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Sign and "SIGNing"

Sign: the significant arrangement of objects, spaces, vocal and body signals so that cumulatively they offer a meaningful message system to those who 'read' them. In theatre these are created for specific purposes and presented to the audience with no superfluous elements. In the classroom, sign is created so it can dominate all the other signs which cannot be illuminated, and so it becomes significant for the present purpose.

"Sign" is one of the building blocks of drama work.

… the basic medium communication is the sign that somebody else can read. ... Now, I don't distinguish, then, drama teaching from any other kind of teaching, in that we all use the sign as our basic business. The theatre has developed the art of signing in a very special way, and that's the bit I borrow for the classroom: the art of signing.

Now you see, the theatre resonates its signing. It doesn't just say it in words; it says it because there's a combination of form, matter, colour, space, light. Now I think that's what a classroom is: if you take trouble, that's what a classroom is. And in that sense, and in that sense only - I'm not saying it for everything - that is a theatre. Now it seems to me that a sensible teacher says, “I'll do the best resonance in this lesson, in the ways the signs are needed for this learning, that I possibly can.”

(From: "The Heathcote Interview” – Dorothy Heathcote interviewed by James Eggleston, NATD Annual Conference 1982)

In the book Drama for Learning (co-written with Gavin Bolton), Dorothy offers examples of the use of sign in the classroom.


She writes:

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Suppose we want to turn our classroom into a “tiling factory.” The enterprise must feel authentic all the time, even though the whole business is a fabrication agreed upon by the participants. ...

The classroom environment can be modified to a small degree. Furniture can be changed about a little to alter the shape of working spaces. Notices can be placed to remind everybody “what goes on here.” Such notices must be authentic as to format and message, even though they are made of paper or written on the blackboard. ...


She gives the example of different signs for “telephones”. She states:

Never a real one; never a toy one! But there are numerous alternatives:

1. Draw it on a piece of card, with the push buttons precisely marked, and tape the card to a table. Teacher models its use - punching the numbers in the air, not miming. (Never mention the word! You want to represent the urge to telephone NOT make your hands show they are telephoning. It is the impulse you are after not the imitation.)

2. Write a notice. PLEASE BE SURE YOU REPLACE THE HANDSET CORRECTLY AFTER TELEPHONING invites action. If a tied pencil and small pad is placed beside it, it also authenticizes the purpose and nature of phoned messages. Of all notice, TELEPHONE, may also be needed.

3. Post a “phone usage record sheet.” The potential here is for detailed attention to minutes and costs. A drawn clock emphasises time; the map of radiating line showing city, state, country, and world has a geographical and distance potential.

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Notice how each kind of sign above causes different experiences and different potential for learning. Here is another example from the same book. A worker in a "factory"


may need a lathe for turning wood. It would not help to sign the presence of such a lathe by drawing a flat, two-dimensional picture. Such a drawing would become an embarrassment if it became necessary for the student to demonstrate a work process for the lathe. A more useful indicator would be a “safety notice”: the words THIS WOOD LATHE MUST HAVE SAFETY GUARD FITTED DURING OPERATION, accompanied by a drawing of the right/wrong position and the patent number.

Dorothy also states:

But of course the main source for authentic SIGNing comes from the teacher. With the position of an actor the teacher adopts appropriate body attitude, gesture, tone of voice, style of delivery, distance, pitch, choice of vocabulary, deliberate uncertainty or confidence, deliberate vagueness or precision. ... [T]he teacher uses SIGNing as an invitation to the students to join in the encounter, effecting and affecting the enterprise. Unlike the actor, the teacher’s purpose is to empower the students, who are indeed, at first, merely “audience” to the teacher’s signing.

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