Thursday, December 17, 2015

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Three - Consider the Rhizome: On Deterritorializing Silos in Schools

It is a question of a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again.
               -Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 20

What models and metaphors do we employ to make sense of how we organize our schools? Much has been said about the “factory model of education” (go here or here to see what I mean), and Audrey Watters is right to make the point that a large part of the story has been manufactured to fit certain narratives about the present (go here to read her critique of “the factory model of education” conversation). However, factory and school design are both born out of a similar historical-intellectual event, one that is rightly associated with the Enlightenment and its influence. Both institutions, more often than not, exemplify organizational models that reveal our tendency (as post-Enlightenment thinkers) to “mathematize our life-world” as Edmund Husserl might put it - or what Bernard Stiegler might call the “grammatization of human life.” Understandably, schools and factories, like many other organizations, are structured according to rationalist concepts such as binary logic, hierarchy, centralization, and order, and with this in mind, I understand why critics of contemporary school models might make connections (but perhaps too crudely) between factories and campuses.

On the Idea of Silos:

So what’s prompted all this philosophical reflection? I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of silos and more specifically how a “silo mentality” fits well with organizational structures that are hierarchical and centralized (like a hub-and-spoke or factory model, for instance).  And I’ve been asking myself: what about Silos in schools? I'd like to thank Seth Burgess and Sanje Ratnavale for pushing my thinking in this direction! Seth and I will be delivering an Ignite Keynote, titled “Breaking Down the Silo Mentality – A Grassroots Movement,” at the upcoming OESIS conference in L.A., this Feb. 23-24, 2016.

Not that long ago, the idea of silos was foreign to me, and others like me might be wondering what the term means in this context. The concept helps one describe an institution’s vertical organization; it’s used metaphorically to mean a system, process, or department that operates in isolation from others.  Audra Bianca defines silos with the following critique: “A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve. Collaboration in a business culture with silos among teams or departments will be limited… In addition, the members of a silo tend to think alike. They get their power from association with their function and their shared technical knowledge” (“What Do Silos Mean in Business Culture?”).

What drives us to think and operate in this way, one might argue, is the well-founded desire to successfully facilitate management, productivity, and efficiency at the workplace. When presented with the question of what’s the most rational way to organize company x or institution y, models like the hub-and-spoke example serve us well (at least in relation to certain desired outcomes such as order and efficiency). Emotionally speaking, the silo mentality may stem from basic human desires to belong to something, to have significance, and to be able to exercise one’s sense of responsibility in ways that are manageable and quantifiable (or traceable). At the root of this mindset, therefore, one uncovers the natural and good desire to belong to something and to be responsible for it, and it’s important to remember this when discussing institutional changes like “breaking down silos.” Usually, we don’t seek to change something because we disagree with the intention behind it – more often, we share common goals, desires, and priorities but seek to change things because the map to getting there constantly needs improvement, clarification, and adjustment. But before mapping new changes (and employing new organizational models in the process) one first needs to know clearly and specifically the values, goals, or desired outcomes of the institutional culture in question.

On Goals, Priorities, and Outcomes:

What are the goals, priorities, and desired outcomes shared by educators who seek to prepare the citizens of our global future? How have Silos – as a form of organizational mapping – come up short in helping us realize these goals? What do we need to adjust, improve upon, or change when thinking about the functionality of Silos? But first, what do Silos look like in education today? Immediately I think of academic departments, content-based linear curricula, classrooms, campuses, division & grade levels, etc., and it occurs to me that a Siloed organization operates according to the logic of binaries: one is either in a class or outside it, on a campus or off of it, engaging relevant curriculum or indulging irrelevant information, and as my colleague Jason Kern points out, the person who is the least siloed in schools is the student herself. She is the nomad who travels from one territory to another while the instructors and administrators remain in their fiefdoms, so one might ask, what are we modeling for our highly connected and heterogenous students as isolated instructors? Gilles Deleuze writes, "We learn nothing from those who say: 'Do as I do.' Our only teachers are those who tell us to 'do with me,' and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce" (Difference and Repition 23). Departmental silos often demand students to "do as I do" and to trace and reproduce in isolation, so why have silos in schools? One answer gets back to the models and metaphors which shape our organizational thinking, but another response points towards the goals and outcomes we seek to realize.

