Facilitating Learning-Centered

Instructional Design:

A Semiotic Perspective

Marcy P. Driscoll

Florida State University
[This paper is based largely on a section of a chapter on instructional theory by Schott and Driscoll,(in press) and a chapter on semiotic instructional design by Driscoll and Rowley (in press).]

Semiotics is concerned with the communication of meaning and in America is largely influenced by the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce (e.g., Peirce, 1955; Houser & Kloesel, 1992). In an attempt to analyze fundamental communication across all natural phenomena, Peirce developed a theory of signs, which he based on three universal properties: firstness, secondness, and thirdness. Firstness is a primary object, existing independently of anything else. Secondness involves a relation between the object and some sign or symbol of it. And thirdness is the interpretation of the sign or symbol, called the interpretant. Peirce argued that the primary activity of experience is interpretation of signs, which he called semiosis, and semiosis is what leads to knowledge.

Two examples provide illustrations of object, sign, and interpretant: learning how to sew, and understanding the ramifications of the question, "Is the majority always right?" In the first example, the sewing machine itself--constituted of its design, function, and mode of operation--is the object, representing firstness. Likewise, the idea or thought of "Is the majority always right?," represents firstness. The sewing machine, in its concrete form or imaginal model, is also the sign. That is, suppose a picture of a sewing machine appears in the instruction on the topic, "how to use a sewing machine." It bears an iconic relation to the actual object, which establishes secondness. In the case of the abstract topic of majority always right, there are probably multiple signs available. There is the verbal description of the topic in a textbook. Perhaps there is also a person whose religious views, being different from those of the majority, are a source of discrimination. These multiple signs represent secondness. But thirdness requires the learner's experience with and interpretation of the sign. When the learner apprehends the picture of a sewing machine to reveal its function, for example, a semiotic relation, or interpretant, is established. Similarly, when a student reads about the topic, "Is the majority always right?," in her textbook or encounters a news item about discrimination against a person for his religious views, and interprets these signs as indicating that the majority is not always right, then the semiotic relation, or thirdness, has been established.

Two other aspects of the object-sign-interpretant triad are important to mention. To begin with, signs can bear different relations to their objects. They can be indexical, iconic, or symbolic. An indexical sign is one established by cause and effect, as in the appearance of a zig-zag stitch on a garment being caused by a particular setting on the sewing machine. Iconic signs are images, or likenesses, of their objects. Symbols are related to their objects by habit or convention. The word "foot" to designate a particular part on the sewing machine is an example. Language and mathematics are symbolic systems commonly used by humans.

The other important aspect of the sign triad is Peirce's distinction between two types of objects (immediate and dynamic) and three types of interpretants (immediate, dynamic, and ultimate). The immediate object of the majority-always-right question, for example, is the meaning inherent in the question. The dynamic object, however, refers to what is implied by the immediate object. In this case, the dynamic object would include all the various facets surrounding the complex issue of when the majority is or isn't right.

The three types of interpretants can be understood in terms of the learner's reactions to and interpretations of the majority-always-right question. The immediate interpretant occurs when the learner says (or thinks), "I know what this question is asking." In other words, the sign-to-immediate-object relation is apprehended. Dynamic interpretants refer to the range of reactions the learner may have to the immediate object. If our learner has never been in the minority on an issue, she may react by considering hypothetical instances in a dispassionate way. If, on the other hand, she has experienced hurtful actions at the hands of the majority for deeply felt, personal convictions, she may react with anger. Finally, the ultimate interpretant represents the learner's understanding after a history of semiotic interaction with the dynamic object. In this case, our learner might come to some understanding of when an angry response to a majority decision is justified and when decisions by a majority are themselves appropriate.

The concept of the ultimate interpretant enables us to conceive a large range of possible outcomes of instruction. What outcomes are achieved depends on the learner's semiotic interactions with the dynamic object. This should be taken into account either to foster a large range of outcomes concerning a certain subject matter to be taught (as in the case of the majority-always-right issue) or to limit possible varieties to avoid certain interpretations and actions (as in the case of operating a sewing machine).

One advantage of this semiotic analysis is that it provides a theoretical foundation for the integration of all forms of knowledge, including thoughts, actions, and emotions. All are apparent in the interpretations of a learner to signs in the learning environment. It further enables a teacher or designer to identify constraints and possibilities to learning that may be present in a particular situation. Constraints would be caused by mismatches in the signs understood and used by the learner and those present in the learning environment, learning task, and social context for learning, or those used by the teacher. Possibilities are created when the teacher or designer appropriately interprets signs of the learner, identifies potentially useful signs in the learning context, and uses this knowledge in the design of the instruction.

