Rhizomatic learning as an open pedagogy


This post responds to questions posed after viewing a video by Dave Cormier entitled ‘Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education

Rhimzomatic learning is offered as pedagogy for open education, where using the biological metaphor of a rhizome, learning happens in the way the roots and shoots of a rhizome grow and expand according to need, curtailed only by the surrounding habitat (context). Learners in a rhizomatic system construct the curriculum in response to whatever the community needs to learn; this can change and be adapted as the community negotiates the curriculum. Learning happens through the formation of informal and formal social networks and through the construction of individual personal learning networks. Rhizomatic learning can help the development of problem solving skills in complex domains (Cormier, 2012).


I certainly recognised rhizomatic behaviour in workplaces I have been in where a problem needed to be solved. As a formal learning strategy, I can see it working in cases where there are no clear or obvious answers and for when people or a community need to come together to solve a problem. It may also be a deliberate strategy to develop skills in critical thinking or to create discomfort.

The question of whether I could imagine implementing rhizomatic learning got me thinking about whether or how it is possible to implement it. I suppose not having a curriculum and needing one would/could start rhizomatic learning. Setting an open ended problem might stimulate a community to get going, but the logic of rhizomatic learning is that it can’t be predicted. This has implications for how it can be incorporated into a formal course if learners need feedback, support and assessment.

I find it easier to see rhizomatic learning happening almost accidentally or in serendipitous circumstances, possibly in response to something authentic. While I was reading reading about rhizomatic learning, the terrible tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings was unfolding. The online reaction to the Boston bombings saw ‘citizen CSIs’ taking up the mantle of law enforcement to try and identify the perpetrators from the photographs uploaded by people who were present, behaviour which on the surface seem like a rhizomatic response to the question – who was resposible for the Boston bombings? The frenzy of activity appears rhizomatic – a community on social media uploaded and started analysing photographs, others started to scan police radios while others coordinated supplies and accommodation for stranded Bostonians, while groups formed and broke away as the story unfolded. While this wasn’t a learning event, it was a response to a need or to solve the problem – to identify individuals who might have been involved, using the tools, evidence and skills available in the community. In the course of this, many mistakes were made, innocent people were temporarily considered suspects and it is possible that in some cases, the activities of these citizen detectives might have hindered the investigation as described in this article. (In fact, the two suspects were identified via traditional police work and a physical witness, not through online volunteers).

While the post Boston bombings activities on social media are not organised learning, the activities of a networked community in pursuit of a goal indicates some possible pitfalls that might affect rhizomatic learning. Cormier in the video says that some rhizomes can be incredibly annoying, and taking the metaphor further it is possible that some rhizomatic behaviour might strangle other types of growth, while leading to frustrations, dead-ends and mistakes.

Rhizomatic learning and connectivism

Rhizomatic learning as a network theory aligns with connectivism in that learning happens through the construction of the network and the connections that form are where the learning resides.

However, there appear to be some differences:

First, rhizomatic learning appears to be more individual based. Cormier talks about cultivating nomads as learners who construct their personal learning networks, which is a different emphasis from the learning being the network.

Second, rhizomatic learning feels more messy, more organic and less like the computer networks of connectivism, which use the language of nodes, non-human devices and a neater network topology.

Finally, rhizomatic learning is limited by its environment or habitat, while connectivism seems to be more like a growing network of interconnections and nodes. In rhizomatic learning nodes might break off and form new nodes so it’s not necessarily the case that there is one network. This also supports the rhizomatic learning approach of a dynamically changing curriculum.

The focus in rhizomatic learning on embracing uncertainty is certainly attractive as it fits into a 21st century discourse about rates of change, ill-defined problems and the need for learning approaches that are more learner owned both for what is learned as well as how. As with connectivism, I am still unsure that it is possible to make people behave in rhizomatic ways; research on MOOC participant behaviour suggests that many learners find this uncomfortable due to notions of what learning should be like (Kop, 2011). Taking the analogy at face value, rhizome growth is unpredictable, can be harmful as well as beneficial and is a response to existing environmental conditions. Any learning design would need to understand the dynamics of the context and culture in order to promote rhizomatic learning. Yet, as people’s online behaviour (as seen in the Boston bombings aftermath) exhibits increasingly networked behaviors amplified by social media, perhaps rhizomatic approaches to learning will become more common.


Cormier, D. (2012) Embracing Uncertainty – Rhizomatic Learning in Formal Education YouTube video, added by Dave Cormier [online]. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJIWyiLyBpQ

Kop, R. (2011) ‘The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: learning experiences during a massive open online course’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 12, no. 3 [online], http://www.irrodl.org/ index.php/ irrodl/ article/ view/ 882 

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