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Learning to learn from each other

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I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Mary Ann Reilly‘s Twitter account recently but I’m guessing I followed the breadcrumbs of a conversation between Mary Ann and people I already followed. Something that Twitter makes frustratingly difficult and yet, gives rise to regular cases of pleasing serendipity.

Mary Ann is President at Blueprints for Learning, Inc. and has previously been Associate Professor at Manhattanville College and Assistant Superintendent at Hanover Park Regional High School District.

Our conversation started when she tweeted about Rhizomatic Learning, a term I’d never come across before –

“Rhizomatic learning will replace hierarchy as more and more seek synchronous and asynchronous learning.”

I asked for a definition and she kindly pointed to three of her recent blog posts. Some excepts –

Unlike the design of many teacher-directed classrooms, the rhizomatic classroom is based on joining and rejoining as opposed to a hierarchical structure where the teacher determines the content and the method to “dispense” knowledge or perhaps even to occasion learning through experiential design….

The rhizomatic classroom requires a shift in teacher talk from telling to inquiring alongside students; from talking a lot and often to listening and conversing…..

The rhizomatic school reveals the fallacy of content-driven teaching as the method that better ensures there are no w/holes in students’ knowledge.A rhizomatic perspective not only expects “holes” in knowing but understands and appreciates these opportunities for new learning. Knowledge is not situated as a knowable list of objectives…

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predetermined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.

That’s a lot to take in but I’m chewing on it. It seems to me that rhizomatic learning has much overlap with Connectivist pedagogy but then again I’ve only glanced at the latter.

As the tweets went back and forth Mary Ann noticed that I was reading, and posting excerpts from, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. She was interested to know what I thought of it as it’s the text the board of her school will be reading in August, and she had already blogged some of her own thoughts on the book here.

What I found particularly interesting in that post was her application of ideas in the book to her son’s recent learning experiences –

He is deeply involved in Minecraft and recently learned how to turn the family computer into a Minecraft server.  When I asked him how he had learned this he said that he watched a “ton of YouTube videos” and taught himself about the computer’s operating system.

This resonated with me because it helps to make the point about ‘social annotation‘ much better than I managed to do in Tuesday’s blog post, which had too much emphasis on a single example (Kindle ebooks). Social annotation of course isn’t limited to books and is seen wherever an online community forms around shared content / media. I focused on the Kindle example at the time because it came up as an easy way to ‘eat our own dogfood’ during the #edchatie discussion

Mary Ann’s son learned how to set up a Minecraft server through the vast resource of socially annotated YouTube videos. While ‘A New Culture of Learning’ refers in early pages to the example of kids learning how to program, from each other, through the Scratch community forums.

Mary Ann continues –

I also wondered what motivated him to create his own server. Why did he do it? He said he wanted a place where he and his friends and people he hasn’t yet met but who also like to play Minecraft could play together and chat. The multi-player aspect of gaming matters to him and motivates him to learn and want to play.  When he first began playing Minecraft he played it as a single player.  He did this for about two months and then decided that he wanted the interaction with others in the world he was designing and building. I’m encouraged that he sees people he has yet to meet as potential friends.

This is the magic of multi-player online gaming, the magic we’re trying to capture in our 20 school virtual worlds project. We’ve seen it in action in our Carlow pilot but connecting 20 schools will take it to an altogether different level, as the opportunities for learning to learn from each other are multiplied.

My son’s interest in the Parthenon was tweaked when I told him that two high school students where I work had created a replica of the Palace of Fishbourne in Minecraft.  He figured out how to contact them via their server and was soon interacting with them.  He wanted to do what they had done: build a server and infuse a sense of history into the play.

Which kind of wraps neatly back to a the rhizomatic model of learning where “curriculum is not driven by predetermined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process.”


Mary Ann Reilly

July 28, 2011


Thanks so much. I look forward to learning more about the 20 school virtual worlds project. Seems like an initiative I would be interested in. I am beginning a small publication, The Little Book of Rhizomes: Travels in Complexity (or something like that). Will let you know when I publish the work:)


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