Mycorrhizal learning (#rhizo14)

This post addresses the key questions and themes of each week as laid out by the organizer, Dave Cormier, for the P2PU MOOC on Rhizomatic learning.  “Rhizomatic learning is a story of how we can learn in a world of abundance – abundance of perspective, of information and of connection.”  (Rhizomes are not mycorrhiza, but my image of rhizomatic learning is more like the latter, thus the title to this post.) 

Cormier states the key questions as:

What happens if we let that[*] go? What happens when 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 if we decided to trust the idea that people can come together to learn given the availability of an abundance of perspective, of information and of connection?

* =decisions, in advance, about what it is important for students to learn + check[ing] if they all did and compar[ing] them against each other

He breaks the exploration of these questions into 6 weeks:

  1. “Cheating” = Abandon rules and expectation of answers given by some authority
  2. Self-assessment, including assessment of relationship to the community [before the topic morphed into enforcing independence]
  3. Declaring your work = responsibility to other learners
  4. Collaborative continuum = how knowledge is made
  5. Community as curriculum
  6. Practicalities = course contracts, personal learning records, problem-based learning.


My emphasis is less on abundance of connections and more on individuals engaging with/in the context in which they are learning.  To this end, I would recommend being reserved–or slow-food-like–about abundance on the internet.  As quoted in the previous post:

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

* or facebook or connectivist-MOOC

Indeed, beyond this point, my emphasis is on learning-in-context with little direct reference to what the internet or connectivism make possible.  After all, technologically mediated learning environments should be modeled on best practices for teaching-learning without computers, yes? (elaboration,

Week 1–Abandon rules and expectation of direction given by some authority

Promoting slow-food refractive practice does not, however, prevent the unsettled experience that most (all?) newcomers to non-programmed learning, such as rhizomatic learning or project-based learning (of the ill-defined problems variety, in which students can explore their own interests in relation to the scenario and learn from each other).  Notwithstanding the appreciative evaluations from the end of my PBL courses (e.g.,, students always say at the end — and these were the students who did not drop the course — that they were overwhelmed, confused about expectations, etc. at the start.  After hearing this again last May, I sketched out a plan for the first session next time (=a week from today), which involves a diagram of the rhythm of the course and a short but very open PBL with alums of the course participating (  Indeed, having new students interview an alum of the course (with me out of the room) has been a regular feature of all my courses–not only the rhizomatic PBL ones–for many years now.

The deeper issue here is moving from receptive learning to learners taking themselves seriously, which can be seen as “align[ing] their questions and ideas, aspirations, ability to take or influence action, and relationships with other people” (  Equivalently, in the terms of a recent course I co-led on creative thinking: “The measure of creativity… is not the quantity or quality of products but [how much you think and feel], every day or every moment, that it is no longer possible for yourself to simply continue along previous lines” (  There is a bootstrapping problem here–learners have to be at least a little self-directed or creative to take themselves seriously and to engage with the relevant context in order to shape it to support their developing creativity.

Week 2–Self-assessment

One way for a person to bootstrap into self-directedness or creativity (in the sense above) is to:

have someone do a plus-delta evaluation at the end of any activity you are involved in and hope that the experience will, eventually if not the first time, lead to a routine of plus-delta evaluation.  Paying attention to the things you appreciated (the plus) makes it more likely that you—or the people responsible for the activity you are evaluating—will work on the things that need improving or changing (the delta).  Eventually something that arose as a delta becomes a plus and you are ready for some further deltas (from #2 in

Weeks 1 & 2 together

Learning in a context of interaction with others (“community”), but without expectation of direction given by some authority can be seen as “taking initiative in and through relationships” (   In this, do not expect to learn or change or develop your creativity without moving among or being jostled by the interplay or tensions between (at least) six different considerations: negotiating power and standards (a “vertical” relationship); building peer (or “horizontal”) relationships; exploring differences and diversity among people; acknowledging that affect (i.e., emotion) is involved in what you are doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that); developing autonomy (so that you are neither too sensitive nor impervious to feedback); and clearing away distractions from other sources (present and past) so you can “be here now.”  Inhabiting the jostling tensions looks complicated or feels unsettled, but combining it with plus-delta evaluation can help.  At the end of any learning-related activity you are involved in, you would complete the plus-delta for each of the six aspects.  Presumably, if you focus on one or two of the aspects during the activity, there will be room for deltas on the others.  At the same time, the pluses for the aspects on which you did focus will provide a base from which to pay attention to the others.

