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). Subdiscourses and associated discourses include:
  • Biocybernetics – an effort to understand biological functioning through principles of Cybernetics
  • Management Cybernetics (Stafford Beer, 1950s) – a blend of Cybernetics and Organizational Learning that is centrally concerned with the self-regulation of organizations
  • Psycho-Cybernetics (Maxwell Maltz, 1960s) – techniques for self-improvement that are based on a blend of Cybernetics and Cognitive Behavior Theory (see Behaviorisms) and that are brought to bear on one’s goals sense of self. Body- and performance-focused self-affirmations and mental visualisations figure centrally.
  • Second-Order Cybernetics — an elaboration of Cybernetics’ core interest in circular causal relationships (feedback) between systems. The interest is extended to include phenomena that can involve feedback to feedback – that is, that have some level of responsive awareness.
Processes of core interest within Cybernetics include:
  • Feedback Loop – an aspect of the self-regulating processes of dynamic systems, typically characterized as a recursive cycle by which a system triggers an action or change, which then “feeds back” information that helps to determine the system’s next action or change. And so on. Typically, multiple Feedback Loops are involved in the maintenance of a complex, dynamic system. Types of Feedback Loop include:
    • Positive Feedback (Exacerbating Feedback; Self-Reinforcing Feedback) – an accelerative influence, typically illustrated with the examples of hyperinflation or the screech produced when a sound system amplifies itself, by which the output of a system "feeds back" (i.e., becomes new input) in ways that repeatedly (or continuously) reinforces it.
    • Negative Feedback (Balancing Feedback) – a moderating influence, typically illustrated with the example of a household thermostat, by which the output of a system “feeds back” (i.e., becomes new input) in ways that minimize variations and/or maintain stability
In everyday life, these processes are more commonly encountered as characterized as:
  • Vicious Circle (Vicious Cycle) – typically, a real-life instance of a Feedback Loop, distinguished not according to process (i.e., either Positive Feedback or Negative Feedback may be involved), but to results (i.e., a Vicious Circle has undesirable outcomes).
  • Virtuous Circle (Virtuous Cycle) – typically, a real-life instance of a Feedback Loop, distinguished not according to process (i.e., either Positive Feedback or Negative Feedback may be involved), but to results (i.e., a Virtuous Circle has desirable outcomes)
Important precursors to Cybernetics include:
  • Information Science (Information Studies) (1950s) – prompted mainly by post-World-War-II developments associated with computing (including Cybernetics and Information Theory), the transdisciplinary field concerned with understanding the nature, movement, and maintenance of information
  • 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. As well, with the rapid pace of technological development, Cybernetics has come to be associated (not always appropriately) with various idealistic perspectives, including:
  • Technological Utopianism (Techno-Utopianism) – the belief that technological advances will eventually bring on a utopia (or, at least, help to bring one on). Related discourses include:
    • Cyber-Utopianism (Digital Utopianism; Utopian Internet; Web-Utopianism) – a type of Technical Utopianism that is focused on the role of digital communications for enabling a freer and more participatory world
    • Flourishing Cybernetics (Nadia Abuseif, Nicole Norris, Jen Wilson-Lee, 2020s) – a futures-oriented imagining of complementary evolutions and mutual flourishing of humanity and autonomous technologies
    • Technological Solutionism (Solutionism) – the belief that every problem encountered by humanity has a technological solution. Specific examples include:
      • Technocentrism (Timothy O’Riordan, 1980s) – the conviction that pressing ecological concerns can be effectively addressed through technological advancements – specifically, those that amplify human abilities to predict and control the environment
      • Technogaianism (South African Eco-Anarchist Project, 1990s) – the perspective that new technologies will be a necessary and integral element in addressing current and emergent ecological issues

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.


  • Biocybernetics
  • Cyber-Utopianism (Digital Utopianism; Utopian Internet; Web-Utopianism)
  • Feedback Loop
  • Flourishing Cybernetics
  • Information Science (Information Studies)
  • Information Theory
  • Management Cybernetics
  • Negative Feedback (Balancing Feedback)
  • Positive Feedback (Exacerbating Feedback; Self-Reinforcing Feedback)
  • Psycho-Cybernetics
  • Technocentrism
  • Technogaianism
  • Technological Solutionism (Solutionism)
  • Technological Utopianism (Techno-Utopianism)
  • Vicious Circle (Vicious Cycle)
  • Virtuous Circle (Virtuous Cycle)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Cybernetics” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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