The Perils of Rhizomatic Learning

In this post I am trying to make sense of what (little) I think I know about rhizomatic thinking and fitting it in some sort of context with other post-structuralist thinking in my journey to rhizomatic learning whilst engaged in the #rhizo14 MOOC. Comments and corrections would be most welcome.


Post-structuralist Thinking

Post-structuralism can be seen as a response to structuralism (a means of understanding human culture by its structures). Rhizomatic thinking is seen as post-structuralist as is the work of Derrida, Baudrillard, Butler, Latour and Foucault. In rhizomatic thinking the rhizome is posed as an alternative to arboresent (hierarchical) thinking.

DeLeuze and Guattari shared their thinking within an academic community that was steeped in 19th and 20th century social and political theories.  Many theorists questioned structural and hierarchical explanation of social and societal relations.  Rhizomatic thinking has been applied to many aspects of political and social life since the latter part of the 20th Century.

As digital and networked technologies proliferated and presented challenges for people trying to use and make sense of them, post-structuralist theories were used widely in scholarly work and empirical research.  Abandoning  hierarchical structures fitted well with the network and connectivity exhibited by the Internet.

More formality was shed when the digital reached into our daily lives with the uniquity of networked computing and the rise of the ‘social’: media, learning, commerce, culture, politics.

For example an incomplete snapshot of the theories used in learning technology can be found in this Special Issue

They include Actor-Network Theory, Social Construction of Technology and  Critical Social Theory.

I have not read enough to speak about any commonality in political leanings among the major writers in rhizomatic thinking but I would assume that all post-structuralists have been influenced by Marx even as they turn away from his structural concepts.

“post-structuralism was constituted by an engagement with Marx; a critical engagement, but an engagement nonetheless ”

Rhizomatic  thinking in this MOOC

Where does all that leave us in this MOOC?

Speaking for myself, I am trying to find out about rhizomatic learning whilst I am still learning about the basics of rhizomatic thinking.

One concept that I think of as ‘short-cutting’ and relates to the multiple entry points and the connection of any point on the rhizome to any other.  From what I can grasp the lack of need to go up and down a hierarchy enables short-cutting but there is still a lot more for me to work on as this seems potentially problematic to me, suggesting I need a better context.

Two examples that I have thought of are:

  1. Cheating as short-cutting.  Short-cutting (not bound by a hierarchy or rules) that leads to more valuable or significant learning (obviously that’s open to interpretation) is rhizomatic whereas shortcutting that is getting someone else to write a piece of assessment for you is only rhizomatic from the point of view of paper qualifications.
  2. Scholarly reading – today I have sent to Amazon for 2 books, And the reader to accompany it    If I only read the reader (that might be a useful ploy for someone with limited time before an exam on Rhizomatic Thinking) rather than use it to get more from my reading of a Thousand Plateaus, then that shortcut will not improve the sense I make of Rhizomatic Thinking.

I include the following principles (text cut and paste from Wikipedia) that I am told that DeLeuze and Guattari used to outline the concept of the rhizome

1 and 2: Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be

3. Principle of multiplicity: only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, “multiplicity” that it ceases to have any relation to the One

4. Principle of asignifying rupture: a rhizome may be broken, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines

5 and 6: Principle of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model; it is a “map and not a tracing”

My gift offering of a shortcut is that I have annotated this with relevant links to Keith Hamon’s blog , an excellent source.


I leave you with twin perils that might obscure rhizomatic thinking on this MOOC:

  • Trying to learn about rhizomatic learning via a MOOC supported by semi-discrete services and technologies (P2PU, Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Google+, etc.) all of which have elements of structure and barriers to  as well as enablers of connection
  • Falling into the tendency to think about rhizomatic learning ONLY within formal educational contexts

My fallback position is always to think about the impact of the Internet on learning to knit – but you will have to find your own cherished example to help you.

edited to add word only in second ‘peril’

19 thoughts on “The Perils of Rhizomatic Learning”

  1. Hi Frances – interesting post and I look forward to more once your books arrive!

    Your reference to hierarchy reminded me of Etienne Wenger’s work on the relationship between vertical and horizontal accountability in systems. He has written that there is a need for ‘transversality’ to negotiate between vertical and horizontal accountabilities. I blogged about it here –

    I wonder if this has implications for ‘power’ in rhizomatic systems.


  2. Hi Frances

    Love your post, got me thinking. As I said somewhere yesterday I think that the pedagogical is always political, but I hadn’t realised that I thought that until recently.

    I’d also recommend this to help with D&G, which is not an easy book to read (but is well worth it, imo).

