20th June 2015: Rhizomatic education: Definitions and origins

Dave Harris

The Wikipedia entry for rhizomatic learning, drawn to our attention by Cormier in a Facebook post begins with this:

Rhizomatic learning is a term applied to a variety of pedagogical practices informed by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari... Explored initially as an application of post-structural thought to education, it has more recently been identified as methodology for net-enabled education... In contrast to goal-directed and hierarchical theories of learning, it posits that learning is most effective when it allows participants to react to evolving circumstances, preserving lines of flight that allow a fluid and continually evolving redefinition of the task at hand... In such a structure, "the community is the curriculum", subverting traditional notions of instructional design where objectives pre-exist student involvement.

 The piece goes on to add:

Connections have been made between the rhizomatic method and John Dewey's work at least since Richard Rorty remarked that Dewey was "waiting at the end of the road which...Foucault and Deleuze are currently traveling." Dewey himself remarked early in his career on the contrast between the organic and non-hierarchical nature of learning outside and inside the classroom. According to Dewey, learning in agrarian culture was structured conversationally, driven by student interest, and featured many links but little hierarchy: "There are certain points of interest and value to him in the conversation carried on: statements are made, inquiries arise, topics are discussed, and the child continually learns. "

And includes a one-sentence criticism by Siemens:

I don’t see rhizomes as possessing a similar capacity (to networks) to generate insight into learning, innovation, and complexity... Rhizomes then, are effective for describing the structure and form of knowledge and learning...[h]owever, beyond the value of describing the form of curriculum as decentralized, adaptive, and organic, I’m unsure what rhizomes contribute to knowledge and learning.

Although Cormier drew our attention to it, not all members of Rhizo15 were happy with this entry and tried to design another – but Wikipedia did not publish it. The Wikipedia article also cites Dave Cormier’s own blog (December 13, 2012) , where he defines his interest as:

The rhizome is stem of plant [sic] , like hops, ginger or japanese bamboo, that helps the plant spread and reproduce. It responds and grows according to its environment, not straight upwards like a tree, but in a haphazard networked fashion. As a story for learning, it is messy, unstable and uncertain. It is also, as anyone who has ever had one in the garden will tell you, extremely resilient. As with the rhizome the rhizomatic learning experience is multiple, has no set beginning or end, – “a rhizome creates through the act of experimentation.”’… Our challenge was in learning how to choose, how to deal with the uncertainty of abundance and choice presented by the Internet. In translating this experience to the classroom, I try to see the open web and the connections we create between people and ideas as the curriculum for learning. In a sense, participating in the community is the curriculum.

Other definitions recommended by Cormier himself include one from the Open University Innovation Report (1): 33,  2012, which begin with the botanical definition but moves on to argue that the concept indicates a resistance to organization, with the only restriction provided by the habitat. The term implies interconnectedness and ‘boundless exploration’, and says Cormier claims that the format helps learners develop problem-solving skill for complex domains. The formats create a context for contributions from a learning community and permit a ‘dynamic reshaping’. The community is the curriculum, the habitat. Rhizomatic education offers a ‘community-negotiated curriculum’, combining social and personal learning. A MOOC is a clear example of the rhizome with its open network and peer support. The OU has its own example in its course T151.  The Report also notes that there can be resistance to rhizomatic openness: Cormier reported that his own class rebelled when he deployed the technique. Overall, rhizomatic approaches might be incorporated in a higher education framework.

Dave Cormier has also made several videos here

On a Google document made available to the participants, there is a more expanded definition, attributed, if I have understood the references properly to http://dac-marleen-anne.tumblr.com/post/20898864900/deleuze-1925-1995-and-guattari-1932-1990#notes:

According to 'dac-marlee-anne', the Deleuzian rhizome had 6 main traits: 

[1] Connection: This refers to the linking of different thoughts in the rhizome.  Ideas are connected at  multiple points.  Any point of any one thought can be linked to any other point in a system of thought.  

[2] HeterogeneityNo link among different thoughts must be linked to parts of the same nature.    A piece of art could be linked to a particular social theory, which could then be linked to a political scandal.  The ideas can be linked to each other in any way, not requiring in homogeneity in their fundamental traits.

