A modernist notion of environment is a physical setting that can be conceived of independently of any particular organism, and, in fact, is usually said to exist for all organisms. Semiotic pedagogy must be understood in terms of Umwelten (von Uexkull, 1982) rather than environment.

Environment is usually thought of as being outside ourselves, while Umwelten exist in relation to organisms. They can be understood as related and at the same time, relating-spaces which shift and flow with the activities of all creatures and features within it.

Umwelten are not static, but are in constant states of flux both at the species and individual level. (See Anderson, Deely, Kramden, Ransdell, Sebeok, & von Uexkull, 1984). According to Deely (1993), "The environment selectively reconstituted and organized according to the specific needs and interests of the individual organism constitutes an Umwelt (p. 42). Pedagogical practice changes when the emphasis of education shifts from environment (which is outside an individual) to Umwelt (which is part and parcel with an individual), and from what we want our students to know to how students know. When this shift occurs, pedagogy becomes a process of nurturing and directing ongoing processes of semiosis. Education changes from an activity of transmission of knowledge to students, to an activity in which teachers actively help students become aware of ways in which cultures code knowledge. Teachers help students develop the wherewithal and power to explore these codes and to become consciously aware of and able to manipulate knowledge representations or signs.

Von Uexkull (1982) describes the various Umwelten created by a tree as a rough textured and convoluted terrain for a bug (reminiscent of the movie, Honey I Shrunk the Kids), a scary shape to a young child (think about the scene where the trees start throwing apples in The Wizard of Oz), a home for a nesting bird and her family, and a wonderful place to hide for a ten year old adventurer. In all of these scenes, the environment in the tree is the same; that is, the bark, the height, and the branches are available to all the organisms that use the tree for their own purposes. The organisms' experiences of the tree, however, are quite different; their understandings of the tree overlap, but are not the same.

By understanding the world in terms of Umwelten, it is possible to imagine differently than when persons are conceived of as being located in environments. Signs can be created which go beyond immediate experience; we can think about the impossible. Just as in the example involving the melting and chirping "chair," sensory clues as well as words, pictures, or bodily movements can serve as signs which generate interpretants for objects which may have no basis in the "real" world! Yet, they can also be manipulated. Steven King, George Lucas, and surrealist visual artists are experts of sign manipulation. Even though their ideas are not "real-world," they serve as inspiration for signs which are manipulated and presented in a variety of ways and understood outside of our direct experience.

Through signs, people create their culture and the institutions of culture, including religion, government, armies, schools, and art (Deely, 1992). Culture, in turn, changes our lives by revealing what is important and what is not; what makes sense and what does not. Interacting within one's own culture becomes a habit. The arbitrary nature of cultural sign systems is not readily apparent until people are exposed to systems which depart from their own. Semiotic pedagogy, purposefully calls into conversation routinely unexamined cultural signs and explicitly confronts their arbitrary nature.

We are immersed in an age of difference, and as a consequence we find ourselves in the shadow of the "other" (Foucault, 1980). By understanding culture as an arbitrary sign system, values can be questioned, habits can be explored, and art education becomes a broad arena in which to explore, visually and historically, what it means to be sensual and sentient creatures.

After reflecting on their collateral experience with art, redefining the nature of artistic talent, and reconsidering and expanding their traditional definitions of art, students are asked to re-view the artworld. Keeping in mind the arbitrary nature of social institutions, the co-relations of human cultures, and the interrelations between human cultures with other life forms, the arenas in which they might locate art becomes available for exploration.

To explore art through the Umwelt, I have asked students to aesthetically design a space that can be used collectively and individually by at least three species, one of which may be human.

Built upon reflection, this task harkens back to an earlier task in which they redefined art to include more than drawing and painting realistically. It brings the artist-redefining task to the forefront by using behaviors of the artist the students identified as collateral experience for this art task. Finally, it transcends traditional definitions of environment.
Discussion about this purposefully vague task is a starting point for spinning interpretants. It evokes the discussion of format, size, and media, as well as spirituality, aesthetic tasks, legality, discrimination, and even constitutional law. The students elaborate, reconstitute, and organize their art environments according to the specific needs of the interrelating organisms which inhabit the space, and in the process, the student artists are pushing against traditional limits of art education.


