Can Semiotics Improve Teaching and Learning?

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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This synopsis is part of my own MA Design Studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London (2004-2006)

Case study: I have decided to share my already published MA thesis from 2006. Although it is gradually become outdated with current pedagogy, it is still worth sharing for classroom debate. There will always be semiotic language used in every classroom; therefore, this research is relevant, despite teaching and learning (styles) being shunned and effect-sizes (currently) viewed as paramount importance.

Do consider this academic journal: (last para. page 15.):

“there is no adequate evidence-based justify incorporating learning style assessments into general education practice. Thus limited education resources will be better devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sounds studies … It would be an error to conclude that all possible versions … have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.”

This is a short synopsis to the full 10,000 word thesis as was designed to test teaching and learning. You can view this report online (in full) here.

Synopsis and report objectives:

The primary focus of this report is to develop and test an artefact through a case study of observations. This artefact will be developed, produced and tested in a British secondary school, which aims to use a variety of signs (semiotics theory) as a teaching strategy to produce a classroom resource.

Artefact DVD cover
Artefact DVD cover – Copyright: @TeacherToolkit

The focal point of the artefact, is specifically aimed at teaching and learning within the classroom. DVD covers are here.

The main objectives for this case study are listed and the outcomes are found in the conclusion to this synopsis; in section one of the main report. Section one will explain how the findings will be presented.

The objectives of the artefact and report are:

  • to improve the standard of teaching and learning within the classroom.
  • to provide teachers and schools with a teaching resource.
  • to offer the opportunity for all learners to access the curriculum.
  • to be inclusive of learning disabilities through the use of colour, signage, touch and literacy.
  • to reduce repetitive instructions given by teachers that waste time.
  • to provide stimulus for teachers and students to offer alternate access to learning in the 21st century.

The reader is provided with a background to the case study environment, which details the type of school, the subjects taught and it’s teachers and students. An introductory history and definition of learning, and how signs could be used in a teaching and learning environment is given in section two.


The report and artefact is presented to the reader through a case study of lesson observations and video analysis, using a selection of national curriculum subjects within a school. The subjects selected give opportunities for types of learning. The observations were recorded through a mini-DV camcorder and reflect a period of development over 6 months in 2005. All recordings are made with the consent of the headteacher and each classroom teacher in each subject.

All recordings are confidential and the footage is stored and edited onto a DVD using Apple iMovie software. The artefact is presented as a hard copy and in digital format on a CD-ROM which can be viewed within this report. The digital form gives the individual teachers or schools the option, if required, to adopt the artefact as their own.


The strategies used for production of the developed artefact have evolved over a 2-year period. This phase will include discussions and observations of teachers, students and subjects, which use the developing artefact. Testing and analysis from the pre-artefact observations and post-artefact observations will aid the development to form a useable product in the form of a teaching resource. Together with this, the report aims to promote the use of signs as a resource to facilitate communication, not substitute, teaching and learning in the classroom.

The observational study will focus on a selection of teachers who have agreed to participate in the development of the artefact. The school used in this report is a secondary state school and will be detailed later in section two (see download link below). In most state secondary schools, key stage three national curriculum education consists of: Maths, English, Science, Design Technology (including resistant materials, food, textiles, electronics and control), I.C.T (Information Communication & Technology), History, R.E. (Religious Education), P.E. (Physical Education), P.S.H.E. (Personal, Social & Health Education), Music, Drama, Spanish, French [2] (or other language) and Art. (English National Curriculum 2005)


Subject approaches to teaching have been used as a criterion for selection for each subject used in this report. The reason for this was to narrow the diversity of the study from using all key stage three subjects, to the focus of learning within the curriculum. Teacher participation was also a factor and the response was pleasing. An initial selection of ten teaching staff was selected, based on subjects and teaching used. All employees agreed to take part in the study.

The national curriculum subjects selected were: Art, Science, French, PE, English and Drama based upon the criteria outlined. Each subject allows scope for one or more learning approaches and is explained in full in section two.

The school environment at key stage 3 consists of 11 to 14-year-old students. In secondary educational terms, this is year 7, 8 and 9 and this system will be used throughout this report and artefact process. Note, all observed lessons stated in this report, in sections three and four, are [3] cross-referenced to the DVD attached in this report to support primary research. The DVD represents part of the artefact developed.


In conclusion, the success criteria for the artefact used in this report is determined as follows by the objectives set out in the beginning of this synopsis. This will be discussed in section three of the main report.

The success criteria of the artefact and the report is to:

  • to improve teaching and learning within the classroom.
  • to provide teachers with a teaching resource.
  • to allow all learners to access the curriculum.
  • to be inclusive of learning needs.
  • to benefit various teaching methods.
  • to reduce repetitive instructions.
  • to provide stimulus within the classroom.
  • to provide a detailed argument, findings and analysis to the main question.

This synopsis at time of publication, was a working piece (December 2005). The final report includes this synopsis and consists of a 10,000-word case study and a developed artefact for final submission to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, as part of the MA Design Studies course 2004-2006.

The artefact was a packaged product containing [4] two CD-ROM’s, [5] one DVD and the artefact as a teaching resource.


Download a sample of colour-coded interactive whiteboard signs in PDF format.

Download the full case-study: MA Design Studies – Final Thesis – by Ross Morrison McGill.


[1] Definition of learning: Accessibility in Distance Education. <>, (19/09/05)
[2] Depending on skills of employees of school or aims of governing body and local education authority.
[3] Indicated by chapter and minute. For example, chapter 3 / 13:05 mins
[4] One includes a digital version of all signs for editing; the second, the aims and objectives, instructions and an endorsement.
[5] Edited on Apple iMovie and recorded with a personal mini-DV recorder. Presents evidence of use of the artefact.


Listed as author/surname alphabetical order in report:

  • Bathes. R. – 2000, Mythologies. 3rd ed. London: Vintage Ltd. ISBN 0 0 09 997220 4
  • Colbey. P. and Jansz. L. – 2004, Introducing Semiotics. Icon Books Ltd. Royston: ISBN 1 84 046 584 0 Dickinson. C. – 1996, Effective Learning Activities. Network Educational Press Ltd. (s.l.): ISBN 1 85 539035 3
  • Eco. U. – 1987, Travels with Hyperreality. 2nd ed. London: Picador Ltd: ISBN 0 330 29667 1
  • Ginott. H. –1972, Between Parent and Teenager. ISBN 0 02 543350 4
  • Kempe. A. – 2004, Enhancing Student Learning Through Semiotics. Institute of Education [July 2004] Communication by email. Thody. P & Course. A. – 1999, Introducing Barthes. Icon Books Ltd. Cambridge: ISBN 1 184046061X
  • Office for Standards in Education (OfSTED -Bignell.G.) –2002, APS school report–131758. Inspection no:249265. Crown copyright. Pearsall. J.& Trumble. B.-1996,Oxford English Reference Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860046 1


Please let me know what you think … The DVD is available;  containing full video content and a full bank of classroom resources.

@TeacherToolkit by Ross Morrison McGill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
@TeacherToolkit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

4 thoughts on “Can Semiotics Improve Teaching and Learning?

  1. I think you’ll find English and Media teachers have used semiotics as a toolkit in the classroom since the early 1990’s so yes and as a framework for deconstructing the world it is powerful – yet probably seen as lefty nonsense by the current gov.

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