Skip to main content

Rhizomatic learning

Sector Snapshot Getting Started Next Steps Talk and Share

What is rhizomatic learning?
Rhizomatic learning uses the botanical metaphor of the rhizome to describe the complex and often messy nature of learning.

Where did rhizomatic learning come from? 
The concept of rhizomatic learning is partially informed by the work of post-structuralist French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus introduced rhizomatic thinking as a new way of making sense of knowledge and contrasted this with arbolic thinking which they argue has a tree-like hierarchical structure inflexible linear pathways and encourages binary thinking. Deleuze and Guattari used the metaphor of the rhizome which sends out roots in multiple directions continuously spreading and self-replicating in a 'nomadic' style to reconceptualise sense-making. As a theory which implicitly questions established power structures and social organisation it has existed on the fringe of academic discourse and used largely in research to suggest alternative perspectives across a range of fields from geophilosophy to healthcare education (Gough 2005; Holmes and Gastaldo 2004).

The development of digital technologies and web 2.0 participatory culture has provided opportunity for experimentation with new models of education across distributed communities of learners. Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada has applied the principles of rhizomatic thinking in an experimental approach which disrupts traditional learning methodologies. Cormier’s rhizomatic MOOCs are a space to experiment with unstructured complex learning community building and social interaction.

How does rhizomatic learning work? 
Rhizomatic learning recognises that learning is a complex process of sense-making to which each learner brings their own context and has their own needs. It overturns conventional notions of instructional pedagogy by positing that “the community is the curriculum”; that learning is not designed around content but is instead a social process in which we learn with and from each other (Cormier 2010). In rhizomatic learning there is little structure to guide community learning learners negotiate the curriculum create and share artifacts (there is no pre-packaged content) harness personal learning networks make creative connections across traditional boundaries determine their own goals or “learning subjectives” and are not measured or graded in any traditional sense.

In short rhizomatic learning is messy unbounded and it doesn’t sit comfortably within current structures of formal education. It poses a fundamental challenge to traditional modes of thinking by re-imagining the role of the teacher removing conventional measurement frameworks and encouraging participants to adopt a mindset of unrestricted and creative inquiry.

In the Youtube video Cormier talks about embracing uncertainty in the 21st century and how rhizomatic thinking can provide learners with the competencies to thrive in uncertain times.

Sector Snapshot

Where is rhizomatic learning currently being used and how?
Rhizomatic learning is an experimental pedagogy but there are some emergent examples of its use within education. In higher education the rhizome is being used as a conceptual lens through which to analyse learning spaces research cultures and academic identity (Guerin 2013; Leander and Rowe 2006). It is often presented as a critical pedagogy as an opportunity to drive change or to provide a new perspective on a challenge or problem.

There are few examples of purposeful practitioner engagement with this approach in the classroom but elements of rhizomatic learning can be found within connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) where groups of learners are crossing the traditional boundaries of a structured curriculum to spontaneously form off-shoots to the mainstream experience.

Within the last few years Cormier has implemented an experimental rhizomatic learning course which purposively challenges conventional hierarchical models of education and linear learning design. This learning experience which occurred over a number of weeks in both 2014 and 2015 sets out to encourage self-organised and self-directed learning creative thinking openness and interaction both by exploring the nature of rhizomatic learning and experimenting with the methodology. Pushing the boundaries of learning this cMOOC experience was loosely structured and designed around a set of thought-provoking questions (e.g. What are learning subjectives? How do we teach rhizomatically? Is the rhizome a pernicious species?) which evolved with the participant community (who co-created their own curriculum) and across a range of digital spaces (e.g. Google+ P2PU Facebook Twitter and participant blogs).

This experience reconceptualised the ‘c’ in cMOOC pushing it from its connectivist roots into complexity and sometimes chaos. Nascent research suggests a spectrum of participant experience. Many revelled in the loose structure and experimental nature of the course finding it to be transformational. Others found it isolating the learning environment too disjointed and felt that the lack of facilitator mediation resulted in a pernicious discourse (Mackness & Bell 2015). This raises issues around the ethics of pedagogical experimentation and the implications created by the absence of a teacher/mediator. The nature of social interaction within online spaces - establishing trust social dynamics personality and learning preferences - is the subject of current research into MOOCs and presents some challenging questions for the rhizomatic approach (Yousef et al. 2014).

What are the potential benefits of rhizomatic learning?
It is useful to think of innovative learning as a spectrum with rhizomatic learning at the experimental end. Within this rhizomatic learning has its own meta-spectrum . At the extreme end it is a most uncomfortable bedfellow with both formal education and informal social learning whose boundaries it pushes almost to breaking point. At the other end it suggests some interesting perspectives and new techniques which might be tested and adopted to complement existing practice.

The NMC Horizon Report For Higher Education identifies ‘Teaching Complex Thinking’ as a “difficult challenge” over the long term (over five years) and notes that new and innovative models of education will be required to foster critical 21st century skills. (NMC Horizon Report 2015). New pedagogical approaches such as rhizomatic learning provide students with the skills and competencies to design and participate in complicated learning spaces which mirror the complexity of the real world.

Getting Started

How do I get started with rhizomatic learning?
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework is a sense-making framework which analyses the context we inhabit (Simple Complicated Complex Chaotic) and provides a scaffold for making decisions within this. Think about how you might use the Cynefin Framework within the context of learning as a decision making tool for pedagogical approaches. For instance a rhizomatic learning approach might best be used where the context is complex and where other approaches do not provide the versatility or deep learning required.

Dip your toes into the rhizomatic learning pool by signing up to a cMOOC which has a loose structure and opportunity for an organic learning ecosystem to evolve. From the perspective of a learner you can evaluate rhizomatic pedagogical techniques that might work in your classroom. 

What should I expect if I try this approach?
The thought piece from Tanya Sasser (University of Jacksonville Florida)  examines the advantages of using a rhizomatic approach for teaching creative writing. She urges fellow practitioners to “abandon trite writing prompts and intrusive scaffolding. Opt instead for autonomy experimentation discovery originality connectivity organicity relevancy”. (Hybrid Pedagogy 2012)

Some students will thrive in conditions that allow them to be creative and to drive their own learning others will find the approach demotivating and disorientating. Preparing students for a shift towards self-directed learning by providing differentiated support is crucial. Teaching (or facilitating) with a rhizomatic mindset requires a significant leap from the traditional instructional paradigm an acknowledgement that leadership becomes distributed more equally between the community of learners and this consequently requires the development of a new set of competencies. Some institutions and disciplines will lend themselves to this experimental pedagogy more easily than others.

Next Steps

Where can I learn more about rhizomatic learning?
Listen to and join the RL conversation by following these hashtags and Twitter handles:




What HEA resources should I take a look at?
The HEAtoZ glossary contains an overview and further links.

Further examples can be found using "rhizomatic learning" as a combined search term in the Knowledge HUB.

How else can the HEA support my professional development?
The HEA provides support for disciplines and common themes where rhizomatic learning is involved. You may find these under Employability Assessment Flexible learning etc.

Investigate the Frameworks for developing your practices policies processes and partnerships. See

Attend an appropriate HEA event to share your mLearning teaching experiences with others.

The UKPSF offers opportunities to capture your teaching innovations within your practice at many levels from Fellowship to Principal Fellowship. 

Talk and Share

#rhizo14 #rhizo15 @davecormier

The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.