Week 3–Responsibility to other learners

Taking initiative in and through relationships forms a strong basis for being responsible to other learners.  Another way I picture this is to say that a context, such as a workshop or classroom, is conducive of learning or creativity development to the extent that it starts by creating conditions of Respect (e.g., participants have repeated exchanges with those who differ from them, listening to others and having the experience of being listened to), which in turn makes it more likely for participants to take Risks (e.g., staying with the process even when there is uncertainty about how to achieve desired outcomes). (More details)  Responsibility to other learners involves contribution to the conditions of Respect and subsequent Risk taking.

Week 4–How knowledge is made collaboratively

The picture of Respect leading to Risk continues to two other Rs: These lead to Revelations (bringing thoughts and feelings to the surface that articulate, clarify and complicate their ideas, relationships, and aspirations-in short, their identities), and, as a result of the previous three R’s, to Re-engagement (participants’ “gears” engage allowing them to sustain quite a high level of energy, to engage actively with others, and, equally importantly, to be reminded of their aspirations to work in supportive communities).  In Revelations and Re-engagement knowledge is being made.


Week 5–Community as curriculum

Taking initiative in and through relationships and the 4Rs point to the sociality of learning at the same time as they allow individuals to take themself seriously (albeit a self that is engaged in a context or community).

Another way of saying this is that each of us navigates the distributed complexity in part by trying to impart order according to our sense of our self—our identity, aspirations or goals, and will to choose among goals and move towards them.  We achieve some goals and then have greater capacity, knowledge, skills, plans, and direction to keep moving and developing.  We also have setbacks and revise our goals.  Indeed, our self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.  Yet relationships with others are a source of resources and support (material, emotional, etc.) from outside ourselves, which help shape how far and in what directions our movement and development happens.  Relationships are also a source of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.  Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals (quoting from a recent post).

Indeed, this post continues:

My current ideal is to be involved in communities of adults that have the feel of Vivian Paley’s classrooms.  Again from The Girl with the Brown Crayon, Paley: “I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams” (p. 50).  “Kindergartners are passionate seekers of hidden identities and quickly respond to those who keep unraveling the endless possibilities” (p. 4); they “search for the mirror of self-revelation” (p. 8).

The challenge of  learning in a mycorrhizal context is addressed in a suite of schemas given in that same post, each schema intended to be taken up when you see it as relevant to the phase you are in of learning or engaging in shaping the context that supports your creativity.

Week 6–Practicalities (incl. course contracts)

To be consistent with the above the most important shift in teaching is to pursue “Assessment [to] Keep… Attention Away from Grades.” Dialogue around written work makes a substantive contribution to this.

Having students keep their own record of what they have submitted (example) helps ensure that instructor-student interaction focuses on the substance, not the grades.

From my experience, some students construe the keep one’s own record as the instructor being “flexible” about submission of work, with a result that detracts from the learning experience for themselves and others.  I am experimenting with being more hard-nosed (e.g., last two bullets here).

In almost all of my courses, there is a syllabus treasure hunt between the first and the second meeting so that they acquaint themselves with and raise questions about requirements and everything in the course and its online organization that departs from what they are accustomed to.

Note on sources: Links to pages with the Gill Sans headings and Garamond typeface are drawn from P. Taylor and J. Szteiter (2012) Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement Arlington, MA, The Pumping Station, available from online retailers or via


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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

15 Responses to Mycorrhizal learning (#rhizo14)

  1. jennymackness says:

    Peter – there is so much here to respond to that it’s difficult to know where to begin – but I’ll start by posting this link – – I thought you might like the alternative mycorrhiza images.

    I like your 6 considerations for learning and in particular that you have included reference to emotion/affect. For me all my most powerful learning experiences are emotional ones; ones that have an impact on my identity. As Etienne Wenger has written, learning, meaning and identity are ‘deeply interconnected and mutually defining’.

    Finding the ‘space’ as Keith Hamon has so eloquently described – – is also important I think.

    Thanks for sharing your practice.


