Semiotic Inquiry in Education
Donald J. Cunningham
In this paper I present the view that inquiry
in education can profit from insights from semiotics. Semiotics holds that
cognition, or semiosis, is the building up of structures of signs from
experience. We create a personal world, an Umwelt, that determines what
we perceive and know. The environment also "affords" various structures
and these affordances offer special ways to interact with the environment.
In this model, inquiry is seen as the perception of affordance, a process
whereby we come to read the environment as a system of signs. An example
In previous papers (e.g., Cunningham, 1987; 1992;
see also 1998) I have presented summaries of semiotic models of cognition
and compared them with the currently dominant information processing models
of cognition. I have argued that semiotics offers a genuine new foundation
for education and that to regard education as fostering semiosis, or sign
use, promises to offer insights into the learning process which will revolutionize
educational practice. A criticism which has been raised frequently about
semiotics is that it appears to lack any contact with an empirical agenda.
Colleagues have told me that they could be more comfortable with semiotics
if it had clearer implications for research. Can semiotics promote any
kind of empirical program? Are semiotics and empiricism compatible? This
is an important issue and its resolution is related to the fundamental
assumptions underlying semiotics. It will first be necessary to review
Deely's Umwelt Model of Cognition
For those unfamiliar with semiotic models of cognition,
this section briefly describes John Deely's (1982) Umwelt model. Others
may skip to the next section. Deely's Umwelt model, a term borrowed from
the late 19th-early 20th century biologist, Jacob von Uexküll, applies
equally well to humans and other animals and, perhaps, also to life on
earth (i.e., plants, microbes, etc.). Uexküll was interested in characterizing
how animals picture the world in their mind and how they then interact
with the world as they have circumscribed it. Since animals can only respond
to a small portion of the total sensory information available, they create,
both as a species and as individual members of a species, an Umwelt, a
"subjective environment" which details only those aspects of the physical
world which are important (i.e., to be approached, avoided, ignored, etc.).
It is crucial to understand the difference between an Umwelt and an environment.
An environment is a physical setting that can be conceived of independently
of any particular organism and, in fact, is usually said to exist for all
organisms. This separation of organism and environment is a fundamental
tenet of behavioral and cognitive information processing models of cognition.
The Umwelt of an organism, however, is not independent of the organism;
in fact, it exists only in relation to the organism. Any particular physical
entity can serve an enormous variety of Umwelts: the Empire State Building
in New York City can create a shelter from the rain for humans, a nesting
site for cockroaches, a landing site for pigeons, a landmark for cab drivers,
a climbing post for King Kong, and so forth. In all cases, the environment
of the building is the same; that is, the sheltered enclosure, the crevices,
the flat surfaces, etc. are available to each of the organisms, yet their
experience of them is quite different.
Through experience in the world and mediated by
the sensory and perceptual capacities of the organism, the Umwelt emerges;
that is, the tools for developing an Umwelt are present from birth but
each individual's Umwelt is developed by particular activities and by species-specific
characteristics. Via this process, the animal comes to terms with the physical
environment, creating and living in a world uniquely defined for that species
and that individual. Yet the Umwelt is not static (i.e., in equilibrium)
but in a constant state of flux both at the species and individual levels.
Semiosis in humans, while based upon the processes
described thus far, is qualitatively different from that of other organisms.
Humans can create signs which go beyond the immediate experience of the
cognizing organism. Words, pictures, bodily movements, and the like generate
signs for objects which need have no basis in the real world and which
can be manipulated independent of that world. Yet these signs come to form
a part of the Umwelt of humans in the same way that dark crevices do for
an insect. It is the intervention of language, according to Deely, that
allows humans to engage in this type of semiosis. Through language, we
create culture: governments, armies, schools, art, professional associations,
etc. Culture, in turn, impacts our lives by determining what is important,
what makes sense, what is to be valued, etc. The arbitrary nature of these
signs, their lack of true reality status, is not readily apparent to the
human organism until they are exposed to cultural systems which depart
from their own.
The fact that humans can utilize signs which are
arbitrary and need have no existence in their immediate experience is what
makes thought possible and distinctly human. Experience comes to be represented
by linguistic signs that can be created without any actual embodiments
in the physical world. But these signs come to be part of our Umwelt--we
tend to see the world anew once some aspect of culture is created or adopted.
