Kress on Meaning and Agency

Gunther Kress, a professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, argues that every moment of meaning making is an act of design, and that learning always involves the learner in a process of active transformation of the world. Here, Kress describes a ‘design’ approach to meaning-making.

Consider this example: a three-year-old is attempting to clamber up a very steep, grassy slope. He says, ‘This is a heavy hill’. His interest here is to express/represent the great effort which it is taking him to climb this slope. He doesn’t have the word ‘steep’ available as a lexical item, as an available resource. So he uses an element which he does have, and which most adequately expresses in its already existent (lexical/semiotic) form the meaning which he wishes to represent—something like: ‘it is really hard; really heavy work for me to climb this hill’. In this process, ‘heavy’ has been reshaped, remade, transformed … We can of course decide … that then child’s competence is inadequate, and we need to teach him the (proper use of the) word ‘heavy’.

An alternative is to say that this is in fact an entirely usual process … Notions of language use—that is, deployment of existing resources without changing them—will need to be replaced by notions of the constant remaking of resources in the process of their use, in action and interaction. The remaking of the resources is an effect both of the demands of particular occasions of interaction and of the social and cultural characteristics of the individual maker of signs …

With this approach use is replaced by transformation and remaking … If competence in the use of the possibilities of an existing stable system is the goal of [currently predominant theories of language and learning], the capacity of design through the (re-)shaping of the potentials of existing resources is the goal the [transformative, design approach]. The two approaches assume very different notions of individual action and individual responsibility.

Th[e design] process involves constant transformation of the existing [meaning-making] resources at every point … I am always working with the products of prior design. My own representational action is thus both an always new making in then implementation of my new designs; and it is always also the constant reshaping, the redesign … [of] the prior designs of others. In this view, individual action and agency is brought together with the effect of social form and structure.

Kress, Gunther. 2000. ‘Design and Transformation: New Theories of Meaning. Pp. 153–161 in Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, edited by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. London: Routledge. pp. 155–156, 158. || Amazon || WorldCat