When thinking about our desired goals as educators it’s important to remember that the metaphors and models we teach by can limit and expand our possible ways of thinking about certain concepts and how they can work. In other words, our mindsets map the expanses and limits of our ability to match thinking and strategy to the realization of our goals and priorities. With this in mind, what do the metaphors or models of binaries, factories, hub-and-spoke structures, etc., expand for us in terms of desired goals or outcomes? Possible answers might be maximizing profit and efficiency, establishing control and power, fostering competition, maintaining safety and predictability. Some of these might be goals we value and prioritize for schools today, but others may not, meaning we need to pose the opposite question as well: What do the metaphors or models of binaries, factories, hub-and-spoke structures, etc., limit for us in terms of desired goals or outcomes? Some responses might be trust and collaboration are more inhibited; spontaneity and risk tend to be discouraged, and divergent thinking as well as creativity could be stifled; yet many of us will agree that these are priorities we want to expand upon, not limit, in our modern learning spaces. So I think we have to (continually) return to two questions: what are the most important priorities we need to focus on as a school, as a class, etc.? And what are the models and metaphors for thinking that expand the possibility for us to make those priorities a reality?  Instead of factories, hubs-and-spokes, binaries (and dare I say trees), we need to root our thinking about education in new metaphors; in fact, we need a new kind of root altogether: consider the Rhizome, for instance.

On the Rhizome and Responsibility:

Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees... That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in rudimentary form of the good and the bad. You may make a rupture, draw a line of flight... 
               -Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 9

Google defines a rhizome as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guatarri offer it as a metaphor or model whose purpose is to resist binary conceptualization and static formalization (It’s much easier to teach Plato’s theory of the forms when discussing trees as an example as opposed to considering the Rhizome…). It’s hard to talk about “the form of the Rhizome” in traditional, ontological terms, but D&G suggest the following qualities:

-A rhizome is pure connectivity
-A rhizome is pure differentiation
-A rhizome is pure multiplicity (as opposed to binary)
-A rhizome resists territorialization
-A rhizome maps, but never traces
-A rhizome is a form of decalcomania: “forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction” (A Thousand Plateaus 20).

What if we thought about school organization more rhizomatically? How might rhizomatic models help us deterritorialize the fiefdoms of silos, especially when they discourage collaboration, creativity, communication, and spontaneity? As I think of rhizomatic models (along with hub-and-spoke or factory structures), one common goal or priority stands out for me: all of these organizational frameworks want to encourage teachers, administrators, and students to exercise responsibility for something, but responsibility can work differently according to the metaphors and models we use. In the siloed form of organization, responsibility tends to function as such: as an English teacher, I am responsible for the student’s education in literature and composition, but her knowledge of polynomials does not matter for my purposes. I call this distributed responsibility. But what if we thought about our organization differently? In place of factories, I suggest the metaphor of the community garden, which is much more rhizomatic in the way such social spaces promote unpredictable connections and spontaneity as well as a deterritorialized sense of ownership. No one owns that specific tomato, for instance, but everyone is responsible for the garden itself: I call this shared responsibility. What if we could deterritorialize the departmental landscape of the traditional school model? How might that make possible new pathways for mapping our responsibility for the student’s learning and development? Like a community garden, education is about sharing the responsibility of cultivating certain universally-valued skills that all learners need to master; it's not about Shakespeare vs. polynomials or curricular material vs. irrelevant information. Instead of asking, have they learned Shakespeare?, we need to ask together are students thinking critically? Are they exploring creative solutions? Are they collaborating and connecting with others? Silos, unfortunately, often discourage the latter kind of mindset.

As students, administrators, and teachers, we all care about results (and we should) and with that comes the need to feel in control. Silos make that emotional reassurance possible, in my opinion. We feel a heavy sense of responsibility to produce certain outcomes because there is so much at stake, but it’s also possible to share the weight of our labor more collaboratively. Hub and spoke, inside and outside silos, curricular content and irrelevant info, inside and outside departments… these categorical binaries are meant to help us trace certain outcomes, but where are the opportunities to map new possibilities which resist such rigid organization? It’s important to make clear, however, that organizational infrastructures and models (on a macro-institutional scale) can’t be rethought in completely rhizomatic terms, not for tomorrow at least (that would be a revolution, for sure), but my call to action is a “grassroots” one. How can we as teachers, students, and administrators rhizomatically disrupt (actually, make that deterritorialize) the silos we found ourselves in today? What can we do tomorrow? Think of a silo (such as a classroom, a department, a campus, a curriculum) and ask this question: where is there an opportunity for an offshoot, for a new line of flight? What small steps can I take to deterritorialize our traditional landscapes for learning?