[3] Multiplicity: The rhizome is not reducible to one or to multiple. Instead, it is a system of lines.  There are not ‘units’ of the rhizome.  It can be conceived of as a linear system of dimensions, of 'directions in motion’.  

[4] A signifying rupture: Parts of rhizome can be ruptured, or broken.  This does have a normative meaning.  A broken element or connection in the rhizome does not mean that that element was 'bad’ or should that a link between ideas should not have existed.  The rhizome continues to exist.  

[5] Cartography: A person enters into the rhizome from a distinct point.  It is not possible to re-enter from the same position many times, or for different people to approach the rhizome from the same position.  Cartography has an intuitive meaning, drawing the understanding the links and parts of the rhizome - creating a map of it.  This allows for a unique conception of the ideas being evaluated, linked, etc, and a formative process that contrasts to tracing. 

[6] Tracing (decalcomania):  Tracing is like tracing a drawing, there is not creation involved.  Tracing the rhizome assumes it static and fails take account of the constantly changing nature of the structure.   Tracing transposes a pre-existing conception of the rhizome and of thought onto elements that do not fit into that framework.  Thus, tracing is opposed the project of conceiving of thought as a rhizomatic scheme. 

As one participant noted, these characteristics take us away from the simple metaphor of a subterranean root for a plant -- although there are still further departures indicated below.

Definitions in Wheeler and Gerver (2015), for example ( NB no page numbers in this ebook) proceed after noting the difficulties with the dense terminology and argument in Deleuze's and Guattari's work. They say that nevertheless the term rhizome has entered the vocabulary of education developers and technologists. Again they note the connection in Cormier’s work between rhizomatic and community learning, and suggest that the approach favours ‘large unbounded personal learning networks that mimic the characteristics of rhizomes’. The approach links ‘Constructivist and Connectivist pedagogies’, when knowledge is seen as negotiated, contextual, and collaborative’.

A participant in Rhizo15 posted a link to a helpful recent publication (Bali et al. , 2015) which explains that connectivist pedagogy is aimed at
developing  'connectivist learning: autonomy, connectedness, diversity and openness' . Bali et al also cite Ito et al on connectivist learning who argue that new forms of learning are needed for a networked age  and subsequent employment which requires 'actively producing, creating, experimenting and desiging' with their associated skills. Connections are driven by personal interests and a shared purpose and are helpful particularly in 'cross-generational learning and connection'. Online networks can easily extend across whole learning communities including schools, homes, neighbourhoods and peer groups.

Siemens ( 2004) is also cited on how connectivism has made earlier theories of learning, especially behaviourism, cognitivism and even constructivism redundant. Constructivism is too focused on individuals, while knowledge is now available in and generated by technical networks, and organizations now learn. Siemens claims technology  is 'altering (rewiring) our brains'. Connectivism include informal education and continual education, so that 'know-where' is as important as 'know how'. The resulting abundance or 'chaos' requires learners to develop recognition patterns in networks.

Bali et al. also mention 'constructionism'  (Donaldson 2014), a pedagogy based on 'information consumerism and remix culture'. Text-based educational materials are eschewed in favour of various artefacts generated by commercially available programs like Prezi or editing and animation software. The main argument is that 'learning happens best when learners construct their own understandings through a process of  constructing things to share with others'.  Constructions must take the form of projects which are personally  meaningful. Dewey, Piaget [seen controversially as a 'constructivist']  and Vygotsky were all important influences but Papert at the MIT Media Lab was also influential. Examples of some really interesting possible projects or 'hacks' are available from the Maker site.  See also David Gauntlett's marvellous site,which includes making things with cardboard and LEGO here.  D Gauntlett has a video explaining the main themes  here. In a way, this is nothing new, of course and thoughts have always been conveyed through art, painting, sculpture, film and so on,and both Deleuze and Guattari have written extensively about traditional and experimental art forms ( see the discussion of Week 6) -- but these are more popular, electronic, participatory and commercial art forms, constructed with different intentions.