Deely's account is essentially a model of inference
drawing upon Peirce's trichotomy of abduction, deduction, and induction.
Semiosis is a process of applying signs to understand some phenomena (induction),
reasoning from sign to sign (deduction), and/or inventing signs to make
sense of some new experience (abduction). These modes of inference are
cyclic, characterizing the develop-ment of Umwelts throughout life: signs
are invented to account for experience; these signs are linked to existing
sign structures and then used to define the Umwelt for that organism. But
the world is not infinitely malleable to our sign structures and the abductive
process will be again instigated. Deely is here, in my view, incorporating
growth into his model, both from the perspective of ontology and experience.
In this paper, I argue that semiotic inquiry can
be regarded as the perception of affordance. I have bor-rowed the
term affordance from J. J. Gibson's (1979) ecological approach to perception.
Gibson rejects sensation-based theories of perception which regard the
perceiver as a passive receiver of impoverished stimulus energy which is
somehow transformed from a retinal image into a percept. His ecological
optics abandons the sensation-perception distinction and proposes instead
an ecological model of an active perceiver confronting an information rich
environment. Gibson's notion of environment is very compatible with the
idea of the Umwelt. For Gibson, an environment is that which organisms
perceive, not the physical world which a physicist might describe. The
term refers to the "surroundings" of an organism on a scale appropriate
for terrestrial animals (i.e., in terms of terrains, objects, and events
which are appropriate for organisms on this planet--sizes between centimeters
and meters, times between seconds and hours, etc.). For Gibson, the words
and environment are an inseparable pair ... each implies the other.
One cannot talk of an environment in general, but only of an environment
with respect to a particular animal.
The terrestrial environment, unlike the physical
environment, consists of a medium, substances, and surfaces that separate
the medium from substances. The medium for humans is the gaseous atmosphere,
the "air" which permits unimpeded locomotion from place to place, seeing,
smelling, feeling, and hearing of substances. In our world, the medium
has an absolute axis of reference, the vertical axis defined by gravity.
Substances are the "things" of the world, the objects or "furniture" which
occupy the terrestrial surface. Unlike the medium, substances do not permit
locomotion or transmit light. Substances are heterogeneous whereas the
medium is relatively homogeneous. Surfaces separate the medium from substances.
It is at the level of surface where all of the action in visual perception
takes place. We do not perceive the medium or substances but only surfaces
where the medium and substances meet. A surface is said to have a layout
(form), texture, the property of being lighted or shaded, and the property
of a certain fraction of the illumination falling on it.
To make a very long story much too short, visual
perception arises when structured information from surfaces is perceived.
The ambient optical array (this structured information available in light)
is described by Gibson as visual solid angles with a common apex at the
point of observation. They are angles of intercept which change as the
observer moves or the surface(s) under observation move. But other aspects
of the array do not change (e.g., the layout and reflectance). The perceptual
system monitors those things that change and those things that persist,
and from this information perception is developed. Perception is thus a
process which develops from the interaction of an active perceiver in an
informationally rich environment which is constantly in flux. Perception
can be understood as picking up or reading information available in the
Of primary importance to our purposes here is Gibson's
theory of affordances. As noted above, Gibson considers the environment
to be the surfaces that separate substances from the medium in which animals
live. But environments also afford things (such as shelter, locomotion,
etc.). There is information in light for perception but also for the perception
of what surfaces afford. To perceive something is to perceive what it affords,
its value or meaning. To quote Gibson, "The affordances of the environment
are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for
good or ill" (p. 127). But affordances do not exist independent of an animal;
the term refers to both the environment and the animal. "An affordance
is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both
if you like ... (it) points both ways, to the environment and the observer"
(p. 129). The terrestrial surface, for example may be horizontal, flat,
extended, and rigid, thus affording support to certain terrestrial animals.
But this affordance is relative to particular terrestrial animals, not
an abstract property of the physical world.
