Rhizomatic learning, week 1: What happens when we approach a learning experience looking for support that makes it impossible to simply continue along previous lines?

#rhizo14 A collation of my postings to the google+ community  and the P2PU MOOC on Rhizomatic learning.


On rhizomatic learning: Since 2009 I have been running interdisciplinary graduate courses that revolve entirely around 3-4 week cases, designed so that students can explore their own interests and learn from each other. The students’ work usually creates rhizomes from one case to the next. A glimpse into the process can be gained from http://wp.me/p1gwfa-xp and from student comments at http://grst.wikispaces.umb.edu/Evaluations and bottom of the page http://ppol749.wikispaces.umb.edu .


Check out a new P2PU course —https://p2pu.org/en/courses/1208/science-in-a-changing-world/ that connects with the spring series of “Collaborative Explorations” around Science in a Changing World —http://sicw.wikispaces.com/CE (which parallel, but are separate from a graduate course at UMass Boston on Scientific and Political Change) — http://ppol749.wikispaces.umb.edu.

The image I’d been working with was of microrrhizal fungi, not plant rhizomes:

sdhydroponics.com/resources/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/mycorrhizal-fungi.jpg

(p.s. see also: http://www.bumblenut.com/drawing/art/plateaus/index.shtml)


Is anyone else wondering why the posts are mostly about cheating in the literal sense, whereas Dave’s video for week 1 and the “about this community” emphasize breaking away from (implicit as well as explicit) rules so that “we approach a learning experience and we don’t know what we are going to learn? Where each student can learn something a little bit different – together?”? What do people think about breaking away from — as against breaking — rules?

From a 1995 reflection on my teaching, quoted in section 3 of a 1999 article, which seems relevant to the student’s experience of breaking away from rules and expectations:

Critical thinking… should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted. Students can no longer expect that if they just wait long enough the teacher will provide complete and tidy conclusions; instead they have to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning. Anxieties inevitably arise for students when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success. A high level of critical thinking is possible when students explore such anxieties and gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity.

On dave cormier “people [coming] together to learn given the availability of an abundance of perspective, of information and of connection (=a major theme for the course):

Envisage the google+ community as a container, a space that you enter and leave mindfully. That is, set limits and give yourself a structure so involvement in the community does not lead you to feel swamped or fragmented or unsure that you can synthesize or keep in mind all the interesting items you are coming across. To this end, you might allow yourself a delimited amount of time per day, say 30 minutes, to explore online offerings or sharings but you would also preserve an equal amount of time (preferably when you are fresh at the start of the day) to gather your thoughts based on whatever is currently in view or in mind, which may be quite different from what you have to do for your work or project or studies. Such “refractive practice,” in which you give yourself space to “connect, probe, and reflect,” makes it less likely that you feel left behind when you don’t follow or respond to every thread that is offered, however worthwhile they seem at first sight (adapted from http://bit.ly/1dQJh8p).


I have been chewing on principles or themes (other than “cheating”=Dave Cormier’s term) that help people–ourselves included–to learn rhizomatically. Terry Elliott ‘s reply to my post (https://plus.google.com/+petertaylorip/posts/e6Himo5G7qd) nudged me to share something.
My favorite model at the moment is the kindergarten class described by Vivian Paley in her book, The Girl with the Brown Crayon (GWBC). The post linked below provides the notes I made when re-reading the book last October. The sense I give at the outset of creativity as a process-in-context, which GWBC exemplifies, applies equally well to “finding one’s own way to succeed in something” (Dave Cormier)– I think.

http://wp.me/p1gwfa-yJ = a 2-part blog post that built on the GWBC and expands on dave cormier: “with the freedom to choose your own path (make your own map) comes the responsibility to both do your own assessing of what you need and where you are going and to remediate sufficiently that you are able to get there.”

p.s. The picture I present of individuals engaging in a process-in-context (at the start of the notes on GWBC and the 2-part blog post) tweaks dave cormier ‘s question: “What happens when we approach a learning experience and we don’t know what we are going to learn?” That sounds a little like rhizomatic learners start as blank slates without direction. Instead, we could ask: “What happens when we approach a learning experience looking for support that makes it impossible to simply continue along previous lines?”

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

4 Responses to Rhizomatic learning, week 1: What happens when we approach a learning experience looking for support that makes it impossible to simply continue along previous lines?

  1. francesbell says:

    Thanks for this post -a lot to absorb but 2 observations.
    1. As I read about the first course I noted connections to my own aspirations as a teacher – and wondered how much (beyond the title) you revealed about your own hopes and fears the course.
    2. I loved that you used the metaphor of microrrhizal fungi – as a gardener I just love that stuff and the way it encourages root growth – a great task for a teacher IMHO

    • 1. It varies according to the “course”–UMass Boston, P2PU, Collaborative explorations–but the first session always involves autobiographical introductions and I’m open as a co-learner in these and it often involves “alums” of the course, so students hear from people who are more like themselves.
      2. An alternative image, from Paley’s Girl with the Brown Crayon (p. 50): “I resist the uninvented classroom.” “I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams.”

  2. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Thanks for the post to reflect on. I agree no one comes in with a blank slate as much as some might like to do so. I struggle with the word “cheat” although Elbow early on in his book compares it to “shortcuts” and finding pleasure in work (not exact quote, but close) when talking about writing consistently. I have recently been writing against “steal like an artist” because that sells learning and creativity short as if we can’t do any better. Cheating also invites others to do the same to us as we do to them and puts the question mark on our integrity from then on. If we are going to stand on the shoulders of giants, shouldn’t we act like giants? I imagine support in the learning experience is the willingness and trust to help each possibly see a bigger pattern than the “go with the current flow” tendency of groups to emulate and replicate a pattern without looking at it more closely. The macroscope (see big and small simultaneously)–see the hole others don’t recognize in their effort to bring order out of chaos when there may be no chaos. Really though, I guess it all comes back to the choice of respect. How many people will risk giving that as freely as their ideas?

  3. Pingback: Creating Order out of Chaos | Exploring Digital Culture

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