In this ethnography I will analyze the language of learning by applying the properties of semiotics to the various dimensions of classroom discourse within a traditional fifth grade class in Heredia, Costa Rica. Informing my analysis with education theory and the possible implications of digital technologies in classroom learning, I will reveal that semiotics elucidates the underlying framework of the activity of repaso, illuminating an entire practice within traditional “school math.”
By tracking a particular practice of the traditional classroom, one is better capable of understanding and guiding the course it will take in the nontraditional Classmate classroom and can thus guide this innovation of the 1:1 laptop initiative to improve the current framework underlying classroom learning.
Moreover, the effects on classroom discourse and the implications of the potential changes of language usage with the introduction of the 1:1 laptop initiative cannot be documented accurately without a baseline of a traditional classroom for comparison.
In Courtney Cazden’s Classroom Discourse, the study of classroom discourse is defined as “a kind of applied linguistics—the study of situated language use in one social setting.” (3) On account of this frame of reference, it is appropriate to analyze and interpret my data in terms of semiotics.
Semiotics is defined as “the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else.”3 In his book Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler defines the basic semiotic terms of signifier and signified in their contemporary sense. He states that, “the signifier is now commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign – it is something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted.” (18-19) The signified, on the other hand, is the more abstract “concept to which it [the sign] refers.” (18) Thus, if one is to understand a language, one must have a clear understanding of both the form of the sign and the concept that underlies that material sign.
The French linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, defined signifier and signified as psychological elements ‘intimately linked’ and established a total interdependence between the two. The Saussurean model establishes that idea by explicating the linguistic constitution of a sign. A material sign consists of two parts as demonstrated in Saussure’s dyadic model.
Saussure’s model of the sign
In terms of this model, a sign is “the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified” (19). By applying the Saussurean model to the discourse analysis of the repaso lesson and then zooming in on particular features of this lesson, a holistic comprehension emerges from the education theory pertinent to the ethnography.
Socio-cultural theories of cognitive and linguistic development
Authoritative discourse vs. Internally persuasive discourse
Cazden refers to a contemporary of Vygotsky’s, Bakhtin, because he describes “two basic modes for the appropriation and transmission—simultaneously of another’s words (a text, a rule, a model): ‘reciting by heart” and “telling in one’s own words’.” He defines these two modes of appropriation in formal terms as authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourse. The term authoritative discourse implies that the words have a stringent authority assigned to them. In direct contrast, internally persuasive discourse refers to the lost of this authority and the transformation of the words into one’s own terms.
Cazden draws attention to the cognitive difference between contextualized and de-contextualized tasks and the motivational aspect involved. Contextualized tasks include a motivational component since they are integrated in a meaningful way to everyday life. De-contextualized tasks are those that simply demand for a task to be completed without a significant, or useful context.
Discourse as scaffold
The term scaffold is borrowed from construction terminology and is used metaphorically to explain the strategy of an adult supporting and providing assistance as needed for a child to acquire experience and knowledge for comprehension of increasingly more complex, difficult information. Cazden explicates how through speech acts, or verbal interactions between an adult and a child, the child can be scaffolded, or supported to think about, and understand complex concepts. Carrasco, the math teacher, employs classroom discourse as scaffold to contextualize the mathematic concepts in terms of lo cotidiano, everyday life experiences.