“What does a pedagogy of abundance look like?”, I asked in part one of this little series of blog posts following in the footsteps of Martin Weller’s article “A pedagogy of abundance” (2011). I suggested that rhizomatic learning might be such a pedagogy of abundance, a pedagogy based on a multiplicity of theories of learning: social constructivism, connectivism, and communities of practice that are combined into a situative and social learning approach. ‘Community’ and ‘networks’ are equally important to Dave Cormier’s conception of rhizomatic learning, and this is my continuing investigation of how rhizomatic learning can be evaluated as a pedagogy of abundance. Rhizomatic learning fits into an era of knowledge abundance: a world of complexity where knowledge is emergent, contingent and contextual, and a world where a move from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 has its focus on connecting knowledge.
As mentioned, the idea of a community of practice plays a central part in Dave Cormier’s understanding of rhizomatic learning, and he has stated the social aspect of rhizomatic learning this way:
In the rhizomatic view knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by Constructivist and Connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. (Cormier 2008)
Cormier has more recently collected a series of texts on rhizomatic learning in a work-in-progress, the e-book “Making the community the curriculum” (2016). In the introduction of his book, Cormier has embedded “A talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC” (2013), a video where he points to the important place communities of practice has in his thinking.
While a rhizomatic environment could seem to be a totally wild, self-directed and experimenting network-thing going all in for chance, heterogeneous perspectives, evolving knowledge and cultivating multi-diversity, Cormier lays bare in the video, that in fact there is a ‘framework’ to engage within while connecting, communicating, collaborating, cooperating, sharing and reflecting throughout the whole learning process. And that framework is a community of practice. So even if rhizomatic learning isn’t normative as a learning approach but is defined as non-linear and non-hierarchial with no exact starting point or end due to the rhizome as a metaphor for the learning process, the community of practice is a form and a framework to understand rhizomatic learning as social learning within. In the video Cormier says:
The hope with rhizomatic learning is to take some of the great creative output that comes from communities of practice and apply them to a structured classroom…How do I take these things and apply? First rule of community learning is to give up control… (Cormier 2013)
And although all my sympathy toward rhizomatic learning, this is where I can’t help asking: wouldn’t a community of practice need some kind of balance between structure and chaos? And my answer would be, that understanding what a community of practice is, could help explicating how and why a community of practice gives direction to the learning processes taking place while engaging in finding, investigating, contributing, negotiating, collaborating, reflecting and producing knowledge.
Communities of practice
Etienne Wenger’s (now Wenger-Trayner) theory of communities of practice is a social learning theory. The concept of community of practice was initially coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger-Trayner in their work on situative learning (Lave and Wenger 1991) where they defined learning as a process of social participation:
…learning does not rest with the individual but is a social process that is situated in a cultural and historical con-text. (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:2)
As an approach to knowing and learning Wenger-Trayners theory of communities of practice from 1998 set off from the initial work with Jean Lave, investigating and defining how communities of practice are formed and developed:
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. (Wenger 2013)
In other words, to constitute a community of practice it requires a shared domain of interest, a community concerned about connecting and building relationships so that participants can learn from each other, a shared repertoire of practice and someone to take leadership in shaping a social learning space and seeing to that resources are available (Wenger 2010:12). So learning happens through participation and negotiating relevant competences and meaning in the community with a core of people initiating the process and keeping it going. And moving from legitimate peripheral participation to full participation happens while you engage in the community of practice so you can get access to the knowledge of the community and take part in negotiating which knowledge is relevant and can count as knowledge in the context of that specific community of practice. In other words: moving towards full membership of a community of practice involves connecting and building competences so that the necessary cultural knowledge and experience is available to be able to participate in the ongoing negotiation of competence, knowledge and meaning. In a recent interview Wenger-Trayner comments on the concept of community of practice this way:
“The notion of community of practice does not primarily refer to a ‘group’ of people per se . Rather it refers to a social process of negotiating competence in a domain over time. That this process ends up structuring social relationships among people involved in various ways is a secondary phenomenon. And this structuring process entails a specific type of relationship. For instance, there is a distinction between a community of practice and a team.” (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:5)
In the interview Wenger-Trayner also states:
The theory is an attempt to place the negotiation of meaning at the core of human learning, as opposed to merely the acquisition of information and skills. And for human beings, a central drive for the negotiation of meaning is the process of becoming a certain person in a social context – or more usually a multiplicity of social contexts. That’s where the concept of identity comes in. And because this is a learning theory, identity is theorized with specific reference to changing ways of participating in a practice. (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:7)
So learning is connecting and belonging – just as much as it is learning by doing and participating – and just as much as it is becoming through interacting and constructing identity – and likewise just as much as it is experiencing through interpreting and negotiating meaning. And these aspects of learning are all elements integrated in Wenger-Trayner’s social learning theory: learning as community, learning as identity, learning as meaning, and learning as practice.
