Semiotics a sign of the times for teachers

September 9, 2014 Laura Harris, ATA News Staff

U of C researcher Bonnie Shapiro the recipient of research award

When a student raises a hand for permission to speak, is it just a raised hand or could it be something more?

It could when it’s viewed by a teacher with an understanding of semiotic interpretation.

That’s the understanding with which you come away after looking into the intriguing research of the University of Calgary’s Bonnie Shapiro, this year’s recipient of the Educational Research Award presented annually by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Shapiro defines semiotics as “the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behaviour.”

With this in mind, a gesture such as the raising of a hand by a student is a social code, a sign communicating the wish to speak; a physical structure such as that of a classroom or school expresses cultural ideas about how activities within it will proceed.

In her semiotic interpretive research, initiated in 2012, Shapiro looks at what messages emerge from the physical and social structures of our learning settings. She shares findings that show how “the social and physical features of learning environments function as a form of curriculum text to build and enhance ideas, skills and attitudes.”

Teachers played a key role in Shapiro’s work on semiotics. For assistance, Shapiro recruited 10 newly certificated teachers who learned how to read school environments using a semiotic lens. The teachers then joined her in both elementary and high school settings to employ their newfound skills.

“I have presented introductions to semiotic interpretive work in graduate and undergraduate university classes, at national and international conferences, and at ATA Science Council and Global Environmental and Outdoor Education Council conferences,” stated Shapiro in her submission.

“Educators become deeply interested in this way of looking at learning. They begin to view everyday cultural practices such as language and communication structures as learning resources, and readily engage in critical reflection on the ideas and messages they convey.”

Shapiro’s study is scheduled for completion in December 2015. Her submission, “Engaging teachers in the semiotic readings of environmental messages in teaching and learning settings,” is posted on the ATA website. See the online version of this article for a link to Shapiro’s research.

The $5,000 ATA Educational Research Award is presented annually by the Association to a Faculty of Education member or sessional lecturer at an Alberta university or university college who has undertaken high quality research on classroom teaching and learning. ❚

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