As may be evident by now, a semiotic perspective provides instructional designers with an approach to determining appropriate learning tasks for instruction. In educational semiotics, learning is viewed as semiosis, that is, a process of interpreting meaning and assembling signs and symbols (cf., Cunningham, 1987, 1992; Houser, 1987; Driscoll & Rowley, in press).

As the learner develops a complex network of relational signs and symbols, it mediates new experiences so that some signs in the learning environment or used by the teacher are perceived whereas others are ignored. Important for instructional design is determining what signs are perceived by the learner as relevant to the goal and what interpretation is made of each sign. Instructional goals are defined in terms of standard or desired interpretations of signs, and the learning task depends on the gap between a learner's current interpretations and those that are desired for the goal performance. It is also important for the learning task to provide the learner with extended semiotic interaction with object-sign relations consistent with the desired interpretations. Only through such extended interactions can a long-lasting change in knowledge occur (as opposed to a fleeting semiosis within, for example, a problem solving process).

In order to investigate a learner's interpretations on which to base an instructional design, Driscoll and Rowley (in press) recommended that the designer undertake a semiotic inquiry. This could consist of presenting a prototypic learner with a knowledge base or subject matter tutor and observing the learning process, perhaps through questioning or think-aloud techniques (Ericsson & Simon, 1993). The problems and issues encountered by the learner during semiosis would then help to inform the definition of specific instructional objectives, the selection of learning tasks, and the use and design of particular instructional methods and media.

As an example, consider a dance instructor who hears of a certain dance that she wants her students to learn. In preparing instruction to teach the dance, the teacher must initially interpret signs to represent the immediate object, which is the dance itself. Signs are available in the rhythm and tune of the music to be used for the dance, in the pictures of the dance movements (perhaps on a video), and in descriptions of the dance in a textbook. The ultimate object is the dance in all of its facets, including movements and expression of emotion. This means the teacher probably experiences feelings as she listens to the dance music that are also signs to be interpreted in relation to the emotion expressed in the dance. The result of the teacher's semiosis is a set of ultimate interpretants, such as her recognition of certain steps in the dance and her sense of the dance as being expressive of joy, for example.

When the teacher now attempts to design instruction to teach the dance to her students, she defines the learning task and chooses signs for representing it based on her knowledge of the students and the dance. She may also use signs in the social context to advantage in designing the learning environment. By conducting a semiotic analysis with one of her students, the teacher learns about existing possibilities and constraints. She might learn, for example, that the lack of mirrors in the dance hall is not a particular constraint. Although mirrors would provide visual feedback to students about their performance of dance steps, our teacher may find that students are so self-conscious mirrors would actually distract them from the learning task. Similarly, through a semiotic analysis, she may discover she can express the emotion of the dance in ways that are not apparent to the students from a videotaped rendition of the dance.

During the dance instruction itself, students must apprehend and interpret the object-sign relations in the learning task and learning environment that were designed by the teacher. The ultimate object is the same: the dance in all of its potential facets. But the signs of the dance to be interpreted are those used by the teacher in the instruction or inherent in the social context. Because learners' prior experiences with dancing are somewhat unique, we can expect that their interpretants (including immediate perceptions and reactions, as well as ultimate understandings) of the dance will also be varied.

A primary consequence of semiotically informed instructional design is a focus on learning, that is, what is being learned in any given situation. Instructional goals, learning tasks, learning environments (including instructors, instructional methods, and media), and learners cannot be viewed independently from one another in designing instruction because only through their interaction is meaning created for the participants involved. A semiotic perspective also collapses the distinction between instructional design and implementation and provides an integrated means of viewing the "realities" of instruction on multiple planes--from the culture to the individual learner.


Cunningham, D.J. (1987). Outline of an education semiotic. American Journal of Semiotics, 5(2), 201-216.

Cunningham, D.J. (1992). Beyond educational psychology: Steps toward an educational semiotic. Educational Psychology Review, 4, 165-194.

Driscoll, M.P. & Rowley, K. (in press). Semiotics: Toward learning-centered instructional design. In C. Dills & A. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development: The state of the art, Vol. III. The paradigms, models, metaphors, and viewpoints. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Ericsson, K.A. & Simon, H.A. (1993). Protocol analysis. Cambridge, MA; The MIT Press.

Houser, N. & Kloesel, C., Eds. (1992). The essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Houser, N. (1987). Toward a Peircean theory of learning. The American Journal of Semiotics, 5(2), 251-274.

Peirce, C.S. (1955). Philosophical writings of Peirce. J. Buchler (Ed.). New York: Dover.

Schott, F. & Driscoll, M.P. (in press). On the architectonics of instructional theory. In S. Dijkstra, F. Schott, N. Seel & R. Tennyson (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Marcy P. Driscoll
Department of Educational Research
Florida State University

Phone: (904) 644-8777
Fax: (904) 644-8776
E-mail: driscoll@SY2000.CET.FSU.EDU

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