There is much to discuss in these definitions of course, but it is already clear that the connection with the discussion of the rhizome in Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) is problematic, and that Cormier and those who have commented on his work have found it necessary to add in various pedagogical theories that are seen as only loosely connected to Deleuze and Guattari, if at all. Connectivist and constructivist pedagogies are introduced as independent elements; Dewey is mentioned only as an additional influence, especially as a support for the term that occurs most frequently in descriptions of Cormier’s work –‘the community as curriculum’.  I shall be arguing later whether these additions might be contested, and citing arguments in D&G that can be found to raise doubts, extend or oppose them.

Turning to actual developments, regardless of theoretical rigour, it is clear that rhizomatic education as it has developed has moved away from Deleuze and Guattari. As Cormier put it in a Facebook post for Rhizo15:

This is the “rhizo 15” community not necessarily the “rhizomatic learning” community. Rhizo 15 is a course that resulted from me being inspired many years ago to describe what I saw happening through the lense (sic) of 1000 plateaus [Deluze and Guattari 2004].. I have added other things from D&G  as well as stuff from all over… The course “Rhizo 15” is designed to attempt to discuss how some of the ideas of D and G impact education without ever referring to them. I am certainly informed by their work… But I feel no loyalty to it. I’m interested in what I can learn from the community.

My response was meant as an inquiry asking for more detail about the influence of D&G: I suggested that 'God knows how anyone could make anything out through the lens of chapter one of ATP [A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari 2004] which is the most dense and self referential of all'

Cormier replied: 'but that’s the magic of it. It (mostly) defies fetishized interpretation. Who’s going to tell me I’m “doing ATP wrong”?’

It might be necessary to conclude this section by expressing my own interest in trying to explicate the connections between rhizomatic education and Deleuze and Guattari, even if Cormier, and some other members of Rhizo 15 were less interested in this project. I tried to suggest in a couple of Facebook posts that there might be some good reasons for thinking again about these connections. I argued, for example, that Deleuze and Guattari were both professional philosophers with a lot of experience, who had read very widely, and thought about some of the issues for decades, and that, despite the formidable difficulties presented by their argument and writing style, that we could all learn something by trying to read their work.

Responses varied, with the major one being a lack of any response at all! One contributor did report that they had become interested in Deleuze and Guattari as a result of an earlier participation in a version of Rhizo 15, and had welcomed some suggestions about how to pursue the philosophical issues. I had suggested both a good commentary by Delanda, and some of my own resources, including my website summaries, and an article I had written on Deleuze and practice (Harris 2013). This was subsequently downloaded by 5 or 6 participants. Cormier’s intervention cited above was another response. Another contributor altogether commented :

Are you suggesting Deleuze was a greater thinker than I will ever be? Hahahshahahaha but no, seriously, with no disrespect, as a post colonial woman I’d feel over studying the thoughts and ideas of any one (or 10) white western men is allowing myself to submit to domination and hegemony – even when those people are actually talking the opposite… But I also get what you mean about her reading someone like Deleuze can expose us to so much more than what we would think on our own. But I also feel that way about my interactions with [other participants in Rhizo15]… And their work is more accessible than Deleuze… But like for me, decalcomania? I don’t feel the need for the term because the concept seems intuitive to me… I could be wrong (: All this to say I know where you’re coming from and I realise you know it’s not where everyone else is coming from and that’s fine (: but I needed to say it.

I shall be pursuing arguments about this sort of response in subsequent sections. For now, it is clear that these responses could also be seen as ways to close off argument and defend territory, a particularly ironic outcome set against the claims of rhizomatic education.

Unmanaged bits of D&G

There are plenty of these, of course. Just taking the legendary Chapter 1 of ATP, on the rhizome. The chapter begins by warning us that we are in for not just an isolated discussion of a simple concept but
a substantial and connected discussion of 'multiplicities, lines, strata and segmentarities, lines of flight and intensities, machinic assemblages and their various types, bodies without organs...the plane of consistency, and in each case the units of measure' (5). It is clear we will have to explore in more depth. The encouraging suggestion in the Translator's Foreword that we can read each chapter on its own and then 'skip' others is deceptive. The accompanying argument that we can take an entirely pragmatic stance to the book - the 'pragmatic' or 'toolbox' approach will be discussed later.


Let's look at some quotes. My own context for these, and an occasional attempt at an explanation, are found in my own notes on Chapter 1 here

The multiple must be made, not by always adding a higher dimension but ...with the number of dimensions one already has available -- always n-1 (the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted). Subtract the unique from the multiplicity to be constructed: write at n-1 dimensions...A system of this kind would be called a rhizome' (7).