The process of perceiving affordances is called
"information pick-up," unfortunately the least developed aspect of Gibson's
theory. Affordances are invariants available in the ambient optic array
and perception of affordances results from monitoring those aspects of
the ambient optic array which persist and those which change. Note that
this conception places the affordance in the light, not in the needs or
motives of the observer. The potential affordance of a paper clip as a
replacement for a fishhook is available whether or not it is perceived
by a particular organism to which the affordance is relevant.
In my current thinking, the concept of affordance
is very relevant to semiotic models of cognition such as those described
above. In Deely's model, for example, abduction is a mode of inferencing
whereby organisms attempt to make sense of the world by creating and using
sign structures. In other words, abduction can be thought of as the perception
of affordance. In essence this process has been likened by Shank (1987)
to "reading" the environment. But is our reading free to take any possible
form? Can the Umwelt we create be entirely independent of those aspects
of the environment relevant to us as a species or as an individual? A fruitful
area of research for semioticians will be to investigate the possibilities
of affordance-like constancies in our worlds. Such an approach will, however,
require a change in the concept of affordance as described by Gibson. Gibson's
work was an account of visual perception and although he tried to extend
his ideas to account for knowing and remembering, he was not successful,
in my opinion. While it makes little difference to a cockroach whether
the enclosure he perceives as affording shelter is a crevice in a cave
or in a school building, these two enclosures have quite different import
to humans. The extension of the notion of affordance to the social and
cultural aspects of human semiosis remains to be worked out and will result,
in my opinion, in some fundamental changes in its definition, away from
its realist origin to an interactionist one.
Yet there is something compelling about this idea
of "reading" the environment to determine what aspects of it persist and
what aspects change over time and circumstance. Take a typical secondary
classroom. Are there affordance-like constancies in this situation that
can be read? Clearly the readings can be numerous and relevant to a wide
variety of perspectives and contexts. We can analyze the ideational character
of the classroom discourse (e.g., Lemke, 1987), observe the social interactions
among the students, chart the patterns of student and teacher questions
and answers, and so on and so forth. To what extent do the particular events
and circumstances we observe lead us to the identification of this as a
classroom, a pedagogical technique of a certain type? What is essential
(persistent) and what is changing(variable)? Do certain metaphors seem
to account for our observations better than others?
The underlying motivation of such research is that
over time it will eventually lead to ever more adequate conceptions of
the affordances available in this stimulus information. Like Peirce, I
believe that our inquiry will eventually lead us closer to reality, to
an understanding of the world as it is, unmediated by signs. But since
this quest is of the nature of all cognition, why should our inquiry
be any different? Semiotics is quite compatible with empiricism but the
metaphor guiding the inquiry is one of reading the affordances available
in the situation/circumstance under study using methods undoubtedly more
compatible with naturalist inquiry than experimental research. Where the
latter seeks to identify the component variables which account for a particular
observation, semiotic research seeks to provide a variety of interpretations
and perspectives for understanding. While such an approach does not eliminate
the threat of solipsism for semiotics, a more adequate account of the nature
of the physical world will help insure that our inquiry has consensual
Let me close with an example of a "reading" which
I think raises some exciting and, for some, disturbing implications for
educational practice. For over 25 years I have been haunted by a delightful
little book by J. M. Stephens entitled The Process of Schooling
(Stephens, 1976). In his book, Stephens speculates on the very existence
of schools, on the forces from which they arose and which account for the
characteristics they possess today. According to Stephens, schools did
not arise from any planned, deliberate decisions of any group or society.
Rather, schools arose from some primitive, spontaneous tendencies for survival
that emerged as mankind developed. To survive, any species must attain
proficiency in certain behaviors and any group which is successful in nurturing
these behaviors is more likely to survive. Human groups which neglect to
inform their offspring of the dangers of playing in traffic or touching
power lines, for example, are unlikely to survive very long.
One mechanism which has evolved to facilitate the
acquisition of certain behaviors is the family. Typically, the family is
responsible for nurturing those behaviors which have urgent survival value
such as eating, bodily elimination, safety, and so forth. These behaviors
are those which arise automatically in the course of interacting with the
child and for which parents seem to give automatic expression.
