The concept of spatialised knowledge in instructional design – Jack Tsao


The constraint of student physical mobility and the forced engagement with the virtual space amidst the Covid-19 crisis has certainly stimulated more attention on pedagogy and the quality of students’ experiences within higher education. Technological consideration of whether to employ online or hybrid should be subordinate to pedagogy and our intended learning outcomes. The bigger picture of university education is how to develop students’ competencies to meet the present and future complexities and challenges of the ‘real world’. In thinking about how we can build students’ competencies, I visit de Certeau’s (1984) concept of spatialised knowledge and explain its relevance for guiding teachers in designing the teaching, learning, and assessment experience.

De Certeau’s Spatialised Knowledge

In our increasingly fluid, interconnected, and digitalised society, the blurring of disciplinary boundaries has become inevitable. Developing students’ practical competencies are linked to an understanding of context and interdependencies and instilling in the student a kind of navigational capacity to mediate the complex relations of the contemporary world. Borrowing from the research in the field of student aspirations (Gale & Parker 2015, Kenway & Hickey-Moody 2011), we can think about this navigational capacity through de Certeau’s (1984) differentiation between ‘tour’ and ‘map’ knowledge, otherwise defined by social geographers (Lury, Parisi, & Terranova 2012) as ‘topographical’ and ‘topological’ respectively. Tour or topographical knowledge is ‘operational’ and consists of the students’ ability to recognise the physical or social space through the direct instructions of another. As such, the students’ knowledge is constrained by the limitations of the tour or guide (i.e. the curriculum and the teacher). Following the tour can take students on a prearranged route with an expectation that it leads them to the desired destination (i.e. knowing what needs to be known for assessment and hopefully getting a good grade). Throughout the journey, the students have a sense of their location, the path that was taken, and a vague understanding of the tour’s final destination. However, when confronted with obstacles or changes to the social or physical landscape (or epistemological landscape), there is a sense of disorientation and a desire to opt-out and choose a different tour.

In contrast, map or topological knowledge is comprehension and familiarity of the greater picture, akin to the familiarity of a territory or neighbourhood, that provides a sense of direction, its relationality, and the need to pass through certain places (nodes and pathways) along the way to the desired destination. There is sentience of the end from the beginning and the alternative routes to the destination involved in navigating the terrain dependent on the circumstances. Topologies emphasise connections and self-determination, as students become explorers and cartographers themselves, building on an understanding of the ‘relations of relations’, and the capacity to form new pathways even if obstacles and unexpected challenges appear.

Implications for Teaching and Learning

So how is this conceptualisation relevant for teaching and learning? Firstly, this differentiation may stimulate awareness and reflection of how our current teaching and assessment practices may be nudging students towards topographically directed learning. For example, when we adopt the attitude that we do not want students to be side-tracked by ‘too much information’ or tell them what they need to study just to pass the assessment, we send a clear message to our students that their learning journey is a tour. To quote Biggs (2012), ‘The game then becomes a matter of dealing with the test, not with engaging the task deeply.’ Students then struggle to appreciate the bigger context within which course content is embedded and may complain that the assessment you tasked is not related to the course. This reminds me of Pablo Coelho’s story of the boy who wanders around carrying a spoon of oil and is so focused on not spilling a drop that he misses the beauty of the world around him. Hence, to develop a map or topological understanding requires grounding our teaching in the milieu of the students. We can actively and explicitly ask students to form connections of their learnings to their own world and the wider context. In this aspect, the inter- and transdisciplinary compass of the Common Core creates a much-needed space for traversing multiple epistemologies and methodologies that offer diverse approaches to framing the world and can stimulate students’ capacity for critical thinking. Recent efforts by many universities to integrate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) into teaching and assessment is also a positive initiative to promote contextual thinking.

Secondly, we may think about ways of shifting from merely replicating knowledge to facilitating spaces for critical inquiry and practices engaged in social discourses. Of course, first-year transition pedagogy that focuses on gaining fundamental prerequisite knowledge has its place of unifying heterogeneous cohorts but used in other contexts does little to build the cultural and social capitals that undergird this navigational capacity. A fundamental step in allowing students to initiate and mediate the dialogue with the political, techno, social, economic, and other structural configurations is building capacities for communication. In the Communication-Intensive Course (CiC) course CCGL9042 Evolution of Civilization that I teach together with Dr Larry Baum, we run small group tutorials with well-facilitated discussions based around problems, games, or case studies, incentivised by graded verbal participation. This semester, we introduced a learning activity to build digital literacy by encouraging students to create an Internet meme to capture a key idea from each of the weekly lectures. The most creative and relevant creations are showcased on Instagram to allow students to appreciate and learn from each other’s works ( Using new forms of media such as social media, knowledge-sharing platforms, and computer games and simulations to construct personalised and meaningful teaching and learning experiences also serves to dismantle the artificial perception of university knowledge as insular from the students’ quotidian lives.

Gradually replacing static and traditional forms of assessments such as multiple-choice, short answer, or written essay papers with co-created or student-driven project assignments can further drive capacities for communication. Recent initiatives promoting transdisciplinary student-led undergraduate research projects organically drive the development of map-based competencies as students soon come to their own realisation that developing communication, research, and relational thinking skills are prerequisites for tackling ‘wicked problems’. This ‘pedagogical turn’ is not merely a fad. My research into the proliferation and dominance of the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma curriculum within secondary schools shows a similar trend towards interdisciplinary collaborative teaching, and research and project-based learning and assessment. Our world is becoming unavoidably complex, but through the design of learning experiences, we can affect students’ capacities for exploration, negotiation, and positive change.


I have highlighted how de Certeau’s concepts of tour and map knowledge may guide us in our design of the type of learning experiences to promote the effectiveness of the navigational competencies we construct. Map knowledge emphasises the design of pedagogical practices that are grounded, multidisciplinary, and relational. Ultimately, fostering these capabilities can stimulate greater student agency and provide a more relevant and expansive university experience for students.


  • Biggs, J. (2012). What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher education research and development, 31(1):39-55. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2012.642839.
  • de Certeau, M.. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gale, T., & Parker, P. (2015). Calculating student aspiration: Bourdieu, spatiality and the politics of recognition. Cambridge Journal of Education, 45(1):81. doi: 10.1080/0305764X.2014.988685.
  • Kenway, J., & Hickey-Moody, A. (2011). Life chances, lifestyle and everyday aspirational strategies and tactics. Critical studies in education, 52(2), 151-163. doi: 10.1080/17508487.2011.572828.
  • Lury, C., Parisi, L., & Terranova, T. (2012). Introduction: The becoming topological of culture. Theory, Culture & Society, 29 (4-5), 3-35.

Concept map created by student Ms Emily Chu Hoi Yan for CCST9025 Genetics and Human Nature
Concept map created by student Ms Emily Chu Hoi Yan for CCST9025 Genetics and Human Nature

Internet meme created by student Janice Wong Pui Yin for CCGL9042 The Evolution of Civilisation
Internet meme created by student Janice Wong Pui Yin for CCGL9042 The Evolution of Civilisation

Internet meme created by student Vincent Leung Ka Lun for CCGL9042 The Evolution of Civilisation
Internet meme created by student Vincent Leung Ka Lun for CCGL9042 The Evolution of Civilisation

Dr. Jack Tsao
Dr. Jack Tsao

Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine
The University of Hong Kong
Please cite as: Tsao, J. (2021, Apr). The concept of spatialised knowledge in instructional design. Teaching and Learning Connections, 14. Retrieved from

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search