Friday, February 15, 2013

Why Rhizomatic Learning? Pt. 3 #etmooc

So does the rhizome bring anything to connectivism that it doesn't already have? I don't really know, but I do know that the rhizome helps me think about connectivism in ways that I otherwise find difficult. I also find rhizomatic thinking familiar and evocative for a teacher of writing and literature. To my mind, the rhizome is a metaphor, not a model. A model is created to represent something else, often eliminating much detail and changing the scale to focus on some salient aspects of interest to the model creator and to make handling easier. The rhizome does not model the educational process (or any other process) in this way. Rather, the rhizome is more a metaphor that evokes the way reality works by comparing it, in some points but not all, to the way a rhizome works. The rhizome is evocative rather than descriptive, and it is in no way prescriptive. Evocation works well for me, but the more explicit minded may find the rhizome irrelevant and distracting.

One cannot take the rhizome as metaphor too literally, then. For instance, some have complained that rhizomes are a multiplication of the same plant over and over, and they find little appeal in this kind of mindless repetition, especially when applied to learning. These people are taking the metaphor too literally. The rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari is not a homogeneous botanical system; rather, heterogeneity is one of the six characteristics of their rhizome. As they say, "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (7). Homogeneity, then, is not one of the points at which Deleuze and Guattari's compare rhizomes to reality. A metaphor invites one to explore all connections between the two things compared, but not all connections will prove useful or enlightening. Love is a rose, but not in all aspects.

If I understand the rhizome correctly, then, it is a metaphor of reality similar to the Enlightenment metaphor of the clock. Just as Galileo, Newton, and Descartes gave us the image of a clock to help us envision how the way too big Universe works, Deleuze and Guattari give us the image of a rhizome to help us make the shift from a mechanistic universe to an organic universe and to the math, science, and technology that make sense of that much expanded, different universe. Both the clock and the rhizome, then, are conceptual metaphors or frames, as Lakoff calls them, that describe reality in terms of either a piece of machinery or a plant; however, reality is neither a clock nor a rhizome. Still, I want to say that Deleuze and Guattari's marvelously twisted rhizomatic prose is about as close as one can get to the quantum, relativistic universe without way more math than I have. The rhizome is a wonderful metaphor in almost natural language for the complex systems that physics has almost completely accepted but still largely describes in mathematical terms—terms that I don't understand.

This may be one of the most important contributions that the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari makes to connectivism: it emphasizes the shift from a mechanistic, reductionist reality to an organic, relativistic, quantum reality and it captures in natural language something like this new reality. In his definitions of connectivism, George Siemens talks about complexity and chaos theories, but his language does not capture complexity and chaos the way Deleuze and Guattari do. Of course, Siemens has a different audience and different objectives than did Deleuze and Guattari. Still, there are things you can come to understand only by jumping in over your head, and as Mark Twain wisely observed, "If you a hold a cat by the tail you learn things that you cannot learn any other way." Reading Deleuze and Guattari is like holding two cats by the tail. Most people are willing to forgo that joy, but I have found it an endless source of enlightenment.

My friend Dave Cormier makes a most important contribution here by connecting rhizomatic thinking to Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework, which posits five contexts for thinking and decision making, particularly in organizations: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. In his post Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework, Cormier says that both MOOCs and rhizomatic thinking and teaching match best with the complex domain. As Cormier says:
That description of how to act in a MOOC sounds just about right as a description of rhizomatic learning. The knowledge lives in the community, you engage with it by probing into the community, sensing the response and then adjust. Just like the rhizome. It is a learning approach that is full of uncertainty… not least for the educator. But its one that allows for the development of the literacies that will allow us to sharpen our ability to participate in complex decision making. Dealing with the uncertainty is what the learning is all about.
This, then, is a second important contribution of rhizomatic learning to connectivism: a focus on complexity. Rhizomatic thinking enriches the connectivist conversation, and it has allowed me to say things that I could not say otherwise. Deleuze and Guattari have given me language to speak of complexity.

The rhizome also helps me understand why I share Cormier's discomfort with learning in the simple domain. Cormier says:
I think most of what i criticize or, at least, what concerns me about education is the movement between the complicated and simple domains. Our bureaucracies encourage simple domain learning, things that can be tracked and analyzed. Research goals seem to attempt to take things from complicated domains and shove them down into the simple one. Our world is increasingly one where complex decisions need to be made… and thats the kind of education i’m interested in being involved in.
Most of education seems calculated to force all knowledge into the simple domain, with one source for truth and one answer on the test. Sophisticated instructors and some graduate programs allow for the complicated domain where "the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge" (Wikipedia). Traditional education, by and large, eschews the complex domain, where "the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance." Our traditional testing regimes demand clear answers and outcomes, and complexity refuses to play that game. Thus, our curricula try to make reality as simple as possible throughout most of K-16 education, only grudgingly admitting the complicated and almost totally denying the complex. The problem here is that most of reality is complex or chaotic. As near as I can tell, the truly simple is extremely rare in Reality and the merely complicated is almost as rare. Everything else is complex and chaotic (about 99.999% by my calculations). If 99% of education is forced into the simple and complicated domains and 99% of life is complex/chaotic, then it appears that we have a mismatch between what we are teaching and what we need to learn. Rhizomatic learning can help address this mismatch.