    No idea if Deleuze had read Marx, but he probably had. He doesn’t have a great deal of respect for other philosophers, by the way, but he does list 5 “orphan” thinkers: Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson who are connected by a: “secret link constituted by the critique of negativity, the cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the exteriority of forces and relations, the denunciation of power.” There’s power again, it’s always lurking!

    You’re one of the few people that I have noticed in #rhizo14 who talks about rhizomatic thinking as well as rhizomatic learning. D&G talk about the former and not the latter, I think, and I think there’s a huge difference between the two which I haven’t fully articulated to myself yet.

    I share your tendency to think of all of this within the context of formal learning, and to think that undergraduates need a lot more scaffolding than rhizomatic learning as I’m experiencing it provides. I’m also not a post structuralist about truth, so there’s that tension for me as well.



  3. Thanks Jenny – I have a post in preparation about power so will look at what you have said before I complete it.
    Thanks Sarah for the dictionary – will definitely be using that. Actually I was trying to make a plea for less of an emphasis on formal learning as I fear it may be overly influencing our understanding.

  4. In regards to your identified perils, I enjoy the rhizomatic way of entering and adding to conversations online, of picking and choosing where to grow and go. It is a bit bewildering, and from a traditional way of thinking about learning, one may get the feeling that s/he is missing out or not doing it “right.”

    My experiences of trying to think and act rhizomatically while I run an alternative learning environment within a formal high school with traditional curriculum expectations, is not easy. I think Dave shared this link about learning, which fits well with the learners I’ve been working with.

  5. Thanks Barry – I too am enjoying the rhizomatic nature of our interactions on this MOOC. I am not too worried about doing it right but I am interested in the value of the time I spend on reading around scholarly texts, reading and responding on FB, Twitter and blog posts.
    I wonder if you think that an emphasis on formal learning settings is skewing our exploration of rhizomatic thinking about learning.

  6. Great post – thanks. I wonder if we were ordering the reading text at the same moment 🙂 I, too, have been a bit surprised at the focus on how rhizomatic learning fits into more traditional learning structures – and even a few mentions of scaffolded learning here and there, which seems in opposition even (arborescent), but has become so embedded in educational approaches that people often use it without knowing the lineage of the idea or questioning it. But I am endlessly amazed at our culture’s dualistic acceptance of an education system that is often appalling while Sir Kenneth Robinson’s TED talk on alternatives is the most watched video on their listings. One of the seminal texts for me in my last degree, by the way, was Derek Briton’s The Modern Practice of Adult Education: A Postmodern Critique – very much about, as someone said to me today in a different context, hopping to get things done without stopping to think about why one is doing them, or where power is flowing from in places which are increasingly commodified. Lovely book. Wonderfully difficult 🙂 lol

  7. Nice, thoughtful post Frances!
    We’ve been discussing Rhizomatic Learning in Everything Unplugged and the WikiQuals project. In Eveything Unplugged we said that it was “to sit and discuss until we agree and then get up and disagree again” The point being that our (rhizomatic?) thinking had changed in the process. More on Everything Unplugged
    In WIkiQuals, a self-accredited learning project, we have been look ing at how Affinity Partners can replace supervisors and how Sqolars choose which networks they participate it – we call it “designing for discontinuities”

  8. Hi Frances!

    I recognize in myself the tendency to “think about rhizomatic learning within formal educational contexts”. Or rather, to always make this connection… mostly because I am always trying to find a way out of that context: like weed growing between cracks in asphalt.

    Good that you point this out. : )

  9. @Aaron – my books arrive tomorrow. I fear that the hyoed MOOCs may pave the way for further arborescence. Even on this MOOC the cheating as learning discussed seemed to assumed the ‘right answer’ approach as pervasive. I am doing a furniture restoration/ french polishing course at present and when I asked the teacher if she thought I had done enough sanding on the legs of a table, she shrugged and said “It’s your table, you will live with it, you decide” – I loved that.
    @Fred checked out the wikiquals site – looks very interesting – it must be difficult to engage in such radical change and evaluate it at the same time.
    Thanks @jollyroger but who are you elsewhere?

  10. Frances, I really like your idea of short-cutting. For me, it sheds some light on Dave’s play with cheating: short-cutting is a clear violation of the rules in any hierarchical structure. For instance, if I want to work with a colleague in the next department, then I must go up the hierarchy, across departmental boundaries, and then down the other side for permission.

