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Structure of the rhizome


Images by author.

The rhizome is often used as an analogy for systems that lack a rigid, linear structure. However, that does not mean that rhizomes are without any structure. The gross morphology of a typical rhizome (e.g. ginger or Bracken) appears to lack an easily definable structure. It grows in all directions and does not have a clear beginning or end. This is why it makes a nice analogy for educational systems where linearity is unhelpful.

However, once we start to look at the rhizome in section, it’s structure becomes evident. Figure A shows a low power image of a transverse section (top) and a longitudinal section (bottom) of a fern rhizome. The organisation of tissues is very obvious in transverse section. The longitudinal section is more difficult to interpret and the separation of tissues is not so clear. The red arrows indicate the position of xylem vessels.

Figure B is a high power image of the xylem vessels in transverse section. The separation of one vessel from another is very clear. Figure C shows the xylem vessels in longitudinal section, in which the spiral thickening of the vessel walls can be seen.

The point is that the shapeless rhizome does have a structure when viewed in section. Different sections show different details. These details need some interpretation, and that only comes with practice and is made easier when multiple images are available from different perspectives. It should also be noted that the structures of the vascular tissue only implies movement once we realise that the xylem vessels are transport tissues and their function is to move materials around the plant. The dynamism of these movements have to be interpreted from the static images presented. The more images we have, the easier it is to work out what is moving where.

As an analogy for learning, the rhizome offers a lot. However, we should not simply accept that it has no structure. It has a complex structure that is only visible using the right materials and methods.

It has been suggested that concept mapping can be used to observe cross sections through the educational rhizome. The same caveats for interpretation (as mentioned above) will apply.

Further reading:

Bell, A. (1980) The vascular pattern of a rhizomatous ginger (Alpinia speciosa L. Zingiberaceae). 1. The aerial axis and its development. Annals of  Botany, 46, 203–212. 

Bell, A. (1980) The vascular pattern of a rhizomatous ginger (Alpinia speciosa L. Zingiberaceae). 2. The rhizome. Annals of Botany, 46, 213–220. 



Mapping the rhizome


The concept of the rhizome using the grammar of the concept map.


Rhizome concept map


Further reading:

Kinchin, I.M. & Gravett, K. (2020) Concept mapping in the age of Deleuze: Fresh perspectives and new challenges. Education Sciences, 10(3), 82. 

Available at :




Pedagogic Health: Special issue call for papers.

Kinchin, I.M. (2020) (Ed.) Pedagogic Health and the University. Education Sciences (Special Issue): Call for papers.

There are many exciting and worthy innovations that are currently being promoted within the literature on learning and teaching within higher education. However, I would venture that many of these innovations are doomed to failure. This is because the environments in which these innovations need to be activated are not receptive to them. In particular, there are conflicting discourses and tensions within the education system that result in pedagogic frailty (as described by Kinchin & Winstone, 2017). This is seen to occur within the university when there are tensions between key elements of the teaching environment, namely,

  • The focus of the teaching discourse and whether it concentrates on the mechanisms and regulations that govern teaching as promoted by a culture of managerialism, or on the underpinning theories and professional values that direct our personal perspectives;
  • The degree of authenticity within teaching and assessment practices, and the alignment of the pedagogy with the nature of the discipline;
  • The nature of the research-teaching nexus and how this is made explicit in our teaching;
  • The degree to which teachers perceive their proximity to and influence on the decision-making processes and management of teaching.

Where these elements of the environment are in tension, teachers succumb to academic stress and burnout. In such instances, any new innovations are unlikely to succeed as they will be perceived as a threat to the perceived stability of the system. Helping these elements to complement and support each other as a coherent whole will produce an environment exhibiting pedagogic health, in which innovations have a greater chance of success. This Special Issue invites contributions that consider elements of the university teaching environment that may contribute to the wellbeing of teachers and the construction of a healthy learning environment.


Kinchin, I.M. & Winstone, N.E. (Eds.) (2017) Pedagogic frailty and resilience in the university. Rotterdam, Sense Publishers.

Submission deadline: December 2020.

