Cybernetics

Focus

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

Originated

1940s

Synopsis

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). Processes of core interests 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 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)

Commentary

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.

Subdiscourses:

  • Information Theory
  • Feedback Loop
  • Negative Feedback (Balancing Feedback)
  • Positive Feedback (Exacerbating Feedback; Self-Reinforcing Feedback)
  • Vicious Circle (Vicious Cycle)
  • Virtuous Circle (Virtuous Cycle)

Map Location



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


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