Rhizomatic growth – learners as weeds or explorers and survivors?

Bamboo by MotleyOcklahoman on Flickr
Bamboo by MotleyOcklahoman on Flickr

Bamboo makes me uneasy.

When David Cromier was explaining his rhizomatic learning concept in last night’s #etmooc seminar (my notes here, recording archived here), it was not sitting quite right with me.

I loved the idea of exploratory learning within communities – with your ‘rhizomes’ or ideas spreading in unconstrained way through the community and intermingling with those of others. I loved the idea forcing students to determine their own directions and outcomes in learning in preparation for the uncertainty of our futures. I loved the emphasis on diversity of purposes of learning. I loved the acknowledgment of unpredictability of learning and the need to harness this more explicitly in the more formal learning settings. I respected the acknowledgment of the limitations of the approach – or its particular advantage for learning to deal with complex problems.Having had a history of designing highly ‘controlled’ online courses myself (largely due to context but I cannot blame it all on that;) – this sounds like an excellent reason to start learning to let go.

But the mention of rhizomes triggered a silent alarm in my botanical soul. So I woke up this morning with these, much louder, thoughts.

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

The ‘weedy rhizome’ may be a problem especially in relatively small and enclosed classrooms in the formal learning settings (even of 100s of students) – there will always be those who may have their own agendas which end up marginalised in a ‘community curriculum’, and who cannot find connections or reasons for engagement with others. The same goes for professional settings – how many of us cannot find others interested in teaching or talking of teaching in our immediate professional circles? It is hard to envision your community as your curriculum then (yes you can still learn something but it is hardly inspiring, engaging and motivating enough to take you somewhere interesting fast). Would it be different in an artificially constructed learning space such as a classroom?

Sure, students should be able to define their own learning goals, but they should also be able to define their own community (i.e. curriculum) – i.e. they should be able to make connections OUTSIDE the restricted pool of interest represented by their classmates/teacher. So the question would be – how do we make sure that the courses are open enough to enable this? What happens then to our ability to measure the engagement as a substitute for assessment of learning, as David suggests – if we allow students to define their own communities can we restrict this measurement to communities that are visible to us as teachers/assessors or other course participants?

Of course, I can see that the concept has a much easier breathing space out there on the interwebs with its moocing inhabitants – where the long tail and serendipitous discovery makes i more likely that even those with niche interests find their community curriculum to engage with. Can we breed a successful hybrid between the two creatures – the formal classroom garden and the internet wilds?

As usual more questions than answers! Looking forward to exploring this some more with etmoocers out there:)

5 thoughts on “Rhizomatic growth – learners as weeds or explorers and survivors?”

  1. Wow–I love the point here about rhizomes being something that can take over a garden, pushing out other things, and how this can happen in connected networks. It certainly happens in classes, where those who have different beliefs or values from the rest of the group may not share because they feel (or have been made to feel) uncomfortable doing so in a group where no one else thinks like they do. Why would we think this wouldn’t happen in a larger community? I can easily imagine someone finding a group of people on Twitter or elsewhere discussing what they’re interested in, but finding no one else saying what they themselves think…and either not entering the conversation or doing so and feeling too isolated as the rest of the community responds with disagreement. How to ensure that the social networks/apps we’re using aren’t so full of people agreeing with each other that those who don’t agree don’t participate or can’t find their community?

    I’m not saying we can’t form a community with those we disagree with (that’s one of the important ways to stretch and bend one’s own thinking), but it’s darn hard to do it if you have *no one* else to talk to who does agree with you, at least on some things.

    I don’t have an answer, just wanted to say I find this issue extremely thought-provoking and important. How much are our communities propagating people who think the same things and leaving little growing space for those who don’t?

    Thanks for the excellent post.

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