No Rhizomatic learning for me

Just now I listened to a talk by Dave Cormier about Rhizomatic Learning as part of participating in ETMOOC. The most important statements about what it is to me are “that participating in the community is the curriculum” and “the Rhizome is a model for learning for uncertainty”.

Put into practice this leads to no set structure for your education, no clearly defined end terms and no authority figure who decides if you mastered the subject. Put positively participants set their own goals and by interacting with other people learn themselves new things and in the process of doing so also teach others new things.

The catalyst for Rhizomatic Learning seems to be the internet, the vast amounts of information that is available on it and the ease it gives us to connect and interact with other people.

Rhizomatic Learning was not presented as a solution for learning in all contexts but only for complex contexts as described in the Cynefin framework. In this framework complex contexts are defined as problems “in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect”.

Listening to the talk and thinking about it for a bit I have severe doubts about the whole concept for three main reasons:

  1. The whole idea that this is suited for problems in complex contexts is counter intuitive to me. I can live with the idea that for simple contexts where there is clarity about the best possible answer to a solution a teacher chooses to let the students figure out the answer for themselves in any way they like and in a cooperative manner. Complex problems on the other hand are never complex as a whole. Think of this as a pyramid where the top is the complexity that is not understood by anyone. The layers below the top are complex also but understood by ever more people. The further down you go on the pyramid the less complex the underlying knowledge (for solving the complex problem) is and the more it is understood by people. Of course given the definition you don’t know for sure what the base of the pyramid is before you solve the problem but I would think that you have some idea of what knowledge might help you to solve the problem. In learning about it, it seems to me that one is better of when one does this in a context with specialists in the underlying knowledge domains who provide guidance, give feedback and prevent you from taking routes with little likelihood of success.
  2. The whole concept draws so heavily on high level skills (being able to deal with uncertainty and distinguishing which contributions from others are valuable and which are not) that it becomes elitist.
  3. As the community is the curriculum there is a big risk that people end up with misconceptions about whatever complex problem they are studying. The voice of the majority in the community in which you are studying might decide what you belief to be true while ignoring relevant facts that point in other directions. Psychologists call this group-think. The best example I can think of is people who hold intelligent design to be true.
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7 Responses to No Rhizomatic learning for me

  1. Those are reasonable objections… I’d like to make a few comments about them if i could.

    1. I have a feeling that this is where we would disagree the most. It’s possible that we see the world differently, but from my perspective, underlying many of the things that we teach is what underlies the teachers ‘choice’ of what the right answer should be. In my view, most decisions in the world are not about ‘the only right answer that we should find’ but rather ‘choosing among options for the one that best suits our world view’. If we take the pyramid example, I don’t doubt that we should break down the understanding of a pyramid into tiny pieces and build it back up again. If I were to ask a question like “should Djoser have built the first pyramid” then we’re into an entirely different realm of discussion… where the answer is going to include questions of religion, feeding farmers during the flood season, civil unrest and the amazing uncertainty that comes from talking about something almost 5000 years removed from the present day. It just depends on what we are trying to learn.

    As for ‘guidance, feedback and preventing taking bad roads’ I totally and wholly support this in my teaching. The community curriculum often will not work at all without a ‘specialist’ who is nearby offering that constant feedback.

    2. I don’t understand the suggestion that high level skills are elitist. I grew up on lobster boats and my first work was in a Refinery, have worked in schools/universities around the world etc… dealing with uncertainty and choosing value are critical elements of success for people regardless of where they are and what they do. Is there a sense that you mean elitist that I’m missing?

    3. I would repeat my comments about ‘guidance, feedback and preventing taking bad roads’. If you take the MOOC example, for instance, some people are going to be able to work in communities in ways that others wont depending on the experience they have in that subject, their self-awareness… a hundred things. The key is knowing when you need the help and figuring out where you can find help that will help keep you from the group think you’re talking about. Certainly the transmission “this is truth” approach to learning has not stopped intelligent design to this point… and leaving learning as a dictatorship puts us at the risk of being forced to listen to all kinds of nonsense. Both approaches require caution and checks and balances.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my talk

    cheers, dave.

