Monday, November 14, 2011

#change11 Rhizomatic Misgivings?

In his post Farewell to Rhizomes, Jeffrey Keefer expresses a rather common misgiving many seem to have with the concept of rhizomatic learning: interesting perhaps, but what does it do for me in the classroom? This is just the kind of question rhizomatic folk need to answer.

Just before I read Keefer's post, I came across an Edutopia post by Bob Lenz called Deeper Learning Community of Practice Recap, in which he lists some comments by Kathleen Cushman in response to a recent Deeper Learning meeting. After reviewing some student work from the workshop, Kushman asked  "What had the teacher done to scaffold this work in its early stages?" She listed several specific techniques the teachers used:

  • They build learning relationships with students.
  • They design and plan backward from clear learning objectives.
  • They co-construct curriculum with students and colleagues.
  • They use inquiry to drive instruction.
  • They scaffold student learning.
  • They assess continuously.
  • They reflect on their own and others' work.
  • They use protocols to engage in collegial critique.
This seems like a pretty good collection of techniques to me, and I use most of them at one time or another, but from which learning theory do these techniques naturally follow? Hmm … seems to me that most any theory could lead to all or part of this collection of classroom activities. Could you use one of these techniques with no particular theory in mind? I could. I suspect most teachers do.

Okay, if you could do all these things in a classroom without a learning theory, then what good is a learning theory, or even more questionable, what good is a learning metaphor?

I think theories and metaphors provide a more or less systematic and coherent set of lenses for looking at reality. A theory highlights certain elements and processes, bringing them to the foreground, and diminishes the rest of the details, letting them recede into the background. This clarifies the picture for us and gives us a sense of understanding and control.

A theory differs from a metaphor, at least in part, by implying some predictive efficacy. A theory says that if A then B, and then we can test to see if this actually happens. If it doesn't, then we adjust the theory. I don't know that a metaphor is held to the same expectation. I just don't know of a way to test how much love is like a rose or a MOOC is like a rhizome.

Does this mean that metaphors are of no use, then? Not to me. Metaphors are marvelous ways of presenting a gestalt understanding of one thing in terms of another, and our minds are wonderfully attuned to and receptive to this kind of holistic learning. For me then, the image of the rhizome provides a more fertile field within which to develop a more rational, predictive theory such as Connectivism, which in turn leads to new techniques, to a reuse of old techniques, and to MOOCs. The rhizome gives me a marvelously rich and pregnant image with which to engage the MOOC, and here's the main point, we all bring an image to the MOOC. If we bring a less useful image—say, the traditional classroom—then the MOOC does not make sense to us, and we are frustrated by it. If we bring the rhizome image, we are more likely to make sense of what is happening in a MOOC and more likely to engage it productively.


  1. While it may be true that you can use any of those techniques without thinking of a specific theory, the fact is there is a lot of theory behind them - learning objectives, scaffolding, continuous assessment, including students in the design of the curriculum, etc. So, if you don't know the theories (or second hand information about them), either through formal education/training or through informal learning and experience, you won't be able to use them effectively (or at all).

    What learning theories and metaphors give us is a landscape and a point of view. Generally, as teachers, our practice is a mash-up of theoretical knowledge, experience and personal beliefs. We use whatever we deem fit in a specific situation, and that includes a variety of strategies and techniques that are rarely derived, in pure form, from a specific theory. We combine elements from different theories for different purposes and situations, frequently without even thinking in theoretical terms.

    The rhizome metaphor, as you say, is much more compatible with a MOOC than with a formal learning context. But knowing it allows you to include in the learning process situations that foster informal learning, self-directed learning, open-ended, personalized projects, free collaboration or serendipity. You are including this point of view in your understanding of the learning process, not applying it fully and directly, but using the metaphor to inspire the learning design and your action as a teacher.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jose. I agree with you. Theories do give us the landscape. Nice metaphor—landscape.