Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jenny, Rhizomatic Learners, and #rhizo14

I've been conversing with Jenny Mackness for a few years now and have always found our conversations instructive and enjoyable, but never more so than now. As part of our engagement with Rhizo14, she wrote a post (Questions about rhizomatic learning) asking me a few questions about rhizomatic learning and thought. I will try to answer as best I can in this post, but you really owe it to yourself to read her post first. It exemplifies what a rhizomatic post can be: exploration from an individual perspective that is informed by years of study and honest engagement with emerging learning spaces. It's the kind of post I try to write, and I'll try to emulate Jenny here.

I'll take her questions in order that I find them as a simple, convenient organizing strategy. We'll see if that works.

She first asks about how "to distinguish a ‘rhizomatic learner’ from other learners". This suggests to me an attempt to fit rhizomatic learner into a theoretical framework, which I have resisted doing as I consider the rhizome a metaphor rather than a theoretical concept such as the constructivist learner. This may sound like a dodge of the question, but I don't think so. I tried to address this issue in a comment on Cath Ellis' post Model one: maps, but I didn't do so well there. To my mind, a theory is a conceptual model of something; thus, constructivism or connectivism are conceptual models, or theories, of learning, and the concepts within those models are supposed to trace accurately and reliably the processes of learning. We build models to help us get a handle on larger things, such as Cath Ellis' map of the London Underground. For me, a map is a model that helps me conceptualize and navigate the too large and confusing London Underground. The model, then, has limited value in itself; rather, its value follows from how accurately and handily it traces the salient, relevant points of the original.

The rhizomatic learner, on the other hand, is for me a metaphor which expands our understanding of one thing (the process of learning) in the light of another thing (a botanical rhizome). The metaphor learning is a rhizome is similar, then, to the metaphor love is a rose. Love is a rose is an expansive way of comparing what we know in a tactile, visceral way about roses to the emotion love, which can be somewhat more abstract. The rose provides some insight into what love can be like, but no one would say that the rose is a model of love, or that understanding a rose helps us manage our love life with any more precision, finesse, or success. Also, the rose does not depend on love for its value. It has value in itself, regardless of the light it sheds on love.

Moreover, we usually don't feel the same sense of conflict with metaphors that we feel with models. In one of her poems, Margaret Atwood says that love is like a fish-hook in the eye, giving us another metaphor for love. While we can all see a different perspective on love highlighted by this metaphor, we don't see the metaphors in conflict or competition. They both say something more or less useful about love, but only the most left-brained, fundamentalist, reductionist critic would say, "Okay, which is it? Is love a rose or a fish-hook, because it can't be both." This either/or thinking is more typical of models: we are fond of arguing that education is either constructivist or connectivist, for instance, but not both. I don't want to reduce the rhizome metaphor to either of these models. I want rhizomatic learning to remain a metaphor that pushes me outward to explore new ways that I might conduct my classes—I don't want it to become a model for how my class ought to be.

But I have to keep in mind that metaphors are not in conflict, as models tend to be. Thus, I'm quite comfortable with other metaphors than the rhizome. For instance, Jenny Mackness and her colleagues have developed a wonderful metaphor they call emergent learning, and in an article that I published this past year in Cosmopolis, I explored the metaphor of the quantum hive. There are other metaphors, and I see none of these metaphors as in competition or conflict; rather, they are all gateways into the spaces that we don't quite understand yet, the spaces that we are not quite yet able to model. These are the spaces that we are still mapping as nomads/knowmads, but I'm confident that someday we will be able to model them, and when we have them mapped and known, the knowmads will move on to the other open spaces that will open up. I'm confident, then, that knowledge will never become stale and boring. I find that very comforting.

In another of Jenny's posts, she mentions Iain MacGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, in which MacGilchrist provides a detailed examination of the differences between the worldview of the right brain (the master) and the left brain (the emissary), the resulting worldview of the whole brain, and the consequences for human culture. As Jenny notes:
Whilst the title of McGilchrist’s book suggests a polarisation between the left and right brain – this is not the case. He is at pains to point out that we need both hemispheres of the brain – but the thrust of his book is that we have become over dependent on the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of abstraction, to the detriment of the right hemisphere, the hemisphere of embodied learning.
This pretty much captures what I understand of MacGilchrist's argument, and for me, metaphor is a tool of the right brain: the hemisphere of embodied learning, while model is a tool of the left brain, the hemisphere of abstraction. Metaphor helps me to expand my boundaries beyond what I know to those open spaces that are still unknown to me, while model helps me to consolidate what I have learned: to corral the open spaces and make sense of them. I need both, but like MacGilchrist, I think that our current culture privileges the model-making left brain to the disenfranchisement of the metaphor-making right brain, and this is to the detriment of us all. On her blog, Jenny features a quote attributed to Albert Einstein which captures this great loss: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honours the servant and has forgotten the gift." While some claim that this particular quote is apocryphal, it still captures the spirit of Einstein's other statements about the value of creative intuition in relation to rationality. It captures MacGilchrist's take on the split brain, and it captures my thinking on metaphor vs. model. I personally tend to value metaphor over model, but I need both. One without the other leads to a skewed world view and to intolerable people: soupy, syrupy airheads on the one hand, and anal-retentive pricks on the other. I'm trying for some balance, recognizing that I could easily slide into the airhead end of the spectrum.

Rhizo14, of course, is focusing on the metaphor-building, intuitive, expansive, open-ended aspect of learning. It should, and I have no problem with this. However, I recognize that this can appear to suggest that rhizomatic learning is all there is to learning. I don't think this is so, and I don't think Dave Cormier thinks it is so. In education as in life, we need all the tools we can master to build good minds and good lives. We need both metaphor and model, we need the right brain and the left brain. We also need to know when to use the one, or the other, or both together.

So to finally address Jenny's question about how to distinguish rhizomatic learners from other learners: I think I can distinguish them from those learners who want only to trace a given path to a given right answer. I cannot distinguish rhizomatic learners from emergent learners or learners in the quantum hive, and I'm not sure that I want to, just yet.

Well, that's question one. I guess I'll have to tackle the other ones later, as I've papers to grade before Monday. But again, thanks to Jenny for pushing me in a righteous direction, and I hope I made sense.

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