    • Friendly amendment: The most powerful learning experiences are ones that at one and the same time are emotional, foster horizontal connections, negotiate standards, develop autonomy, …[you see where I’m going]

  2. jennymackness says:

    Friendly reply – yes, I can recognise all your 6 considerations as important and have already blogged about autonomy in this course and in the pasy, and negotiating learning at other times etc. —– but….. what makes a learning experience powerful for me, is unique to me, and therefore can’t be dictated by anyone else, however well-meaning 🙂 I can think of powerful learning experiences in which there was little autonomy or negotiation, but lots of emotion! [you see where I’m going] big smile :-)!!

    • Interesting. I might need examples, but online posts might be too public a place to share them. (If I think of the emotional power of, e.g., constructivist listening aka re-evaluation counseling aka supportive listening [ ], I see autonomy and horizontal connections at the same time. [Autonomy to me is not off on one’s own, but rather taking in input and digesting it without being bowled over or insulated against it.])

  3. jennymackness says:

    Have to think about this a bit more before replying – but I do have experience of active/supportive listening and mentor training – which has raised lots of associated thoughts 🙂

  4. jennymackness says:

    Hi Peter – I have thought a lot about whether it is necessary to have all your six consideration before learning can take place:

    >> In this, do not expect to learn or change or develop your creativity without moving among or being jostled by the interplay or tensions between (at least) six different considerations: negotiating power and standards (a “vertical” relationship); building peer (or “horizontal”) relationships; exploring differences and diversity among people; acknowledging that affect (i.e., emotion) is involved in what you are doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that); developing autonomy (so that you are neither too sensitive nor impervious to feedback); and clearing away distractions from other sources (present and past) so you can “be here now.” <<

    I agree with you that lots of criteria are jostling for balance in relation to any given learning experience. In my own research into emergent learning, which I work on collaboratively with colleagues, we consider 25 factors that might or might not influence learning to a greater or lesser degree. We share our research on this open wiki –

    In this work I have become aware that for different people different criteria become very significant in their learning experience. Whilst most of the criteria have an influence, some have a much stronger influence than others. For myself, I have recognised that some sort of emotional response and impact on my identity is essential for the learning experience to be significant.

      • jennymackness says:

        Yes – although this is a work in progress – and the most recent version is on a different page of the wiki – – Look for New Mapping Sheet download. And all this has reminded me that we must get round to tidying up the wiki – which has been on my ‘To do’ list for weeks!!

      • Some things I’m chewing on: 1. emotion is not readily visible in the items in the list; 2. how to unfold from a smaller, easy-to-take-in set to the full set.

      • jennymackness says:

        You are right – emotion is not visible in the footprints. Is it implicit in the agency and presence/writing clusters – or does it need to be made more explicit? I do agree that emotion is an essential element of significant learning.

        We have always said that the factors are not a definitive list. We arrived at them from our understanding of various learning theories, our experience in open learning environments (particularly MOOCs) and our professional backgrounds – this is all explained in more depth in some of our papers. We have invited people to regard the list of factors as a ‘palette’ from which to select the factors that seem most appropriate to their context – or to replace them with other factors which might be more relevant to the context.

        We have also thought long and hard about – “how to unfold from a smaller, easy-to-take-in set to the full set.” Great way to think about it!

        We have found that when we offer people a limited selection of factors, or suggest that they choose a limited selection – they still use all the factors. We have struggled with the idea of making the learning process appear ‘easy’, when we know that it is incredibly complex. But I know that unfolding from a smaller, easy-to-take in set to the full set would make life easier for some sets of learners, for example, children.

        What we do know is that the footprints need a careful introduction. We have found that the minimum time for doing this is 1hour and that is really pushing it. Our Austrian colleague Jutta Pauschenwein – – who uses the footprints a lot with students and teachers – runs workshops that are 3 hours long.

        Here are links to a couple of posts which might further help to explain our thinking – and as I mentioned before – this is a work in progress. We are still developing our ideas.

    • any chance you can join the Collaborative Exploration on deep learning communities in c-MOOCs? — — it’d be great to have you and other footprinters involved.

  5. Aaron says:

    enjoy your posts so much, Peter – I find myself having to come back to them a few times as I process them. and, wow, this footprint model is fascinating. all the ways in which we try to visually describe processes of learning…

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