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The Rhizome, the Classroom, the Community

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 24, 2011

A New View of the Way We Learn and Know


The word rhizome comes from the ancient Greek rhizoma, which means mass of roots. It's a tangle of tubers, usually underground, that is continually changing shape as it grows. It often sends out roots and shorts from its nodes. Its separate pieces, if broken apart, may give birth to a new plant. Rhizomes provide nurture for such beautiful and useful above-ground plants as the Lily of the Valley, the iris, asparagus and tangy ginger.

A 26-pound ginger rhizome, U.S. Department of Agriculture photo 

The rhizome also offers a compelling metaphor for learning, teaching, and perhaps even a redefinition of what we consider knowledge. Mary Ann Reilly writes about rhizomatic learning in her blog Between the By-Road and the Main Road. She writes that she and colleagues got a glimpse of a rhizomatic classroom when they visited an English literature class at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey. As she describes it, students move through literary eras together, but choose their own texts and areas of focus, and basically define their own intellectual goals and standards in consultation with their teachers and peers.

The role of the teacher shifts from instructing and telling to listening and conversing, she says. The learners-students, teachers, librarians-form and re-form alliances based on need, interest, direction, and commitment as a topic is explored and assessed. "Such shifts reveal the uncertainty present in the dynamic of learning," she writes.

Reilly pays tribute to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the French philosopher and psychiatrist, who wrote that the rhizome "has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. ...the fabric of the rhizome is a conjunction and...and...and..." Unlike the entwined root networks of the iris and ginger, the "tree of knowledge" as an educational metaphor suggests hierarchy, they assert.

     Cimicifuga racemosa rhizome from the thinkingenterprise blog of Anders Jensen-Waud.


In his paper "Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum", published in Innovate-Journal of Online Education, David Cormier also cites Deleuze and Guattari, and notes that a rhizome, made upon semi-independent nodes with no exact center and no defined boundaries, may offer a helpful way to think about learning and knowledge in the information age. Cormier, an educator and web communications manager at the University of Prince Edward Island, writes that the increasingly transitory nature of what's viewed as current and accurate in many developing fields makes it difficult to "define what counts as knowledge."

Further, he says, "The ephemeral nature of the web and the rate at which cutting edge knowledge about it and on it becomes obsolete disrupts the painstaking process by which knowledge has traditionally been codified." In new fields, where there are no long-established cannons of accepted knowledge, he writes, knowledge is "created by a broad collection of knowers sharing in the construction and ongoing evolution of a given field. Knowledge becomes a negotiation."

In the rhizomatic classroom, learning and knowledge aren't driven by curricula and lesson plans imposed by experts. They are built and negotiated by the contributions of all those engaged in the absorption, understanding and application of information presented, developed and shared.


 Undeground drawing from Fundamentals of Turfgrass Management by Nick Christians


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