Google+ bakers and astronauts: Rhizomatic Learning

22 July 2013

Rhizomatic Learning

There is a word that has been popping up in my life over the past few months:  rhizome.



My husband and I moved to a new apartment in February, in a much more secluded place.  Forest, water, meadow - for the first time, we're surrounded by nature rather than concrete.  Moving to a greener place also coincided with my Whatcom County Master Gardener course - and one of our first subjects was weeds.

In one of our weekly classes, we formed small groups, and we were given weeds to identify.  My group was given something that I quickly recognized as a plant that makes up at least one quarter of our lawn.  The more experienced gardeners knew the plant right away:  Creeping Buttercup.  I have fond memories of being on the school playground and holding buttercups underneath my chin and asking friends if the yellow was reflecting off of my chin.  Schoolyard folklore (at least in Connecticut) says that if a buttercup is reflected in your skin, you like butter.  I do like butter - but some horror stories from the other Master Gardeners made me think less highly of buttercups.

"They spread through their roots, so they are impossible to control and are unpredictable!" - that was the main message.  Unlike most plants, which make seeds at some point in their life cycle, buttercups spread underground, shoot up new stalks, stems, leaves, and (eventually) flowers.  This is explains how there is never just one.  Because of these rhizomatic root systems, I abandoned one potential garden plot:  the web of underground plant parts was just too much to handle.

"Rhizome" resurfaced for me in the #CLMOOC.  It seems natural that rhizomes could be a metaphor for connected learning.  Most educational systems expect that learning is linear, but the idea of rhizomes, however messy they may be, and whatever tangents they may bring, seems closer to the way we function on a daily basis.  Individually and in groups, we can be impatient to find the next connection.  On the other hand, they can come at unexpected times.

Thinking of rhizomes in a philosophical way helps make the connection:

Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and cupture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with  no specific origin or genesis, for a 'rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo' (Deleuze and Guattari, p. 25).  The planar movement of the rhizome...[favors] a nomadic system of growth and propogation." {via}
Learning can, or course, be chronological, and planned learning is often expected to be.  Textbooks are arranged in chapters, to be taught and learned in sequential order.  Yet I can't think of any way in which my out-of-school learning has been linear.

When I reflect on my learning and growth outside of being a student, sequential and orderly does not come to mind.  There are fits and starts, highs and lows, and brick walls.  There are memories that stick out as momentous, but at the time, I probably thought I was just browsing the internet or having a cup of coffee with a colleague.  There are times when I thought I was making a discovery, but in hindsight, I did not follow through with the project.  I imagine that if I look back at the five year history of this blog, I would find more than a few examples.

The idea of quiet links and connections with the occasional pop-up describes the way I believe that I learn and work best.  I wait for ideas to come to me - I know I cannot force them.  I don't want to overuse the word "inspired", but it is something I need to be to get a clear idea of how to start a discussion about Charlotte's Web, or to decide how to embed more scientific inquiry in the classroom.  Forced connections looks like googling "preschool science"; natural connections means observing and documenting where science is already happening, and then building upon that.

 In botany, the rhizome is like an underground stem, linking the part we want (the flower, the potato).  Anyone who has dug up potatoes or wonders why they have so many daffodils understands the power of rhizomes in nature.


Some rhizomatic connections are quieter than others: some erupt in a flurry of activity, while others barely crack the surface.  We have so many experiences every day, and we have to accept that our past experiences shape the way that we approach the new moments.  

Can I create my own rhizomatic mind map connecting all of my past experiences?   Or, perhaps, I can start one today, and sit down at the end of each day and draw in lines and circles based on what I think was important?  I doubt it is possible, at least for me.  Part of the way the rhizomes work is that we cannot see them, and the connections surprise us.  We don't always notice that we are in the middle of a major, life shifting moment.  We can be very inspired, but those circles grow larger without us noticing, and the rhizomes are like fishing line, visible only in certain light.

In a webinar about learning pathways on ConnectedLearning.tv, this concept all began to make sense.  Students do not only learn in the classroom: they are absorbing information about their culture and taking in messages constantly, across contexts.  A child who is interested in Pokemon at home does not become a child without that interest in the classroom - we might not support and promote that interest in the classroom, but it is not gone.  A student might go home each night and pray with their family:  that is a part of that student's culture.  Lessons learned on the bus on the way home influence the classroom the next day, and vice versa.  The classroom is not a vacuum, just as our jobs, homes, and families do not exist in a vacuum.  During the learning pathways webinar, Kris D. GutiĆ©rrez shared:

"...we want to think about multiple pathways, not just one.  Our youth live polycultural lives; they're polylingual.  So, we want to think about our practices as really exemplifying that polycultural, polylingual, polymodal kind of way of life." {via}
 We're constantly being influenced by our environment, whether we choose it or not.  We take in information, often information that we seek out, and we carry that information with us as we encounter new ideas, places, and people.  Culture can be incredibly personal.

My exploration of connected learning this summer has introduced me to new tools, yes - and I did sign up to learn more about tools that I might bring to the table in elementary school.  Not only have I learned about "equitable, social, and participatory learning", the collaboration has allowed me to walk the talk.  It doesn't mean my classroom being set up just so, or using a specific math curriculum, or having iPads.  It seems more of a state of mind.  Ten years into my teaching career, I am beginning to understand that I don't follow any specific formula for teaching and learning, and I don't fit into a box.  And thinking about my teaching, learning, writing, sharing, and connecting - I realize I don't want to fit into a specific box.  And I don't want my students to, either.  I feel good about not knowing what's under the surface; not knowing exactly what will pop up next.  There are definitely pathways of learning that are hard to document and hard to define - but that is what makes teaching and learning more interesting.

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