Tag Archives: rhizome

D.Litt thesis : concept mapping and pedagogic health

Thesis title

Full text available online at:  https://openresearch.surrey.ac.uk/esploro/outputs/doctoral/Concept-mapping-and-pedagogic-health-in-higher-education-a-rhizomatic-exploration-in-eight-plateaus/99545423202346     


This submission presents a portfolio of 50 outputs (3 books, 7 book chapters and 40 journal articles) that were published between 2000 – 2020. This accompanying narrative offers a frame for these outputs to place them in the context of the wider literature and to highlight connections and developments in the underpinning thought processes. Here I exploit the Deleuzian figuration of the rhizome to present the portfolio to emphasise the non- linear nature of this body of work and provide a novel conceptual framework for analysis.

This corpus emerged from my initial exploration of Novakian concept mapping as a tool to support and document learning. From my early studies that built on the dominant discourse of the field, I examined concept mapping as a study aid. From this my interests diverged into the visualisation of expertise and the implications of variation in the structure of knowledge as depicted by students and as promoted in the curriculum.

I started to use concept mapping to explore educational theory and have combined the tool that is strongly linked to its origins in educational psychology (particularly the work of David Ausubel) with other theoretical positions that might inform teaching in higher education. These have included ideas from the sociology of education (particularly the work of Basil Bernstein and Karl Maton); ideas from evolutionary Biology (Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of exaptation); ideas from health sciences (particularly the work on Salutogenesis by Anton Antonovsky), and the post-structuralist ideas of Gilles Deleuze (especially the concept of the rhizome). These ideas offer an opportunity to revise and refresh the assumptions that underpinned Joe Novak’s work on concept mapping – that might increase the level of criticality in continuing research.

This work raises questions about the methodological conservatism of the field of concept mapping (and perhaps of higher education research more broadly). The observed methodological and conceptual conservatism of the concept mapping literature is seen as a consequence of its linear (arborescent) development from science education. Through this work, the reader can trace the development of the researcher from his roots in Biological Sciences towards a greater appreciation of post-structuralist perspectives – challenging the conservatism mentioned above.

Full text available online at:


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. 



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 : https://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability/special_issues/eng_st#editors 

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.