A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles (8)

[There can be] an animal rhizome'.  Rhizomes do show 'lines of segmentarity' [concrete, actual lines] which can be stratified and territorialized, but they also have 'lines of deterritorialization', and 'the line of flight is part of the rhizome'.  (10)

Music is another example, capable of overturning its own codes, so 'musical form…is comparable to a weed, a rhizome' (12)

[A rhizome is] a map and not a tracing...'open and connectable in all of its dimensions

Amsterdam is 'a rhizome city' connected to 'a commercial war machine' (17)

[We can see] the unconscious as an acentred system, in other words, as a machinic network of finite automata (a rhizome)' (19)

[There is also a] 'war rhizome', 'guerrilla logic' (19)

'the rhizome...  is a liberation of sexuality not only from reproduction but also from genitality (20)...
it is always by rhizomes that desire moves and produces...by external, productive outgrowths'.

[There is an] American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs' (21)
and the 'rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever receding limits, its shifting and displaced frontiers'

[In the East] 'Buddha's tree itself becomes a rhizome' (22)

[The rhizome] is composed of dimensions or 'directions in motion'.  It has no beginning or end, only 'a middle (milieu) from which it grows and over spills' [I often wonder if translating milieu as middle rather than context is helpful here].  It constructs linear multiplicities with N dimensions.  It has no subject or object.  It moves on a plane of consistency 'from which the One is always subtracted (N-1) (24)

The rhizome 'is an anti genealogy'(24)

'We are writing this book as a rhizome' (24)

[original capitals]

The rhizome has no beginning and end.  It is a matter of alliance rather than filiation.  It proceeds by the conjunction 'and…and…and'...
American literature and some English literature shows this 'rhizomatic direction' (28), following a 'logic of the AND' (27).

While I am here, what about Guattari's own preferred definition (in  both Notes on Anti-Oedipus [420]  and Machinic Unconscious)?:

Arborescent diagrams proceed by successive hierarchies, from a central point, each local elements going back to the central point.  Whereas rhizomatic or trellis systems can drift infinitely, establish transversal connections, without being circumscribed or closed off.  The term "rhizome" has been borrowed from botany where it describes a system of subterranean stems among perennials that emit buds and adventive roots in their lower parts (For example: iris rhizomes).
It is clear that Guattari values transversal connections above all, so this dominates his definition. A drifting trellis system presumably conveys connections between different disciplinary, cultural and linguistic frameworks? Thus in order to replace formal analysis with analytical pragmatics and schizoanalysis, we need to replace a tree with a rhizome or lattice.  Instead of dichotomous choices, as in Chomsky, rhizomes can connect any point to any other point (MU 19).

Again there are more abstract variants ,though, and we move away a long distance from botany. There are both territorialized and machinic rhizomes ( 68), and the latter have
vectors related to 'multipolar, multisubstantial, multidietic coordinates' (69); the life strategies of animals can be explained as a 'living rhizome' (118); similarly 'the notion of [human] freedom as somehow meaning independence from material things... is [also] an option within a rhizome'; secondary symptoms [in psychoanalysis] reveal the workings of the [child's] rhizome as a kind of a 'repressive jouissance', where school repression is somehow connected to mechanisms of faciality [roughly, social control] preventing masturbation, for example (164); schizoanalysis [his preferred option] is a micropolitical practice, guided by 'a gigantic rhizome of molecular revolutions proliferating from a multitude of mutant becomings: becoming - woman, becoming - child, becoming - elderly, becoming - animal, becoming - plant, becoming - cosmos, becoming - invisible'(195)  .

We should also note that rhizomes are not easily managed or pursued and can produce  unintended consequences, their own peculiar 'despotic formations of immanence and channelization'. By contrast, the apparently, limiting root systems can have 'anarchic deformations (22) . This indicates that it is not a matter of finding a comprehensive theoretical distinction between rhizomes and trees, no dualism either ontological or axiological (which would reintroduce a binary), no simple good and bad, but rather arborescence in rhizomes and vice versa. Indeed, 'anexact [sic] expressions are utterly unavoidable' (23). It is also easy to be misled into thinking you are developing or following a rhizome.  We have to be aware that there are not just trees and rhizomes but also a model involving a circle of objects around the unity, connected by single lines, each offering 'biunivocal' forms of communication [sequential monologues],  'the radicle system or fascicular root'(6). I suggested, with little response, that Rhizo15 might really be seen as one of these fascicular roots.

