How signs become meaningful and their role in making meaning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of interpretive possibility
  • Knowing is … using signs
  • Learner is … a sign-using system (individual, interpersonal, cultural)
  • Learning is … making meaning
  • Teaching is … interpreting




Semiotics is concerned with the role of signs in making meaning. Semiotics assumes that individuals cannot have direct knowledge of things and events, and so “sign” is posited as a sort of mediator between one’s mind and an object or event. That is, a sign is a stand-in that represents something else. Most signs are arbitrary (i.e., inherently meaningless) and may be icons (images), pointers (that direct attentions), or symbols (e.g., numbers, words, gestures). People usually use combinations of signs to communicate. Semiotics examines how signs become meaningful on personal and collective levels and how, once meaningful, signs are deployed to influence interpretation and action. Key constructs and associated discourses include:
  • Iconicity – a reference to the extent of similarity between two forms that enables one to serve as a sign or symbol for the other
  • Semiosis (Charles Sanders Peirce, 1860s) – the triggering of some sort of meaning by a “sign” – which is anything that can trigger a meaning that is not about itself
  • Semiology (Ferdinand de Saussure, 1900s) – an umbrella term that reaches across any theory or study of sign processes


Semiotics interrupts or rejects many commonsense assumptions about knowledge and communication, and so the theory can be very difficult to understand and explain. Consequently, most criticisms seem to be associated with interpretations that are shallow or false. Of the criticisms that are based on careful reading, a common concern is that many theorists seem to refer to individuals’ uses of “signs” in a manner reminiscent of the knowledge-objects of the Acquisition Metaphor. That is, signs are frequently discussed as being acquired, as mental representations, and as internal symbols – suggesting that many proponents of Semiotics actually work from quite unsophisticated theories of learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Charles Sanders Peirce; Ferdinand de Saussure; Mikhail Bakhtin; Roland Barthes

Status as a Theory of Learning

With its focus on how meaning is made, negotiated, and propagated on personal, interpersonal, and cultural levels, Semiotics might be seen as a trans-level theory of learning – that is, one that implicitly casts persons, collectives, and cultures as nested, intertwined learning systems.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Semiotics is not a theory of teaching, and it offer no advice (direct or indirect) on influencing learning. (That said, see Semiotic Pedagogy.)

Status as a Scientific Theory

Interpreted as a theory of learning in the manner described above, Semiotics can be classified as a scientific theory. It is critically attentive to its assumptions and constructs, and it is associated with considerable empirical evidence.


  • Iconicity
  • Semiology
  • Semiosis

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Semiotics” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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