Semiotic pedagogy is about expanding the boundaries of education. It is cooperative, active, experiential, and non-predictive in the sense that there are no limits to the amount or type of inquiry which might be necessary to bring a task to closure after spinning interpretants.

Methods vary according to the contextual constraints of individual situations and can be used in a discussion or a lecture format. The key to semiotic pedagogy is engagement, because, when students are empowered to tap their own store of collateral experience as a starting point for understanding new information, they are not in alien territory. Rather, they take the unexpected, unclear, and unknown and juxtapose it with their collateral experience to build thoughtful connections or even initiate hypotheses.

Moreover, semiotically astute teachers tell stories and spin interpretants. They meet their classes bearing evidence of their own interests and collateral experience. They invite exploration and motivate the interest of their students through the artifacts and cultural clues they collect and share. Most semotically informed teachers combine these tactics while also inviting students to share their own collateral experiences. For example, I feel most successful as a teacher when I am able to be silent and students are talking and teaching each other. I ask them to bring exciting, troublesome, or interesting ideas and artifacts to class which relate to our topics. I ask them to be prepared to talk while I serve as a discussion participant, referee, coach, and occasionally as an expert.

Understanding, thinking, and making connections are goals of semiotic pedagogy --- a lifelong process. Semiotic pedagogy is not a prescribed teaching method, but a way of acting within an Umwelt that accepts the semiotic nature of the learning process. Semiotic pedagogy can be as natural as breathing because of its focus on interrelating signs. Many art educators accept that understanding is anti-hierarchical and cannot be parceled into discrete disciplines. Unlike the art teacher with the purple coat, they would have seen Tonya's curiosity as an asset to the art lesson, as a chance to spin interpretants, and not as an off-task intrusion.

Semiotic pedagogy acknowledges the human urge to make order while emphasizing that the various orders we create are human constructs, habitual, but not natural or given. Semiotic pedagogy allows students and teachers to sidestep hierarchical relationships and to become partners in what George Dalin has called "the sign game" (Cunningham & Smith-Shank, 1992, p. 68).

Semiotic pedagogy encourages networks of collateral experiences and semiosis. As Peirce pointed out to the editors of the Century Dictionary, in an ideal world, teachers serve as intellectual guides. As such they should spend their efforts helping learners reason from sign to sign and planning educational encounters which widen
the scope of their students’ collateral experience.

Teachers become brujos, or teacher-shamans, introducing new situations in order to explore what is possible, and opening avenues to the impossible.

Semiosis is not an exercise for the university, schools, or education. It is an over-arching, life-long process of learning and understanding which has the potential to redefine the roles of teachers, students, and subject matters for art education. Peirce himself pointed out:

There is no intuition or cognition not determined by previous cognitions... There is no exception, therefore, to the law that every thought-sign is translated or interpreted in a subsequent one, unless it be that all thought comes to an abrupt and final end in death. (Deely, 1993, p. 157)

References for Semiotic Pedagogy and Art Education

Anderson, M., Deely, J., Kramden, M., Ransdell, J., Sebeok, T., & von Uexkull, T. (1984).
A semiotic perspective on the sciences: Steps toward a new paradigm. Semiotica, 5](1-2), 7-47.

Barthes, R. (1967).
Elements of Semiology (A. Lavers and C. Smith, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1964).

Bourdieu, P. (1977).
Outline of a Theory of Practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.

Buchler, J. (Ed.), (1955).
Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover.

Corrington. R.S. (1993).
An introduction to C.S. Peirce: Philosopher, Semiotician, and Ecstatic Natural-ist. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Culler, J. (1991).
The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithica, NY: Cornell University.

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

Cunningham, D., & Smith-Shank, D. (1992).
Semiotic pedagogy. In T.Prewitt, J. Deely, and
K. Haworth (Eds.). Semiotics /990. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 64-70.

