Various degrees of “nomadness”

The Rhizomatic Model and language learning

Dave Cormier used the idea of a nomad to illustrate his Rhizomatic Model of learning, which is characterized by a number of elements include open-ended learning outcomes, learner-driven, chaotic conditions and knowledge construction through negotiation. In explaining his model, Cormier points out that the model may not work for all forms of teaching, i.e., a course on academic writing that teaches learners to confirm to a particular standard of writing.

A participant in Cormier’s session, though, pointed out that there could be various degree of “nomadness”. I’m interested in how Rhizomatic model of learning would work in an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) program of a university English language institute, a program which prepares students for a  conventional classroom-based university and evaluating whether the students have fulfilled the students’ competence in terms of whether they meet the minimum English requirement of the university.

Knowledge negotiation and the communicative approach to language learning

There is much room for rhizomatizing in the day-to-day activities in a language classroom. The “Rhizomatic” model that focuses on constructing knowledge through negotiation fits well with the  the communicative approach in second language acquisition in two key aspects.

First, both views hold that a complex, realistic environment is an appropriate condition for learning to occur.  The Rhizomatic model holds that learners construct knowledge through observing and recognizing patterns in phenomenon. In making sense of the phenomenon, they form concepts and assumptions, which they incorporate to their own knowledge base. Unlike behaviorists, this view doesn’t subscribe to the view of deconstructing complex phenomena into formal rules, which learners absorb in small units at a time. The constructivists, for instance, believe that over-simplifying the concepts will deprive the learners the chance to apply their knowledge in real situation, since problem-solving in a real-life setting are not mere applications of formal rules, but often requires the recognition of pattern and the use of heuristics rather than application of formal rules.

Likewise, the communicative approach emphasizes learning in meaningful and authentic settings. Rather than teaching formal grammar rules explicitly, the communicative theorists hold that grammar should be taught implicitly. It should be embedded in a complex and real-life situation. Accordingly, learning formal grammar rules does not ensure that the learner can use the language in a real situation, given that communication is often context-dependent rather than rule-driven. Teaching the language in complex, authentic situation can better support language use.

Second, both the Rhizomatic model and the communicative approach hold social negotiation as a crucial element in learning.  Accordingly, knowledge is not constructed in isolation but through interactions with others. Negotiation enables not only sharing their knowledge but also finding solutions to problems through tapping into the collective intelligence of the interlocutors. Negotiation exposes learners to different viewpoints and allows them to defend their ideas, which reinforces learning and memory.

Similarly, the communicative approach holds that language is a tool for communication; thus, it is social and cultural bound. The purpose of learning a language is not to conform to an objective body of grammar rules but to communicate. Negotiation of meaning allows for authentic language practice and, thus, is effective in developing better communication skills.


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