Circular causal relationships among dynamic systems

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … current range of functional possibilities
  • Knowing is … acting/responding appropriately
  • Learner is … adaptive system
  • Learning is … adapting, changing
  • Teaching is … triggering




Cybernetics is the study of control and communication among biological, mechanical, social, and/or other systems that can adapt or adjust. More specifically, Cybernetics examines “circular causal” relationships – that is, the sort of looping feedback observed when a system triggers a change in its environment, which then triggers a change in the system … and so on. Rooted in transdisciplinary research involving engineering, mathematics, biology, and neuroscience (among others), its current interests span learning, cognition, adaptation, emergence, convergence, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity (among others). Important precursors to Cybernetics include:
  • Information Theory (Claude Shannon, 1940s) – a domain of study focused on the creation, extraction, transmission, and use of information, based a the radical realization that information can be understood in terms of the resolution of uncertainty (i.e., rejecting the popular object-based metaphor of knowledge)


Typically, criticisms of Cybernetics are based on either shallow readings or troublesome descriptions/applications. Among proponents of Cybernetics, there have been heated squabbles over the legitimate bounds and interpretive reach of the perspective – debates that, in fact, prompted the emergence of the companion domain of Second-Order Cybernetics.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Norbert Wiener; Ludwig von Bertalanffy; Warren McCulloch; Walter Pitts; John von Neumann

Status as a Theory of Learning

It is more correct to say that Cybernetics offers a theory of learning than Cybernetics is a theory of learning. The domain is too broad to constrain it to one focus – even when that focus is as expansive as “learning.”

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cybernetics is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cybernetics meets our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Information Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Cybernetics” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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