Some examples in recent years for me:

-Last fall, the drama director at our school invited me to direct a one-Act version of William Shakespeare's Richard III. I had never directed, blocked, or acted in a Shakespeare production in my life. We also invited the drama teacher to join our literature class project and discussion which focused on cutting lines for the production. Drama and English departments were in lock-step, molding to each other's shape like the wasp and the orchid, and students' learning became more connected, relevant, and integrated.

-Last spring, the forensics science teacher enlisted the theatre & set design class to build a crime scene for a project. Drama students were cultivating the appropriate skills for building sets while also engaging in conversations about science and forensics making their learning more spontaneious in its offshoots.

-In recent years, I (along with two teachers from different schools) have collaborated across campuses using blogs, garageband & audacity, youtube, as well as other programs, in an ad-hoc, organic way such that the boundaries of who's teaching whose students (as well as boundaries of who's the student and who's the teacher) have become more and more rhizomatic and fluid. (Go here to watch a K12 video about these collaborative projects)

-Last spring, I gamified my British Literature class, which provided more options, paths, and methods for demonstrating learning, and with a wider variety of assignments and learning styles, students discovered passions well beyond that of literary analysis. One student made a dagger (don't worry! it was blunted metal!) when studying Macbeth for some extra XP points, and in the process, he discovered his love for building things. It may have been "irrelevant," but it was awesome all the same!

-In recent years, I have used google docs as a platform for my students to construct and curate their own exam, making it a collaborative, student-driven form of inquiry such that the high-stakes test itself truly becomes something for the students & by the students. As a result, they owned the learning together


In Charles Dickens's novel, Hard Times, one might recall the scene where Mr. Gradgrind, the utilitarian school supervisor, stands above the rows of desks filled with silent, passive children as he proclaims, "Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them" (9). I can't help but imagine Deleuze and Guattari interrupting to say, "Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don't sow, grow offshoots! Don't be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Don't just have ideas, just have an idea" (A Thousand Plateaus, 24-25)

Mark Ingham. Boy Pool Rhizome:

Works Cited:

Bianca, Audra. "What Do Silos Mean in Business Culture?" Gannett Satelite Information Network, Inc., n.d. Web. 17 December 2015.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repitition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Barnes and Nobles Books, 2004. Print.

Watters, Audrey. "The Invented History of 'The Factory Model of Education.'", 25 April 2015. Web. 17 December 2015.


  1. The silo model harms the students the most in a context you didn't mention yet--homework. Each siloed instructor assigns exactly the amount of homework necessary to guide the student through the unit...knowing nothing of the time demands of the student's four other academic instructors, soccer coach, orchestra instructor, advisory, tutor, etc. (Let's set family and religious silos aside for simplicity.) Not surprisingly, students practice a kind of frantic nomadism on weeks like this one. You've got a Spanish test Monday and an English essay Tuesday, so you'd be kind of a fool to do anything Sunday night but study for Spanish. Nothing, to them, is connected, and as a result, in the worst possible scenario, nothing really ever takes root. On Greenhill's campus, the student council is discussing how to address the consequences of a siloed campus. One suggestion I made: Have student volunteers photocopy their academic planners--practices, travel time, class time, school meetings, dinner, showering...the works. Give those photocopies to faculty during orientation week. : )
    Thanks, Jared!

  2. Thanks for the insight Joel! You're so right! When homework is administered in a siloed framework, the nomads will be forced into a frantic mode of constant displacement. Homework needs to be meaningful and relevant, not disconnected and compartmentalized. I love that students at Greenhill are having that conversation! Thanks for the comment!

  3. So much to think about here, Jared, and I really enjoyed reading through it a few times. Deleuze is famously obtuse so I'm always surprised when someone makes his ideas more clear and sees their applicability. I had not thought about this idea of the student as nomad, but my applicability happens mostly around supports for kids and adults with disabilities (I really like how the researchers Griet Roets and Dan Goodley talk about this). I have thought of the idea of the itinerant resource teachers - not sure if you have those in the U.S., but they theoretically go from class to class to help support the inclusion of students with disabilities - as a possible nomad in what D & G call "the war machine" (the system, I think). But, here, these are relatively the most disempowered faculty - though at least one of the local districts is looking at what might happen if they are better supported. Looking forward to more discussions in the upcoming #Rhizo16 group...

