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Semiotics: A Lens for Critical Viewing

Nancy Stockall

            It's  our ability to view the world from multiple perspectives that helps us extend our ideas, and expose questionable and unexamined assumptions.  In so doing, we regard the idea, object, relationship, or character in a way that makes the familiar, strange. And that is exactly what Semiotics, the study of signs and sign systems does for teachers and educational researchers. Semiotics allows teachers and researchers to examine the familiar actions, roles, dialogue, pedagogy and curriculum in the dynamic state of educational environments. It is the recognition of signs emerging, expanding, evolving and generating new signs that signifies meaning for all participants. And meaning is what guides educators and students’ decisions and actions.

            In my own work as an educator and researcher in teacher education and disability studies, the theory of Semiotics guided me in the analysis of signs and sign actions that contributed to the personalized meanings of participants. These meanings created and established personal worlds and the participants’ place in that world.   For example, using applied semiotic theory allowed me to uncover the idiosyncratic sign systems of families who had children with severe language disorders and/or delays. As primary caregivers tried to establish a communicative connection with their children and extend that communication network with other members of the family, they had to read the non-verbal and often elusive markers signifying intention.  In an early article, entitled, “The role of time in the management of disabilities” (Stockall, 1998), observations and interviews of the family and school professionals revealed the differences between the meanings attributed to one child’s “hand flapping.” Betty, the primary caregiver to Tim, stated, “Well, when we’re playing a game, like rolling the ball back and forth, he’ll flap his arms to tell me it’s my turn.” However, the school professionals regarded these behaviors as dysfunctional signs, (i.e. self-stimulating behavior) and instituted a plan to extinguish them until Tim was able to increase his verbalizations. Essentially, Tim was left without a voice until he could physically acquire the skills to verbalize his intentions.  

            In another study, “Semiotic consciousness: Constructing Meaningful Coherent Texts through Distance Education,” (Stockall, 2003) the notion of the relational context of intersubjectivity was examined through a semiotic lens to identify and organize communicative signs that helped to establish relationships among students and teachers. Using compressed video, the interactions of the college instructor and two student groups, one on site and another at a remote site, were examined over time. Semiotic theory guided the discovery of a relational context that emerged and was regarded as a net that consisted of marked signs organized in a particular fashion to connect learners to each other.  “The more tightly woven the net, the more likely students were to feel safe to explore differences. Coming from different grounding experiences, students moved from their personal ways of thinking to explore alternative perspectives knowing that the semiotic net insured their safety” (p. 78).

            In a recent study, “Photo-elicitation and visual semiotics: A unique methodology for studying inclusion for children with disabilities" (Stockall, 2012), semiotic theory was used to examine the quality of interactional behavior among children with and without disabilities within the general education classroom. Using visual images (i.e. digital photographs); educators identified particular signs of engagement among students with and without disabilities in inclusive settings. Peirce’s theory of semiotics was a critical framework for the study of inclusion because it allowed general educators and special educators to make distinctions among different types of signs and their relationship to viewers’ beliefs on the learning process.  That is, by identifying and marking particular signs during small and large group work, and peer tutoring interactions, teachers could better assess levels of student engagement and therefore, determine the degree of opportunity for equitable learning among all students. As Pierce stated, “We think only in signs…the symbol parts of them are called concepts…in use and in experience, its meaning grows” (Peirce, 1931-1958, Vol 2, p. 53). Marking signs of student engagement and level of presence within a social group allowed educators to generate a richer, more meaningful understanding of quality inclusion.    

            Semiotic theory informs educational research in a way that clarifies the delicate, complex, multidimensional and ongoing dynamic of interaction among teachers and learners. Rather than restricting our viewpoint, it opens us up to multiple perspectives and multiple potentialities. For semiotics is not about what we think but how we think. It is a theory that illuminates our teaching practices, our ways of thinking, the contextual boundaries that ebb and flow in dynamic contexts of interaction and human relationships.