In the perspective of the digital era, the concept of community of practice has been challenged by the concept of network, and in a 2010-article, “Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept”, Wenger-Trayner has his conception of communities of practice up for evaluation (which I have written about earlier on this blog). Here Wenger-Trayner explores the uses of the concept of communities of practice, and among the perspectives that make him evaluate the concept is the critique, “…that there is too much emphasis on community for an adequate account of learning in a web-enabled globalizing world.” (Wenger 2010:10). Wenger comments the critique by saying:
“Again there is an important insight to this critique. Some of us have probably overemphasized community in our attempt to account for the directionality of learning. But it is a mistake, I believe, to think of communities and networks as distinct structures. I am often asked what the difference is between a community and a network. Rather than contrasting a community here and a network there, I think it is more useful to think of community and network as two types of structuring processes. Community emphasizes identity and network emphasizes connectivity. The two usually co-exist. Certainly communities of practice are networks in the sense that they involve connections among members; but there is also identification with a domain and commitment to a learning partnership, which are not necessarily present in a network.” (Wenger 2010:10)
“More generally, I find it more productive to think of community and network as combined in the same social structures – but with more or less salience. So the question is not whether a given group is a network or a community, but how the two aspects coexist as structuring processes. This is not only a richer way to think about social structures, it also has useful practical implications. Network and community processes have complementary strengths and weaknesses; they are two avenues for enhancing the learning capability of a group. If a community becomes too much of a community, too strongly identified with itself, prone to groupthink, closed or inbred, then fostering connectivity to generate some networking energy is a good way to shake it up and open its boundaries. There is something random and unpredictable about the dynamics of networking processes, which is a good counterpart to community.”(Wenger 2010:10)
This way new knowledge and content of a subject matter or a discipline could be the result of challenging the regimes of competence in a community of practice through negotiations of knowledge, competences, identity and meaning:
“Note that what is included in a curriculum is usually called knowledge, but knowledge is not a technical term in the theory. We talk about practices, regimes of competence and knowledgeability, but we refrain from defining knowledge. Whose practice and competence gets to be viewed as ‘knowledge’ is a complex historically, social and political process that it is not in the scope of the theory to define, at least in its current state.” (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:7)
It is in this space, opening up between existing knowledge on the one hand and developing practices and competences on the other hand, I see rhizomatic learning taking place, and to me it fits very well with Dave Cormier’s idea of what education is for: “We need to make students responsible for their own learning and the learning of others”, as he puts it in the video “A talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC”. So when dealing with education the rhizomatic way, students have to develop an understanding of the learning process they are going through while they are going through it. As Cormier highlights it in the video:
- Students have to understand what they are looking for when joining the course.
- Students have to take it upon themselves to engage and to continue to grow.
- Students have to choose and to make a syllabus for themselves through connecting, responding and collaborating.
- Students have to understand what it is to learn and what it is to know in a subject matter or a discipline and to be able to make decisions about how to create their own learning within that process. (Cormier 2013)
The open syllabus is, as far as I can see, what Wenger-Trayner calls ‘a living curriculum’. It frames the relevant knowledge and competences that emerge in the intersection between community and network and it is the result of the interaction with the regimes of competence and knowledge while developing new knowledge. The learning processes Dave Cormier describes – from students are entering a course and engaging with foundational knowledge through to a level where they have acquired the meta knowledge and the humanistic knowledge that is necessary to handle and engage in an era of knowledge abundance – are parallel to the learning processes participants have to go through while building identity in a community of practice. It takes a journey through three modes of engaging with the world – imagination, alignment and engagement – to know what you are looking for and to keep you going (Farnsworth, Kleanthous & Wenger-Trayner 2016:12). That is for example the imagination of becoming an online learner or educator, the alignment of what you need to go through to reach your goals and finally the engagement in the practices and the regimes of knowledge needed in the domain. As mentioned earlier, participation doesn’t just mean being active, it is also about being part of a shared practice and a culture. And that is what Dave Cormier tries to achieve, as I see it.