    1. Thanks Aaron for reading and sharing your comment. The resource teacher is a wonderful example of the nomad who negotiates the borders of various territories. My school does not have a program for students with disabilities, but my previous place of work did. I always felt that the resource teacher had the most connections across the campus but was the least heard voice at faculty/staff meetings. To me, that seemed frustratingly disproportionate. Looking forward to more #Rhizo16 conversations.

  4. You demonise binary thinking, but your post rests on something that looks rather binary: the silo vs. the rhizome. Perhaps the core of that binary is the opposition between disconnection and connection. You emphasize how disconnected silos are. Disconnection is bad; connection is good. Students are connected; students are good. Old-style teachers are disconnected; they are bad.

    There is a radical intention here which must not be lost, but the binary thinking thwarts it.

    How are we to "prepare the citizens of our global future?" you ask. The students, who are connected, instinctively know that the future demands connection, but the teachers are isolated in their silos, so we need a new metaphor for a new form of organisation - one more in tune with the hyper-connected global future that everyone outside those terribly siloed educational establishments is so excited about.

    Hang on! What has happened to those old factories and silos? Something rather rhizomatic has destroyed them. The old verticality of a culture that looked down on the nasty "business" of making money and reducing everuthing to commercial considerations has been destroyed, and a new horizontal has been instituted with a perfect fluidity that sloshes to the four corners of our connected globe.

    If there is a hope for the future, it presupposes the ability to disconnect from this surprisingly rhizomatic cultural cancer. Cancer, too, is perfectly horizontal.

    The fact that something is rhizomatic does not make it good.

    The fact that something is connected does not make it good.

    Connected to what? With a view to what?

    Provisional conclusion: No, we do not need a new metaphor. We should not rush for a new blueprint. The task of critique has hardly even begun. First there must be a great resistance, the strength of which will be measured by the willingness to disconnect. Then we can begin to talk about new metaphors for a new world to be instituted by those who have disconnected from the old.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on the post. I appreciate your thoughts. To be clear, I think demonizing binaries would be about as convincing as trying to morally condemn a certain school of architecture. And I agree that such a reductive distribution of values (good and bad, etc.) would simply be a return to binary thinking.

      I'm looking for ways to depart from the 'siloed' approach of mapping an organization (not because it’s bad, but because it may not work as well as other approaches), and I simply offered one possible line of flight (but not under the assumption that this is the only other option. Nor would I assume that one model is always 'good' for all institutions at all given moments.) Good and bad never came up in my vocabulary. It's not about connection being good or disconnection being bad; it's a question about what we (a given group or institution, etc.) want to achieve and therefore what strategies for mapping can best expand our journey for getting there. Rhizomatic models are not good or bad; the question is whether the model works for helping one achieve the agreed-upon ends.

      At our school we've agreed upon the following vision for our classroom culture:
       embraces hands-on learning and authentic experiences.
       encourages students to find their voices as they develop and share their passions.
       engages in a meaningful and timely feedback loop.
       facilitates the exchange of ideas and experiences within a global community.
       fosters digital organization, literacy and citizenship.
       inspires inquiry, creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
       nurtures a warm, positive culture based on respect, responsibility and empathy.
       promotes character development and leadership skills.
       provides a variety of learning tools and resources, both inside and outside the classroom.
       supports a blend of established and progressive teaching methods.

      And we desire to realize a culture as described above for purposes of empowering self-directed problem solvers who think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and cultivate a sense of character while preparing for the cosmopolitan world that awaits them. Again, it's not that Silos are bad in some way, but it's a question of whether they work best with the vision and priorities described above. And it's not about having one other binary alternative. A better blog post than mine would have made that clearer. The point is always multiplicity and not one binary for another.

      I hope it's clear that I in no way endorse a line of thought that syllogistically deduces that all rhizomatic phenomena are good, and I apologize if you think my reflections here imply that "Old-style teaching" is bad. My class looks pretty "Old-style" many days of the year. It is about keeping the conversation going, however, so we might multiply the strategies for practicing effective pedagogy. Some of those strategies are centuries-old. Some are not. Effective teachers have multiple offshoots. And effective discourse for growing pedagogy in no way should shun the “old styles."

