FLEX 1 – Researching Rhizomes

FLEX is a self-directed CPD scheme run by MMU’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). In my current role at the university I’m going to taking part in FLEX by reflecting on my professional development here on the blog. If you’re interested in finding out more about my teaching practice, read on!

Researching Rhizomes
November 2014

Unit X is a ten-week curriculum delivered collaboratively across disciplines at Manchester School of Art. I have been tasked with gathering feedback and evaluating the success of the unit, and its impact on the professional development of staff and students.

As this is a new method of teaching within the school, my first task was to identify its place in the wider context of education research. This provided an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge of teaching theory, and collaborative teaching in particular, an area in which I needed some improvement.

I looked to online resources, and suggestions from colleagues, to direct my research, leading me to ‘rhizomatic learning’, a concept using Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome model of idea development as ‘interconnected and self-replicating… [with] no beginning or end’ (Cormier, 2011) to describe the learning process. The place of the community in judging and exchanging knowledge (Cormier, 2008) seemed to reflect the collaborative spirit of Unit X, and perhaps provide a method for analysing the networks developed through the unit.

In my view, the benefit of this approach is the expanding web of learning, in place of a one-way street from teacher to pupil, fostering an atmosphere of peer-learning, and an expanded definition of knowledge, with the result that knowledge gained is directly relevant to individual student experience, and readily applicable in their own practice, regardless of it’s value measured against a generic standard.

However, this brings the obvious challenge of how to evidence this knowledge in assessment of individual students. This is particularly tricky in Unit X, where the holistic experience of collaborative work needs to be assessed, including peer relationships, creative process and final outputs. The use of a reflective blog to assess goes someway to covering these aspects, although it can leave students feeling that their work is compromised by digital presentation.

Following this research I began to consider teaching and learning in terms of a web of connections between participants and knowledge, and develop ways to embed this thinking into evaluation of the Unit X module. One route I considered was the use of participatory mapping (Pathways to participation, 2010) to visualise relationships in the unit. However, due to time constraints in research interviews I haven’t been able to fully test this approach yet.

Although I haven’t been able to test this in Unit X research, I have found it fits very well with my personal practice, through which I emphasize the value of social interaction in learning. Considering teaching projects as rhizome maps has helped me to make sense of the dynamics and relationships involved, and better explain them to colleagues and participants.

example of relationship mapping
Example of relationship mapping for ‘The People’s Guide’ collaborative workshop project

Having an overview of these relationships provides qualitative feedback to sit alongside the more quantitative aspects of project evaluation, and gives a sense of the scope of the project, and relationships and knowledge embedded within it. In Unit X in particular this method of analysis allows us to examine the collaborative aspect of the project, and how it has affected student experience, in greater depth, through visualizing how students view their networks.

The next step for this research is to develop a way to embed this idea into formative student evaluation of 2015’s Unit X, perhaps through regular ‘mapping sessions’ with a group of students, charting their own progress through the unit.

Words: 551

Things to do…

  • Develop method of participatory mapping to be used as workshop evaluation
  • Liaise with colleagues to define ways to introduce rhizoanalysis into Unit X formative evaluation
  • Continue discussions with colleagues to keep up to date and expand knowledge of pedagogical theory

Cormier, D. (2011). Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach?. Available: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2011/11/05/rhizomatic-learning-why-learn/. Last accessed 2nd Feb 2015.

Cormier, D. (2008). Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum. Available: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/. Last accessed 2nd Feb 2015.

Pathways through participation. (2010). Using participatory mapping to explore participation in three communities. Available: http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk/2010/06/28/using-participatory-mapping-to-explore-participation-report/. Last accessed 3rd Feb 2015.

Further Reading
Aheto & Cronje, S-P. K. & J. C., (2014). A rhizoanalysis of learning connections among higher education learners. In 4th International Conference on Design, Development & Research. Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa, 08 – 10 September 2014. Cape Town, South Africa: Design, Development & Research.

Emmel, N. (2008). Participatory Mapping: An innovative sociological method. Available: http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/morgancentre/toolkits/2008-07-toolkit-participatory-map.pdf. Last accessed 3rd Feb 2015.


8 thoughts on “FLEX 1 – Researching Rhizomes

  1. The more i think about it… the more i think of that fixed body of knowledge as a set of “customs”. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, reified or codified knowledge may not be ‘real’ but it sure is useful. So we share our customary shorthands for certain this and accept them as nodes in the rhizome because it’s convenient, not because they are true. The question becomes, particularly related to assessment, “do we need to measure these things anymore”?

    1. Thanks for your comment Dave.

      I think assessment is particularly tricky in art and design, where students are expected to challenge that fixed body of knowledge, creating a subjective response to customs, which then has to objectively evaluated and assessed.

      This is what I hope a more rhizomatic approach to learning could help with, giving students a tool to reflect on what knowledge they used and why.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Great to see you have made a start with your portfolio.

    Please note that activities need to be clearly linked to practice and triggered by a need or an aspirations to enhance practice. I would like you to start by thinking about how this is relevant to your practice by perhaps at the beginning briefly describe an issue you experience at the moment. Then it would be useful to use a reflective model such as Gibbs to make sure you get that depth. Each activity needs to link practice with theory and the reflection need to lead to some change and action. I will email you the FLEX handbook so that you can have a look at the requirements. Please study these carefully and then make changes to the above. Let me know when this has happened so that I can provide feedback.


    1. Hi Chrissi!
      Thanks for the feedback, I’ve reflected a bit more on the place of this theory in my practice, and also it’s relationship to the research I’m undertaking. I’m at the beginning of this particular research so hopefully there will be more to add in the future!

  3. Hi Kate,

    I can see the connections much clearer now. You have responded to my comments and provide an insight into your thinking and some of the connections you see between this particular theory, unit X but also more widely. It would also be useful to analyse a bit more why you consider this as valuable for you and your students. What are the potential benefits and where are the challenges to enact or live rhizomatic learning within a specific unit or programme? Looking forward to your thoughts on this.

    Well done so far!

    1. Thanks Chrissi!

      As I say above, assessing this kind of learning is a particular challenge, but I feel defining successful methods to assess art subjects is a challenge in standard practice, and this kind of approach might suit the arts better than other disciplines.


  4. Hi Kate,

    What do these challenges mean when we think about assessment criteria? Perhaps this is something to think about. What do we actually access? What is important and what isn’t?

    You have made a great start with your portfolio Kate and even Dave Cormier commented. Perhaps you could ask him a question? Have you seen the course rhizo14 he offered last year? See https://p2pu.org/en/courses/882/rhizomatic-learning-the-community-is-the-curriculum/

    Happy weekend,

  5. HI Kate,

    I just read your latest version and I am not clear if you are talking about the evaluation of the unit or how students are assessed when undertaking this unit. Could you please clarify this? Thanks.Also think about the following: Are you interested in the connections as a quantitative or qualitative measure or both and why?What are you trying to find out?


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