    A rhizome, of course, doesn’t work that way: any point can and must connect to any other point, so I just walk across the hall to sit with my colleague in the next department. Such short-cutting is, of course, common in hierarchical organizations and often works well, but it can also cause real problems. It would never be a problem in a rhizomatic organization. I don’t need Dave’s permission to discuss with you, for instance.

    And this touches on your concerns about mixing rhizomatic methods in formal educational institutions. We often take these rhizomatic short-cuts to expedite work, but they are always against the grain, and the organization may ignore the short-cuts, especially if they work, but they will quickly censure any short-cut that challenges their authority or doesn’t produce good results.

  11. @Keith Thanks for that comment. I am sorry for not making myself clear but I have not intended to suggest that I have concerns about mixing rhizomatic methods in formal education (in fact I think that when I worked in education I was often trying to do that without knowing that it could be described as rhizomatic). What I meant (and will now edit post to clarify) is that if our context for learning is restricted to formal then then I wonder what impact that will have on our exploration of the ideas in rhizomatic learning.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Frances, and I think I need to clarify. I was trying to address the issue of learning about the rhizome in a formal context. I am interpreting formal to mean hierarchical, or arboreal to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, and I think that while the rhizome has little problem with including the hierarchical, mostly ignoring it and flowing around it, the hierarchical definitely has issues with the rhizomatic. There is plenty of room in a rhizome for a hierarchy, there is little room in a hierarchy for a rhizome. I think it is much easier to explore hierarchical structures from the view of the rhizome than to explore rhizomatic structures from the view of the hierarchy. The hierarchy has issues with most everyone of the six features of the rhizome that you listed in your post.

      1. As you can see I have been thinking about your reply for some days and I think we have some points of connection. If in #rhizo14 we are thinking about the hierarchy that is formal education, we can use rhizomatic thinking to learn more about such hierarchies and how they might be different. If,as you say ” there is little room in a hierarchy for a rhizome” that seems quite bleak for many people here who are writing quite movingly about the things they are doing or trying to do in classrooms, online spaces, etc. that still have to operate within hierarchical institutions.
        My gut feeling is we can connect our experiences within the formal to our past, previous and future experiences of informal learning (gamers, knitters on ravelry, mums on mumsnet) there is a richer potential of rhizomatic learning.
        I think I need to blog this to tease it out a bit more clearly.

  12. Hi Frances, this post has been on my reading list ever since you wrote it, but I only had a chance to read it now. Your shortcuts are really helpful,thanks! And the connection to poststructuralist thinking (which I am a second-hand fan of) clicked with me (I don’t always make these kinds of connections on my own).
    RE: your point about formal education, i think rhizomatic leanring in less formal contexts is relatively easy to apply in the sense there is less structure and rigidity and the teacher/trainer probably has more room to apply rhizomatic approaches (whether s/he manages to create community and provide conditions for rhizome to grow or survive is a different matter, and how to do it as well).
    I was struck recently when a colleague at work told me that rhizomes are the metaphor of social constructivism. I never read the originao Vygotsky, etc., but had never heard that before. I have not explored it yet, nor have I delved deeply enough into understanding how rhizo learning differs fundamentally with social constructivism , but for that, I think i will start with Dave”s book (emphasis on learning, not thinking, as in D&G). But you all already know that 😉

    1. Some interesting points on learning/thinking and formal/informal contexts in this discussion, so thanks for the post Frances 🙂
      One aspect I have been thinking about recently is “scale” Tech evangelists want solutions to “scale” and it is the litmus test of new tech projects. It is why xMOOCs are everywhere as they are Tech-ENABLED Learning at scale, but that scale is only about content-delivery.
      Learning does not scale because it is what a learner takes away from an educational (or other) context. The learner owns their learning so in a way all learning is rhizomatic. Testing just checks what of that learning overlaps with the structures of formal learning relative to a published course, curriculum, syllabus.
      We spend so long in educational systems we no longer understand that we determine what it is we have learnt, not least because we are mostly terrified of the educational systems of power and end up believing what they tell us.
      When I switched from teaching in the USA to the UK I eventually developed a method of teaching I called brokering which essentially allowed learners to be as rhizomatic (independent) as their interests drive them to be, whilst still being capable of being recognised as learning by the education system. An interview with me about that here;

  13. Lovely comment Maha – it’s interesting that you say rhizomatic learning in less formal settings is easy to apply – but I would say what does that have to tell us about rhizomatic learning in general? Also isn’t rhizomatic learning more powerful if it is acknowledged and adopted by the learner ? Now that’s a challenge!
    Lastly, Vygotsky is a good source to delve good luck

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