The Simple Guide to an Incredibly Useful Theory Called Interactive Spatial Learning

I’m going to share a bit of background with you before I outline Interactive Spatial Learning (ISL) and how it can help structure your classroom and your teaching.


As a beginning teacher, I was taught the theory of constructivism. This theory basically means that people learn by constructing meaning from their interactions and experiences with the world and with each other. For years, I thought this theory meant that if I have my students group together to do labs, the learning and interaction would magically happen. After many years of forcing students to work in groups and watching my son slave for hours over a “group” project while his group mates did little to no work, I came upon an epiphany: while we may learn through social interaction (at least, that’s what constructivism tells us), that’s not the only way we learn — and we still won’t learn if the groups are structured badly. In fact, if you think about how we learn naturally, we’re rarely doing it in a group — we’re usually on YouTube, on Google, or, in some cases, on the phone with mom as she teaches how to debone a chicken…. Learning socially doesn’t really mean learning in groups — it actually means learning by watching, talking, interacting, reading, or being inspired by the work of others. 

Doing Research in Online Spaces

My own research has been about how people learn in online spaces. During my grad school years, I was inspired by an online community where thousands of people learned computer programming, 3D modeling, business, design, and many other skills in a virtual world called Second Life. I wanted to understand how these self-directed, intrinsically motivated learners learned, and what drove them to do this learning.  After researching for more than five years and talking to hundreds of people about their learning experiences, I came to the conclusion that we are all pre-programmed to be self-directed learners (think about how babies learn language). However, the triggers to activate this learning are different and individualized for everyone. Unlike constructivism, which is a rather vague, “interpret however you wish” kind of theory, I wanted to find practical ways for teachers to initiate self-directed learning in their classrooms.  That’s how Interactive Spatial Learning (ISL) came to be.

Interactive Spatial Learning

ISL is based on the premise that deep, meaningful, and personalized learning happens when learners have (a) access to a variety of informational resources; (b) supportive learning communities; and (c) opportunities and spaces to interact with the information and with other people. The overlap of these three constructs makes what I call interactive spaces.

Access to Resources

According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education, over 80% of the learning that happens for K-12 students occurs outside of formal learning environments like school. We’re learning all the time, but it is such an innate ability that we often discount it as learning. Yet, every time we’re surfing the web (yes, even when you look up cat memes), we’re learning. In life, we are constantly bombarded by different sources of information, and we’ve developed strategies to filter this information; we go to sites that appeal to us and are relevant to what we’re looking for. This goes against school culture where the teacher is considered the gatekeeper and the one and only source for knowledge in the classroom. You can leverage your students’ innate ability to learn by giving access to many different kinds of information and teaching them how to become media literate consumers. 

Supportive Learning Communities

Group work isn’t the only place where social learning happens. True social learning is about having different kinds of social interactions to support our learning. We turn to our own personal learning communities for information, validation, and inspiration. Think about your last conference. You go to talks, you have lunch with people, you share ideas, and ask questions at poster sessions. These interactions are different and varied — based on opportunity and circumstance.  For these interactions to happen in the classroom, you need to create a safe, collaborative space by establishing social normatives that emphasize mutual respect and ways to communicate in productive conversations that make students feel welcomed and included. For example, think about all the group rules and social norms that happen in a Facebook group to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort. When these rules are not established or they are broken, members leave or disconnect from the community.

Creating Interactive Spaces

Interactive spaces are where people, places, things, and technology interact. We learn about things when we are given opportunities to interact with them. You can teach self-directed learning by designing interactive spaces in your classroom. These spaces include physical (i.e., in a classroom), virtual (i.e., in a Google document), conversational (i.e., in a class discussion, talk between peers), and cognitive (i.e., on a T-chart or in a notebook) areas where students can translate, synthesize, process, and apply information to make meaning.

By maximizing the quality and number of interactions that your students have in these spaces, you will increase the different ways that students assimilate, process, and make meaning from information.  In the next few weeks, I’ll unpack these different constructs to show you how to nurture organic learning in your classroom. Do you have questions or things you’d like me to address specifically? Put them in the comments below, or email them to me at Thank you for reading!


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