Community Learning

This will become a particularly  important feature of the experience of Rhizo 15 as we will see. Thinking of the links between rhizomatic and community education produces unmanaged complexities.  The definition above in Wikipedia refers to Rorty's view that Deleuze and Guattari can somehow be joined to Dewey, but the participants in Rhizo15 were also aware of the work of Semetsky arguing for the same join (specifically Semetsky 2006).  I have my own reservations about Semetsky's reading, in Harris (2013). It also seems unlikely that such a trenchant critic of conventional thinking and philosophy as Deleuze could be added that easily to Dewey. A common theme in Deleuze is heterogeneity, chance, disjunctive syntheses and the like:
‘a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed differences; a properly differential and original space and time; all of which persist alongside the simplifications of limitation and opposition’ (Deleuze  2004: 61); it might sometimes  be tempting to talk on behalf of a community, operating with a false universality represented by phrases such as ‘”Everyone recognizes that…”, but there are always singularities which are not represented (63); ‘chaos is itself the most positive, just as the divergence is the object of affirmation’ (150), and so on.

It is possible to read the Deweyan or even the Durkheimian notion of a 'organic' community emerging from and allowing for heterogeneous human individuals as partly sharing this overall view, but that would only be one limited possibility. The debate about the rhizome in Chapter 1 of ATP warns against such schemes and says we should think of combinations of single items and collectives in different terms -- assemblages and multiplicities, for example  -- and says that thinking about those involves a deliberate philosophy: 'The multiple must be made' (7)
. Assemblages are not unified by either subjects or objects considered in their usual terms. Indeed,one meaning of the strange definition of the rhizome as involving subtracting from n dimensions is to see it as asking us to ignore the empirically present (the unique, including its claims to be unique) and explore the dimensions that are left that produced it.

By reverting to Deweyan or Durkheimian terminology, chances were missed to explore some of the issues raised in Rhizo15 itself, when discussing the problematic nature of the learning community (see later sections). That debate was conducted in terms of the classic binaries of 'autonomous individual' versus ' conforming community', instead of using Deleuzian terms like assemblage, line of segmentation or flight, de- and reterritorialization, subjectification, signifiance [sic] and the like.  Cormier himself outlined the serviceable concepts 'smooth' and 'striated' space in an early post but did not refer to them subsequently. Other participants did use terms like 'swarm' or 'nomad' in some discussions as we shall see - -but left them undeveloped. It is clear that a facebook post, and even more a tweet, does not leave much room for expansion themselves, of course, requiring some other input like a blog or website. . 

The question for me remains: why use the term rhizome as a description, then switch off its implications? Why stop with (one definition of) that concept in Chapter 1 of ATP despite the arguments that rhizomes are clearly linked with all the other concepts mentioned (and spelled out in later chapters in that book) ?

Alternatively, why not use Deweyan terms throughout and just call the MOOC 'pragmatic [or democratic] community learning'? Or 'connectivist learning'? Or 'constructionist learning'?

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[see links] and

Bali,M., Crawford, M., Jessen, R., Signorelli,P. Zamora, M. (2015) 'What Makes a MOOC Community Endure? Multiple Participant Perspectives from Diverse cMOOCs'. Eventually published in  Education Media International. doi: 10.1080/09523987.2105.1053290.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004) [1987] A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum.
Harris, D. (2013)
'Applying Theory to Practice: Putting Deleuze to Work', in  International Journal of Sociology of Education 2(2): 140--64. http://hipatiapress.com/hpjournals/index.php/rise/article/view/489
Semetsky, I. ( ed.) (2006) Deleuze, Education and Becoming, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers (also available at https://www.sensepublishers.com/media/233-deleuze-education-and-becominga.pdf) [see her chapter 2]
Wheeler, S. and Gerver R. (2015) Learning with 'e's: Educational theory and practice in the digital age. Kindle edition. London: Crown House Publishers.