  1. Nice post here! I just have a question: I've been thinking about the complex domain, and in conversations on my blog have come to wonder just what would fall into it. Can you provide examples of situations that would be in the complex domain, preferably related to teaching and learning? What might we be teaching that would be complex in this way (where cause and effect are only clear in retrospect)?

    I was thinking maybe ethics, where one has to decide what is right to do in a particular situation, because outcomes are hard to determine in advance. But then, not all ethical theories suggest looking at outcomes as a way to decide what to do (e.g., deontological views say potential outcomes are not the morally relevant thing to consider, but rather, what is the correct thing to do even if you don't know what the outcome might be).

    Do you have any other examples that could help me think about what sorts of things in teaching and learning might be relevant for the rhizomatic approach?

  2. I think that any topic can be moved from the simple, through the complicated, to the complex through as simple a technique as shifting from lecture to conversation.

    For instance, if you were to teach 20th Century philosophy in your philosophy class, you might start in the simple domain, having students identify which authors wrote which works (great matching question on a test). This is simple to stage, simple to do, simple to test, and almost deadly boring. This is the simple domain.

    You might move to the complicated domain by providing students with a close reading of Rhizomes from Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. This is guidance provided by an expert through a complicated terrain to an endpoint that the expert wants the novices to get. On the chapter test, you will likely ask your students to write a paragraph about some point from the text, providing quotes and perhaps outside references.

    Or you can start a conversation about rhizomatic thought and its implications for life, say, on Facebook. You can ask students to join you in producing artifacts for the Net that captures various experiences in rhizomatic ways. All of you can talk about how your own experience in Facebook is rhizomatic and how rhizomatic thinking helps understand that experience in very particular ways (at this point, you might introduce some helpful philosophical terms in your own conversation).

    History can work this way. So can literature and writing. So can biology. So can everything. And by the way, in my experience, it's the complex domain that is interesting for me and for students. The complicated and definitely the simple are boring.

    When my boys were at home, I was a youth soccer coach, and the same principles applied. Practice tended to focus on the simple domain: instep passes, dribbling with the inside and outside of the foot, etc. Most kids hated practice. They wanted to play. Most of education is practice in the simple domain, and our students never get to play. Play is always complex. Practice is too often merely simple. Of course, practice is important, but if you only practice and never play, then you never really learn and you never develop any passion.

    The best introduction I can suggest for complexity is Edgar Morin's marvelous book On Complexity. He nails it, especially for those of us in the humanities. For a quick overview, try this RSA Animate video, The Power of Networks by Manuel Lima.

  3. Christina, quite rhizomatically I came across an article by a history teacher (Leslie M-B) that shows how to teach history by having students curate information. It seems a wonderfully rhizomatic strategy to me.

  4. Love your description of moving form simple, to complicated, to complex. And I now see that "play" is complex--that's a really helpful reference point for me. You don't know what the outcome will be in advance; too many variables.

    This makes me think that in the past I have often approached teaching as taking place in the "complicated" domain. I mean, I thought that my job was to be the expert that helped students understand difficult philosophical writings, ideas, arguments, etc. Of course, I also asked them to do things in the "complex" domain, such as criticizing arguments, coming up with creative solutions to problems (are those complex?). But I more or less left those things for students to do themselves, and my own teaching was more in the "expert" style. That's a really hard habit to break, as it's what I was raised on and taught as a grad student. Most of my role models do that.

    Of course, there's still a place for the expert in philosophy, for helping students to grapple with difficult texts and ideas (though I am entirely open to various interpretations, so long as they are supported by the texts and solid arguments). But I think more in the way of teaching and learning in the "complex" domain is in order for me. Could be on Facebook, or just in the class itself--discussions about various philosophical topics and problems, writing out ideas in blogs or elsewhere, interacting with others on their views, etc. Best if opened out to the public to participate as well, probably.

    This is like what we do in etmooc--not clear where our discussions and connections will take us, and we each focus on what's most interesting to us. Could perhaps do more of that in philosophy (or other) courses.

    I already by chance came across the "power of networks" RSA animate, but thanks just in case I hadn't! And I'll check out the link to the History teacher's article.

  5. Can't get the link to the history teacher's article to work. Try again?

  6. Sorry about the link. Here it is in full:

  7. Thanks for the link! Very interesting example. Makes me think how fun it would be to be in history and curating exhibitions.