From Bonsai to Bamboo


Creative commons File:Bamboo 2.jpg

I was so inspired listening to David Cormier @davecormier talking to my Grad cohort about his philosophy of education and assessment. He asked some very powerful questions and espoused a view of education that made me pause and take notice. So often we simply accept the status quo, or as traditionalists, believe that because something has been so for so long it must be good. David gave us a brief history of public education that started in 1870 in Birmingham, England with a standardized curriculum that included:

  • reading basic text
  • Writing a sentence
  • the ability to do basic arithmetic

In the 1800’s if you could do all these things you were deemed fit for release to the local factory to start work. The current education is still based on this same factory model that prized obedience and attendance. Dave didn’t need to point out how ridiculous this is. Sir Ken Robinson also made reference to our outdated models of education in his 2006 Ted Talk “How Schools Kill Creativity”

Dave believes that this standardized one size fits all model of teaching and assessment does nothing to enhance true learning. He stated that “if people don’t care- nothing will happen”. The core of learning is to figure out how to make people care and to figure out where the nexus of caring lives. I love that term “The Nexus of Caring”. As a primary teacher I know that building a close relationship with my students is key to their success. I know that if they feel respected and feel listened to they will work harder. It pains me to have to write report cards that boil children down to a number and compares them to their peers. On the other hand, I have also been in courses where my sole goal was to figure out what the teacher wanted me to say so that I could get my ‘A’ forget the useless facts picked up along the way and move on.

As Dave pointed out, it is incredibly difficult to quantify and judge someone else’s learning experience. People come to learning situations with a huge range of backgrounds, belief systems, and ideologies. Dave describes learning as rhizomatic. Just as my garden bamboo is spreading shoots and canes in all directions, and can’t be contained, so does true learning. I love this analogy, as not only does it address the multiple and often unexpected directions that learning may take us, but it also takes into account that much of this growing is done underground and unseen. In the spring I marvel at the fact that I find bamboo shoots in far and unexpected  corners of the yard (my pristine architect neighbour doesn’t share my excitement) and admire the tenacity and resilience of the plant.

Unfortunately our current educational system is more of a bonsai tree mentality – the kind that you know in advance what you want, and take great pains to tweak and form into the perfect specimen. How to care for a Bonsai Tree tells us that you need to first pick a worthy plant and then become a skilled ‘expert’ to painstakingly trim and prune it to fit into a preselected container. There are a number of traditional bonsai training styles to choose from. Your successful specimen should be displayed for all to see. You are advised to discard unsuccessful attempts.

While bonsai trees are beautiful and can be appreciated for their perfect structure and design, I would much rather sit under a wild bamboo plant listening to the whispers and rustlings of potential, blowing in the wind.

Thanks Dave, for helping inspire a new rhizome in my wild jungle of learning.

Link to MOOC exploring Rhizomatic learning


2 thoughts on “From Bonsai to Bamboo

    • sagalloway March 8, 2015 / 2:40 pm

      Absolutely Dave. I’m thrilled you like the analogy and it could definitely be explored in greater detail. Would love to see where you take it.


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