Other behaviors which the child may emit, those
which Stephens characterizes as "playful, manipulative tendencies," receive
less parental concern and attention: skipping stones on the water, drawing
pictures in the sand, playing with one's fingers, etc. While these behaviors
may have no immediate survival value for an individual, Stephens
argues that groups (e.g., societies) which nurture such frivolous
behaviors are more likely to survive than those which do not. Thus, while
"fooling around" with numbers or words or pictures is unlikely to influence
the life expectancy of an individual, the long-range benefits to the survivability
of the group may be enormous (e.g., Robert Goddard's rocket experiments
in the early 1900s eventually led to a number of important applications).
Schools have arisen to nurture just such tendencies.
Whether a child can sing, write a poem, or even read and calculate is of
less urgent concern than whether the child could negotiate the basement
stairs. Parents may feel some remote or indulgent concern over reading
and mathematics and even undertake to instruct the child in these but,
in the main, responsibility for such behaviors has been relegated to the
school. Stephens holds that all or most societies which have survived have
evolved something akin to a school and, in fact, the school has contributed
greatly to the survival of those societies. However, schools did not emerge
from a rational decision-making process within the group. Rather, schools
are the outcome of the evolutionary demand of blind, automatic forces present
in human beings, a bit more in some people than in others.
Stephens proposes two categories of these automatic
forces which may have played a crucial role in the emergence of schools.
First, he proposes a category of playful, manipulative tendencies in humans
which might be akin to what others have called exploratory or curiosity
tendencies (e.g., Berlyne, 1960). These behaviors are usually devoid of
any immediate utility but often occur in preference to more utilitarian
behavior (e.g., witness the recent video game craze). Second, Stephens
proposes an "extremely powerful but unpremeditated tendency to communicate"
(p. 8). Manifestations of this tendency include our spontaneous, seemingly
unthinking attempts to tell others of our interests and to react to others
who tell us their interests (witness the behavior of the participants at
an academic conference, for example).
Societies which have survived across history are
those strong in these tendencies and it is out of these particular tendencies
that schooling has emerged. For Stephens, the essence of schooling is that
it nurtures playful, manipulative tendencies in humans which may have long-range
survival value for the society. This nurturance is accomplished by placing
children in contact with adults who possess a high degree of communicative
tendency, who enjoy expressing their interests and reacting to the interests
and experiences of the children. A teacher interested in geography and
possessed of strong communicative tendencies will presumably interact with
students on these matters and induce some reaction on the part of the students.
It matters little what particular content is communicated or the form which
this communication takes. What is important, what schools afford,
is the engagement of learning, of the interaction between students and
highly communicative teachers about interesting, if nonessential, ideas.
Whether that interaction concerns geography, gypsy moths, leprosy, or semiotics
or is presented via lecture, textbook, computer-assisted instruction, or
on opposite ends of a log is of little consequence relative to the fact
that communication takes place among inherently curious people.
This is not the place to debate the merits of this
"reading" of schooling. My purpose is simply to show that a semiotic view
of education and educational inquiry can lead to interesting and testable
hypotheses. This is the essence of abduction, a process as fundamental
to an individual's cognition as it is to the inquiry process. For too long
we have limited our inquiry to probing the implications of a consensual
"reading," the currently popular paradigm. My message is that we should
step back and examine the bases of that "reading" and consider others,
which may be equally valid. Semiotic inquiry is the best means I know to
Berlyne, D. (1960).
arousal and curiosity.
New York: McGraw Hill.
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(1987). Outline of an educational semiotic. American Journal of Semiotics,
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(1992). Beyond educational psychology: Steps toward an educational semiotic.
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(1998). Cognition as semiosis: The role of inference. Theory and Psychology,
Deely, J. (1982). Introducing
semiotic. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Gibson, J. (1979). The
ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lemke, J. (1987). Social
semiotics and science education. American Journal of Semiotics, 5,
Shank, G. (1987). Abductive
strategies in educational research. American Journal of Semiotics, 5,
Stephens, J. (1976).
process of schooling. New York: Holt.
Donald Cunningham is
a Professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University
where he holds the Barbara Jacobs Chair in Education and Technology. He
currently directs two research centers: the Center for Research on Learning
and Technology and the Center for Applied Semiotic.