      There is a radical intention here, and I agree that it must not be lost, and it sounds like we share this intention. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Jared, thanks for continuing the conversation. Your clarification that "It's not about connection being good or disconnection being bad" is welcome. That wasn't the impression created by the post, though. Your reference to "highly connected students" and "isolated instructors" seemed to imply that connection was prima facie good and isolation prima facie bad - a familiar feature of a lot of edtech hype. And the first item on your list of rhizomatic features is "pure connectivity". "Be rhizomatic and connect," seems to be the imperative here. And the connection is (it would seem) digital. The soil of the new rhizome is the internet. How else could the rhizome grow? Digital connection, therefore, is prima facie good.

    Your tactic in qualifying things involves withdrawing claims about what is good and bad. But to uphold the radical intent we need to have the courage of our convictions and insist on what is indeed good in those ends you describe.

    Instead of withdrawing the claims about the good and the bad, the dubious binary could be qualified by acknowledging the ways in which connection can be bad and isolation good. Does the internet, for instance, "nurture a warm, positive culture based on respect, responsibility and empathy"? Does it lead by some genie inherent in the tech towards a rhizomatic culture antithetical to all the old verticality of the fiefdom? We think not. Quite the opposite in some cases.

    Before seeing your reply here we began to write a response to your embrace of the rhizomatic metaphor. In the process we felt that the metaphor actually does very little work. Instead, it seemed that the real work was being done by an assumed antithesis of a new horizontality flourishing online clashing with the old verticality of the pedagogic fiefdom you mention. The clash is imagined to be one between some remnant of the feudal and a digital horizontal. We have tried to articulate our doubts about that framing of things here:

    1. Thanks again for commenting, but there's a bit of a misunderstanding here. I am not the nail for the counterrevolutionary hammer you wield. I urge you to look over my post again. I'm not referencing "edtech", the internet, or technological connectivity: that's not my focus here at all, and to fetishize tech as some all serving solution to learning would be to embrace a kind of tech-utopian philistinism that's contrary to what I believe to be most meaningful about working in education. If you look at the five examples of rhizomatic deterritorialization I list at the end, only 2 out of the 5 have anything to do with the integration of tech into a learning experience.

      Also, I am not withdrawing claims about the good and the bad: again, I'm exploring new offshoots, models, and metaphors that MIGHT serve an institution or community more effectively for realizing some vision or aim upon which they've agreed as being worthy of pursuit. A deeper post about why the community in which I participate has selected the ends in question would take several installments at best. My only tactic here is looking for what works, not because I lack the courage to make deeper commitments, but due to the limited scope of intention set forth for the blog post above. I do agree: there are harder questions about the goodness of ends (questions that can only be asked in a context, however), and all of us should be performing that critique continually as well.

      Back to tech & connectedness: we don't have to look to technology to see what I mean about students being more connected (maybe I should just say "less siloed" b/c that was the real focus of the post, namely how to think about organizing differently). I think my friend, Joel, gave a great example in his above comment in reference to the experience of homework. And again, it's not about whether being connected or being isolated is good or bad (and there are many virtues to isolation!): It's a question about how does homework work from each participant’s perspective and how could homework work differently? To be clear: (pure) connectivity cannot be privileged as being some inherently “better” or “more good” property than (pure) isolation: in fact, I reject the meaningfulness of trying to moralize the ontology of properties altogether. For my purposes here, it’s about how things work, not what they are.

      Thank you for the link to your post, but I’m not the digital revolutionary you seek to counter. I’d urge you to think of my small-scale efforts here in more charitable terms. Look at the examples I gave at the end: do those strike you as examples of learning experiences born out of a pedagogy which asserts “that most essential forms of learning are those that can happen online”? You may still see my project as one born out of the binaries of the horizontal vs. the vertical, but I think we may be on closely similar sides (and there’s multiple sides) of history here. However, the binary of revolution & counter-revolution may have caused a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion, making it difficult to tell where each person is specifically and uniquely coming from.

      I can tell you clearly where I am not coming from: although I may be on the internet right now, that is not the soil upon which I cultivate my garden. Thanks, and I look forward to reading more posts on your blog.

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