2017 Press Releases

Q & A: Are you a rhizomatic learner?

24 Jan 2017
Dr Fiachra Long, School of Education Image: Provision

The rhizomatic learner doesn’t like trees. This is because a rhizome is a root system, a bit like Japanese knotweed or like the world wide web, certainly not like a tree

Tress are linear structures if measured from the bottom to the top, they start with roots, extend up through the trunk and extend further into branches.

We think of knowledge like a tree. We think of it as a field or a domain rooted somewhere. We like to get at the root of a problem. Sometimes we are urging root and branch reform. We ask people to be grounded and we admire them when they branch out into some specialized areas of study. We love organizing knowledge by using the metaphor of a tree.

Q But surely that is the way learning is. We begin at the beginning and then move through intermediate steps until we reach the desired outcome. Indeed the NCCA in its documents on Key Skills of Junior Cycle even presents problems as a tree. Problem-based learning actually enables students to explore the causes (roots), effects (trunk or branches) and consequences of a proposed solution (branches or fruit on the branches).

Problem Tree (as based on the NCCA document):

“A problem tree helps students to explore the causes, effects and possible solutions of an issue. Each group draws a fruit tree in outline on a large sheet of paper. They begin by labelling the trunk with the chosen question or problem. They use their new knowledge about the issue to label the roots with the causes of the problem, then they write the effects of the problem on the branches and finally they can add the fruit as possible solutions to the problem.”

Q So what is wrong with this? It seems perfectly reasonable and indeed a beautiful way of looking at problem-solving.

A  Yes of course but something has happened to knowledge in this digital age, has it not? There is a web of knowledge, not a tree. Webs are flat and circular with many threads and gaps. Kids have never had more access to knowledge in this format. We are all literally surfing through it on a regular basis but our pattern of inquiry no longer resembles a tree. Trees are passé.


Q Okay well that should be good yes? After all, the more access, the more knowledge and the more knowledge, the less ignorance, right?

A Well not quite. Knowledge today presents itself in byte sized chunks with major gaps in between. The gaps signal not only gaps in information but distractions, jumps, sideway moves, entertainments, invitations to visit social media pages etc. Kids who surf the internet can be so totally distracted that they expect all knowledge to be presented in this way. Otherwise it is just boring.


Q Okay but surely teachers are able to help them with that. Teachers can show pupils what to read, how to interpret what they see, how to link items together and form a total picture. That is their job, isn’t it?

A Yes that is their job but they are up against it because what they are trying to do is translate a jumpy and jerky kind of surfing knowledge into a more linear form with beginning,  middle and end. They are trying to turn a circular web into a linear tree. Web-learners are not used to starting at the beginning.

However, anyone working in specialized scientific research today has moved through the discipline and has a solid foundation in the discipline. Think though how this came about. Think about how the information was presented when the researcher set out to learn the discipline. Is this likely to be true of web-based learners? Imagine the new learner today with access to YouTube  explanations and online courses that carry them away towards their interest but perhaps away from some necessary things that  might seem boring at first but are vital to understanding what a discipline is about.

Rhizomatic learners can start anywhere and end anywhere and you never know what they know or don't know about anything. They can be surprisingly precocious in what they know but they can also be surprisingly ignorant of the basics.


Q But surely this will all blend out in the end.

A Well yes you would hope so. You would hope that gapped knowledge would be filled in but this does not always happen. We cannot assume any appetite for systemic control which could be taken for granted using the old tree-like structure. Besides there have been some mistakes. A comparable example comes from the manufacture of  Airbus in the 2000s. In the development of Airbus, the electrical cables made in one factory didn’t match the ducts manufactured in another factory due to Toulouse and Hamburg not using compatible software. The result was a delay of many months and an embarrassing  cost of around €5 billion

Rhizomes have the potential to encourage mistakes like this. They have a peculiar effect on human memory and connectivity. In the rhizome, if part of the root dies or is cut off, the root system simply takes off in another direction and continues to live. No element is indispensable or permanent and hence, for this reason, commitment to any one element seems irrational. If any web page dies, another immediately fills its place. Knowledge that is easily replaced poses a problem when you are trying to remember something. Why make the effort when the subject matter is immediately replaceable or when the neighbours don't have to do it? Why remember your friends number, when it is available at a swipe of the finger?


Q But surely this is an improvement. We don’t have to waste valuable brain cells remembering numbers and addresses. That leaves us free to learn more interesting things.

A True enough. But then we build our identity around things we remember. We construct the narrative of our lives by means of remembering

As if to illustrate this point, school subjects at junior cycle level are now in something of a flux. Some subject areas are disappearing and local fragmentation is becoming a feature of the junior cycle. There is no guarantee anymore that any child of the Irish Republic emerging from school will know anything about his or her own history, language, art or music. individual schools are being pushed to have a lot of discretion and the DES would prefer that they took more responsibility away from the State Examination Commission. There are some major union problems about these changes. The rhizome has now entered the structure of curriculum planning.

Traditionally school knowledge is based on curriculum. Subject areas have syllabi and guidelines. You have to enter at a certain place and there are markers along the way. It’s like a line that extends outward marked by increasing competence. Surfing the web, on the other hand is more associated with fun. You can enter it anywhere and leave at any time. You can remove a part of it and there are plenty more to take its place. You can add information, put up pictures, YouTubes, papers, drawings, whatever you like or take them down again. There seems no limit to what can be added.

One type of knowledge is based on a line of progress that can be measured and another type of knowledge is more flexible but less reliable.

The problem is that maybe what went on at home when people surfed the internet is now happening in schools too. Where schools have adopted rhizomatic processes of inquiry and problem-based research, surfing has become the norm. The knowledge picked up via internet research is now as important or more important than what is learned in more traditional lessons. This leads to generalized borrowing of ideas, mindful of Mark Twain’s warning that there are no original ideas anyway, and the norms generated by social media invitations to like and dislike lead everyone to follow trending thoughts and narratives. Traditional school subjects can then easily be replaced by less conventional but more trendy topics. This is, after all, a principle of rhizomatic knowledge, the fact that learning occurs in jumps and starts, that there is no core or periphery just a generalized rhizome.

A general tolerance for gapped knowledge leads to what one researcher describes as generalized stuttering. We stutter from fact to fact, not sure what possible narrative might link them together. We google our “how to do” and “what is” questions and jump from one thing to another. Being adept at intellectual trapeze artistry, we don't have time for speculation.

Indeed our knowledge could even be as gapped as a Donald Trump speech. Perhaps this is the way we best respond to knowledge today: short, byte sized, disconnected, emotive. And this is what we have decided is the most optimal, the most modern, the most appealing form of knowledge for “real people”. The Guardian journalist, Mark Thompson, has described this speech style as twitterlike (Observer, September 27.08.16).


Start anywhere, break off anywhere

You don't need to remember your tracks

You don't have to commit to any item of knowledge even when you have it because all is dispensible

You prefer short gapped “facts” over narrative

The total picture of anything is unattainable or in other words no disciplinary boundaries are to be expected

Of course the invention of “short courses” in our schools has become a way of coping with information overload even though it claims to be about releasing the young from exam pressure. It is a rhizomatic solution to information overload but the trouble is that children all too easily become jumpers and stutterers just like the rest of us.


Dr Fiachra Long

School of Education


This Q & A appears in today's Irish Times in the Unthinkable column in the Education Pages  http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/five-signs-you-share-donald-trump-s-gapped-logic-1.2940186 

For more about UCC's School of Education visit http://www.ucc.ie/en/education/

For more on this story contact:

Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, UCC  Mob: 086-0468950

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