Deely, J. (1982).
Introducing Semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Deely, J. (1986).
The coalescence of semiotic consciousness. In J. Deely, B. Williams, and
F. Kruse (Eds.). Frontiers of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 5-34.

Deely. J. (1993).
The Human Use of Signs or Elements of Anthroposemiosis. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

Eco, U. (1979).
Proposals for a History of Semiotics. In T. Borbe (Ed.). Semiotics Unfolding. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 75-89.

Foucault, M. (1980).
Power Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977.
Colin Gordon, (Ed.). New York: Panthon Books.

Houser, N. (1987).
Toward a Peircian semiotic theory of learning. The American Journal of Semiotic, 5(2), 25 1-274.

Jakobson, R. (1980).
The Framework of Language. Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities,

Johansen, J.D. (1993).
Dialogic Semiosis. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Maritain, J. (1957).
Language and the theory of sign, In R. Nanda Anshen (Ed.). Language: An Enquiry into Its Meaning and Function. New York: Harper, 86-101.

Morris, C. (1946).
Signs, Language and Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Peirce, C.S. (1986).
Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Logic, 127(2), 140-15T

Ricoeur, P. (1981),
Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (J.B. Thompson, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saussure, F. (1966).
Course in General Linguistics (W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sebeok, T.A. (1972).
Perspectives in Zoosemiotics. The Hague: Mouton.

Shank, G.D. (1989).
Abductive strategies in educational research. The American Journal of Semiotics. 5, 275-290.

Smith-Shank, D. (1993).
Pre-service elementary teachers' stories of art and education. Art Education, 46(5), 45-51.

Volosinov, VN. (1976).
Discourse in life and discourse in art (concerning- sociological poetics) in I.R. Titunik (Trans. and Ed.), Freudianism: A Marxist Critique. New York:
Academic Press. (Original work published 1926).

Von Uexkull, J. (1982).
The theory of meaning. Semiotica, 42, 25-82.

Deborah L. Smith-Shank
Associate Professor of Art
Northern Illinois University

Deborah L. Smith-Shank received her Ph.D. degree in Art Education and Semiotics from Indiana University in 1992, and is currently serving as Associate Professor in the School of Art and as Faculty Associate of Women's Studies at Northern Illinois University. Prior to her University teaching experience, she taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in both parochial and public schools.

Dr. Smith-Shank spends her time teaching art education courses to both pre-service elementary teachers and art majors, making art in what she describes as a feminist-expressionist style, and exploring the question, "What is art?" within various small cultures. She has used qualitative research methods, particularly reflective storytelling, to understand this question from the point of view of groups such as elementary teachers, fans of the Grateful Dead rock band, owners of velvet Elvis paintings, gifted high school students, and women over the age of 70, among others.

Dr. Smith-Shank has published many book chapters and articles on art education and semiotics. Book chapters include “Spinning Visual Interpretants: Tales of Sheela-Na-Gig and Cycladic Figures” in Semiotics 2000, “Women Artists Get Personal: Narratives, Myths, and Old Wives' Tales” in Semiotics as a Bridge Between the Humanities and the Sciences, and You Don't Need a Penis to be a Genius in Real World Readings in Art Education: Things Your Professors Never Told You. Dr. Smith-Shanks’s articles often explore unusual aspects of visual culture, including such works as “Naughty Pictures: Their Significance to Initial Sexual Identity Formation” with Paul Duncum in the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education and “Old Wives Tales: Questing to Understand Visual Memories “ in Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research.

Sr. Smith-Shank is especially interested in cross-disciplinary, international, and cross-cultural collaborations. In the summer of 1996 she co-founded the International Summer School for Art Education on the Island of Hvar, CROATIA, with Emil Tanay, Johan Ligtvoet, and Mary Stokrocki. This summer school continues to be a site for art making, intellectual discussion, and intercultural understanding.

For a complete bibilography and on-line article, contact Deborah Smith-Shank Home Site