest little bit of it is enough to make it grow, and there’s something really nice about that too in thinking about network models”.

Check out the nodes on this bindweed!

But think about another ‘nasty’ like ‘bindweed’ which the Royal Horticultural Society say has destructive qualities of “choking plants in borders and twining around any plant shoot or cane”.

This choking and twining has the effect of stifling growth; the very opposite of what any educational system strives towards.

For highly motivated groups, the laissez-faire structure of Rhizomatic Learning has obvious benefits. There’s no question that with the wealth of Open Educational Resources at everyone’s disposal, educators are on a hiding to nothing if they pretend they have all the answers. Learners have the power to set their own agenda in new and, for the most part, exciting ways.

But the other side of the garden fence is that everything could just as easily grow out of control without  a bit of careful  maintainance. Embracing uncertainty and cultivating complexity are good principles but I also keep having visions of that overgrown garden I used to live next door to.

If I was stuck in there among all those nasty rhizomes there would be no start, no end and no way out!  Perhaps, Dave Cromier would respond by singing some lines from the Joe South song : I beg your pardon – I never promised you a rose garden!