Structures That Teach: Using a Semiotic Framework to Study the Environmental Messages of Learning Settings

Bonnie Shapiro


Everything within the learning setting holds the potential for learning and teaching. A significant, often overlooked source for accessing new information lies in the learner’s knowledge and use of cultural values, habits and norms. In addition to listening and reading texts, learning takes place through daily interaction with building and communication structures. These structures are representations of cultural values that are read by all who inhabit learning settings. They are structures that teach. The messages of these structures remain with students long after they leave learning settings. Like language, knowledge of culture serves as an everyday and ever-ready resource for information about how to gather and share knowledge and ideas about how learning proceeds. This article describes the value of documenting some of the environmental messages of these structures using a semiotic interpretive research approach. Semiotics explores the signs and systems of signification that are used to engage learners. Messages are organized and expanded using four main categories: 1) Architectural Messages; 2) Text and Curriculum Messages; 3) Social/Behavioral Messages and 4) Policy Messages. The study suggests that a semiotic consideration of learning settings allows identification and critique of ineffective environmental messages and suggests the creation of messages that will lead to more effective knowledge, habits and routines.

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