Second-Order Cybernetics


Cybernetics of Cybernetics
New Cybernetics
Second Cybernetics


Recursively elaborative dynamics among entangled 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




Three popularly cited characterizations of Second-Order Cybernetics are:
  • the Cybernetics of Cybernetics (i.e., the recursive application of Cybernetics applying Cybernetics to itself)
  • the study of Cybernetics by people who recognize themselves to be part of the system they’re studying (or, the realization that there are no observerless observations)
  • the study of organism-plus-environment as a single system
Second-Order Cybernetics is, then, 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. Second-Order Cybernetics thus simultaneously sparks and addresses issues of autonomy, self-referentiality, knowing, mind, and ethics. Closely aligned discourses include:
  • Artificial Life (Christopher Langdon, 1980s) – the study of life processes and the attempt to recreate aspects of biological phenomena through computer, robotic, and biochemical simulations – which, among other things, has demonstrated that “living” and “learning” are not dissociated processes.


Almost entirely, criticisms of Second-Order Cybernetics are based on either shallow readings or troublesome descriptions/applications.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Margaret Mead; Gregory Bateson; Heinz von Foerster; Gordon Pask

Status as a Theory of Learning

As with Cybernetics, it is more correct to say that Second-Order Cybernetics offers a theory of learning than Second-Order 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

Second-Order Cybernetics is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Second-Order Cybernetics easily meets our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Artificial Life

Map Location

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

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