Sonia Sharmin and Michael Drew from the University of Georgia

Rhizomatic learning in the fire service

Published:  20 November, 2015

The concept behind rhizomatic learning reflects a belief that the learning process never stops, much like the metaphorical roots of a plant. You either continue to grow in knowledge or simply cease to exist, write Sonia Sharmin and Michael Drew from the University of Georgia.

Applied to the fire service, rhizomatic learning suggests an understanding that every team member has a responsibility to continually learn and develop new skills. To do this we learn from each other’s unique skills and experience. Relying on just one or two fire officers for company training invalidates the wealth of experience that each individual firefighter has to offer while pressuring the senior members to find innovative topics for company training sessions.

An analogy can be made between knowledge acquisition and rhizomatic theory. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) demonstrated how this approach is helpful because a rhizome continuously grows with neither beginning nor end. Using this metaphor of the rhizome reflects a continuous, lifelong learning process. Rhizomes continually grow without limit, and one person’s growth is unique and may or may not reflect the knowledge of another firefighter. Similarly, Deleuze and Gauttari believed that the rhizome takes on very diverse forms in this growth process, similar to each firefighter’s individual experiences throughout one’s career. Every rhizome regenerates lines of flight producing innovative branches of knowledge.

Consider company training in a similar fashion; like a rhizome, training produces different branches of knowledge. This knowledge is never one-dimensional, vertical, or arboreal but rather having multiplicities based on our collective firefighting experience. The traditional top-down hierarchical training does not take advantage of this collective experience of each individual crew member’s unique skills. A rhizome is a map that remains “detachable,” connectable,” “reversible,” and “modifiable,” with multiple entryways and exits” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 21). Like a map without tracing, there are different ways to get inside or exit in a rhizome, similar to a burning building. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) rejected fixation of knowledge because static knowledge is not beneficial as it cannot produce new knowledge. A rhizome consists of bulbs, tubers, and tendril, which continuously grow because rhizomes, like each of us, are always in motion and ever-changing. All the bulbs, tubers, and tendrils reproduce different divisions of knowledge, borne from pre-existing knowledge. All of these small components of the rhizome are significant, just as every firefighter, with unique experiences, training, and knowledge.

 Unlike our chain of command, a rhizome does not have a deep-rooted vertical structure. Relying on one source of knowledge in the form of a training officer reflects traditional education designed to find one correct answer. Everyone in our line of work, knows we have to adapt to changing circumstances for survival, just as rhizomes constantly adapt with more than one right path.  Asking each and every crew member to share an area of specialized education and training can be helpful to the cumulative company learning, so vital to our performance at emergency scenes. Company leaders that recognize and validate these individualized skills will promote a sense of growth, humility, and genuine interest in rhizomatic learning by giving voice to everyone on the crew to share in the collective skill development process. Perhaps a newly appointed firefighter attends an external, specialized training workshop. This firefighter can then share these newly acquired skills with everyone else on the crew for group performance enhancement.

We can all greatly benefit from the collective skills of each crew member, irrespective of their number of years on the job. Many newly promoted firefighters receive updated training that the rest of the crew may be unfamiliar with, while the more seasoned firefighters have a wealth of experience that newer members lack. Cultivating shared learning by giving voice and validation to every crew member provides a spirit of community and an opportunity to share experience, training, and constructive ideas about the approach we use at emergency scenes by way of rhizomatic learning. In this knowledge, every voice matters and everyone is unique and exclusive in her or her capacity to grow.


Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. (B. Massumi, Trans.).

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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