    • louwarnoud says:

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my objections against Rhyzomatic learning. Luckily there is much also on which we agree (like proper guidance and checks and balances). In this reply I focus on what for me is the core of my objections.

      I think we should consider ourselves lucky if we have teachers that are so well schooled that they know the right answers to the things they teach. For a large part of any curriculum that should be the case as they draw from a body of knowledge that has been properly researched. That means that we can be reasonably sure what the right answers are. So what we are debating are those knowledge areas where we still lack enough scientific insight in what seems to be right and what not. Also in that case I maintain that the best way to learn is with teachers that have proven to be specialists in the field we are studying. Nothing wrong with that teacher deciding to take an approach to learning where students try to reach new insights mostly by themselves.

      Your response to my elitist point seems to suggest that I called you elitist, that is not the case. My concern is that the high level skills needed to exercise Rhyzomatic learning are only attainable for the happy few (the elite). Basically that point continues in my objection number three where I give an example (intelligent design) how a community can learn themselves new “knowledge” without giving proper attention to relevant facts that contradicts that “knowledge”. Why is it that nobody in that group puts forward the widely available reasonable objections? Could it be that in that group that would be an act of courage that only few (the elite) can bring up? Frankly I am puzzled by your response there as the whole way in which the intelligent design “knowledge” is created seems to me Rhyzomatic learning in action.

  2. Pingback: No Rhizomatic learning for me | cMOOC xMOOC review |

  3. Cool.

    1. I guess i don’t think we usually know what the right answers are… but I certainly see your point.

    2. I think of intelligent design as a cynical construction of one group of people that is trying to enforce their belief system (and political agenda) upon a large group of people. In my classroom, assuming i taught something related to evolution/ID the facts of the issue are available online. The overwhelming weight of evidence is towards some kind of evolution… and decent research skills would lead you away from the argument from design… because you have the entire web as your content repository… you can’t get trapped by one demagogue.



  4. Ah, the power of comments is a lovely thing. Watching the exchange on this subject has helped me put rhizomatic learning in perspective. Thanks you to both @louwarnoud, as I had similar notions until I kept on looking and reading Dave’s Blog. I no longer think that rhizomatic learnging is just for those empowered or smarter. It does not need an internet connection. It truly takes a facilitator with an open mind. Please feel free to see my blog post which stemmed from similar thoughts until I came upon the blog post on, Who is Educating Us. You see when “formal education” is introduced to a community that did not have it, they do lose out, and I quote “One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional societies around the world is a radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority.Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and respect for the local are radically curtailed. The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts, or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure. Family and community are sidelined, their knowledge now seen as inferior to the school curriculum”. Now if that is not proof that we are at our hearts rhizomatic learners, I’m not sure what does! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Many have expanded my mind when it comes to rhizomatic learning.

    • louwarnoud says:

      Thanks for your comment Sherry. My doubts about Rhizomatic learning focus on the role the teacher plays in it and giving your comment funnily enough on the risks of learning in a community where the community is the curriculum. I don’t share the concerns about governments that is reflected in the blog you quote. Governments are also groups of people just like learning communities. I don’t see how as a rule one group could be better or more ethical then the other. Like Dave Cormier I think that “both approaches require caution and checks and balances”.

      • I agree, Dave hit a great point, we most certainly do need “caution, checks and balances”. My concerns also loom from the teacher’s perspective as I know what is expected of me and that is of course goals and standards and how exactly I will reach them. I was thrilled to see I was not the only one left with thoughts and questions and wanted to say thank you as while I love the idea of rhizomatic learning, I’m not sure how we would change the minds of those who dictate what we must teach as I don’t think we will. My research led me to a post where it was obvious we might not be doing “older or third world communities” justice when we say what must/should be taught and it opened my mind more. That is what I truly wanted to share. Great connection!

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