Special Issue “Engaging Students’ Voices in Partnership for the Rhizomatic Development of Sustainability in Higher Education” : CALL FOR PAPERS

Special issue of ‘Sustainability’- Details available online at : 

Universities are faced with the tremendous challenge of promoting a culture of sustainability within society, while simultaneously grappling with the ongoing development of a more inclusive and active pedagogy for the twenty-first-century curriculum in which students are seen as partners in learning. Rather than these being separate problems, it may be that a route towards a solution may become visible by adopting a more integrated perspective and a fresh theoretical lens.

The juxtaposition of the problem of education for sustainability with the challenges and opportunities afforded by a partnership approach to university teaching offers a fresh perspective that may be beneficial to both. The adoption of staff–student partnership has been explored as one approach to curriculum development to address many of the inadequacies of transmissive university teaching (e.g., Cook-Sather et al, 2014). However, one of the problems inherent in the staff–student partnership approach to university teaching is the potential barrier to engagement generated by differences in power between the staff and students. To address this, it has been suggested by Kinchin (2021) that reframing the issue through the lens offered by a rhizomatic perspective allows us to view students and academics on paths representing ‘parallel states of becoming’—rather than ‘being’ different at a particular point in time. This ‘philosophy of becoming’ has been championed by Clarke and Mcphie (2016) as making a positive contribution to learning for sustainability, and is part of the wider consideration of rhizomatic thinking that has the potential to revolutionize sustainability education, as summarised by Le Grange (2011, 747):

When sustainability education is viewed rhizomatically, it becomes possible to integrate and transform Western and indigenous knowledge, and thus create new knowledge spaces in which new knowledge on sustainability (education) can be produced.”

A rhizomatic view of knowledge may, therefore, provide the point of conceptual overlap between engaging with students and promoting education for sustainability. Tillmanns et al (2014, 5) argue the following: ‘the rhizome has the potential to inspire educators and learners alike to become more critically aware of the interconnectivity and disruptive influences within sustainability’. Education for sustainability has to be more than dispensing information, and it is argued by Hroch (2014, 57) that we set ourselves the challenge to prepare ‘people-yet-to-come’ for life on a ‘planet-yet-to-come’. This requires ‘valuing learning as a process of transformation, the process of students coming to think differently, thereby becoming-other in the process, and supporting thinking differently from the norm’. Adopting a partnership approach to teaching at university may help to address these issues and allow us to face the discomfort and ‘brave spaces’ that have to be encountered if education for sustainability is to be truly transformative (e.g. Winks, 2018).

This Special Issue has a focus on innovations in higher education pedagogy and disruptive processes that might help education for sustainability to break free from the hegemony of the neoliberal university (Tillmanns et al, 2014), and move away from the danger that education for sustainability might be subverted as ‘education for consumerism and unbridled economic growth’ (Le Grange, 2011, 744). Submitted papers may address related issues that focus on education for sustainability with an emphasis on student engagement/partnership, and present empirical research, reviews, case studies, or conceptual pieces that consider how sustainability fits with a transformative view of university education, and challenge neoliberal norms. Authors should explicitly address the criticism leveled by Hroch, (2014, 54) that as an educational community, ‘we lack creativity. We lack resistance to the present’.


Clarke, D.A.G. & Mcphie, J. (2016) From places to paths: Learning for sustainability, teacher education and a philosophy of becoming. Environmental Education Research, 22(7), 1002 – 1024,

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Kinchin, I.M. (2021) Towards a pedagogically healthy university: The essential foundation for successful student-staff partnership. In: Heron, M., Balloo, K., & Barnett, L. (Eds.). Exploring disciplinary teaching excellence in higher education: Student-staff partnerships for research. (forthcoming) Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hroch, P. (2014) Deleuze, Guattari, and Environmental Pedagogy and Politics: Ritournelles for a planet-yet-to-come. In: Carlin, M. & Wallin, J. (Eds.) Deleuze and Guattari, Politics and Education. (pp. 49 – 75). London, Bloomsbury.

Le Grange, L.L.L. (2011) Sustainability and higher education: From arborescent to rhizomatic thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(7): 742 – 754.

Tillmanns, T., Holland, C., Lorenzi, F. & McDonagh, P. (2014) Interplay of rhizome and education for sustainable development. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 16(2), 5 – 17.

Winks, L. (2018) Discomfort, challenge and brave spaces in higher education. In: Leal Filho, W. (Ed.) Implementing sustainability in the curriculum of universities. (pp.99 – 111) Cham, Switzerland, Springer.