The aim of a community of practice is sharing and creating new knowledge in order to develop the domain, in the case of rhizomatic learning a complex domain, and in order to spot how the community of practice is intertwined in Cormier’s thinking about rhizomatic learning, it might be interesting to compare the list of important aspects in communities of practice with the three key elements in rhizomatic learning as they are presented in “A Talk on Rhizomatic Learning for ETMOOC”: the complex domain, the community of practice where people work collaboratively, and the rhizome that moves in different directions and at the same time is resilient while people are responding.
“Communities of practice are important because they:
- Connect people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact, either as frequently or at all.
- Provide a shared context for people to communicate and share information, stories, and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and insight.
- Enable dialogue between people who come together to explore new possibilities, solve challenging problems, and create new, mutually beneficial opportunities.
- Stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, and self-reflection.
- Capture and diffuse existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a forum to identify solutions to common problems and a process to collect and evaluate best practices.
- Introduce collaborative processes to groups and organizations as well as between organizations to encourage the free flow of ideas and exchange of information.
- Help people organize around purposeful actions that deliver tangible results.
- Generate new knowledge to help people transform their practice to accommodate changes in needs and technologies.” (Cambridge, Kaplan, and Suter 2005:1)
A real course
Working with complexity and problem-solving, while connecting to knowledge and responding to the unknown and to uncertainty, is at the core of the rhizomatic learning process according to Dave Cormier. But what does it look like when the principles behind it are transformed into a course design for a course in higher education?
Dave Cormier gives some insight in his own campus course – not to mistake for his cMOOCs – which he presents in his e-book, “Making the community the curriculum”. Here he not only introduces the principles behind rhizomatic learning and gives practical guidelines for a rhizomatic course, but also stresses that his focus is on the generative knowledge of networks to drive the collaboration, participation and the knowledge creation in the course as a community of practice. This is the vehicle for understanding knowledge as contingent and complex and an answer to a situation of knowledge abundance. ‘Old’, validated knowledge meets new information and data not yet evaluated, interpreted or negotiated and forms new knowledge, new approaches, new competences, and new understandings. This is echoed in the contract and the tasks for the course that require that the students engage in a rhizomatic learning process that is self-directed and based on collaboration and peer-to-peer learning: a learning process that has no marked route to follow but several pathways to try out, and also has no simple or correct answer but a multitude of answers depending on context.
So the concept of content is evolving in rhizomatic learning, and Cormier demonstrates this in the chapter “Moving your teaching up the collaborative continuum” where he explains:
I would posit that the ‘content’ of a course is just an excuse, or at least just a foundation, for getting accus-tomed to a context for a given field or discipline. We do need to get a sense of how language is used, and how concepts recombine in any new discipline, but definitions will hardly allow us to do that. We need to try things out, to test drive them, to see how they work out in conversa-tion to really round the edges of our understanding. The content is part of that ecosystem, but not the goal of it. (Cormier 2016)
This way of defining a subject matter or a discipline mirrors two of the assumptions about a pedagogy of abundance, Martin Weller has put forward:
- Based on a generative system, unpredictability and freedom are essential characteristics of the internet.
- The ease of content generation will see not only a greater variety of formats for content, but courses being updated and constructed from learner’s own content. (Weller 2011:229).
Moving up along Cormier’s collaborative continuum – from a content perspective – ending up at the student-centered end would meet these assumptions while building on the advantages of them in a course, so that students not only discover and master content together, but also create and use new knowledge in the world. Social practices and new technology give possibilities for a radically different pedagogy, and that is what rhizomatic learning is about: a pedagogy of investigation, serendipity and networking set within a community of practice, where Cormier’s idea of ‘an open syllabus’ aligns with Wenger-Trayner’s concept of ‘a living curriculum’. And as Wenger-Trayner has said it himself in a brief introduction to communities of practice: “However, the very characteristics that make communities of practice a good fit for stewarding knowledge – autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries – are also characteristics that make them a challenge for traditional hierarchial organizations. (Wenger 2013)
Dave Cormier warns, that rhizomatic learning is not for any course, and I would say that it is only for subject matters and courses that can cope with the epistemological challenge that knowledge is under dispute, and that we don’t have a uniform agreement about what the facts are, as Henry Jenkins has put it.
And this just leaves the question: what else could rhizomatic learning look like across the entire educational system from primary school to higher education?
Cormier, Dave (2008): Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum , Dave’s Educational Blog
Farnsworth, Valerie, Irene Kleanthous & Etienne Wenger-Trayner (2016): Communities of Practice as a Social Theory of Learning: a Conversation with Etienne Wenger, British Journal of Educational Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2015.1133799
Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger (1991): Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press
Wenger, Etienne (2010): Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice, pp. 179-198, Springer London
Wenger, Etienne (1998): Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press