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 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. Associated constructs include:
  • Self-Reference – any instance of a system, rule, or discourse referring to itself. The concept is also invoked in mathematics, philosophy, systems thinking, computer programming, linguistics, and consciousness studies. Within Second-Order Cybernetics, Self-Reference is understood as recursive and as a necessary criterion for learning systems.
Aligned and emergent 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
  • Generativity (Technological Generativity; Theory of Generativity; Theory of Technological Generativity) (Jonathan Zittrain, 2000s) ­– extending the notion of “generativity” from Psychosocial Development Theory, a perspective on how technology systems create (or might be enabled to create) behaviors, outputs, or structures that were not anticipated or intended by the system’s designers
  • Sociocybernetics (Felix Geyer, 1990s) – a blend of Sociology and Complex Systems Research that embraces the insights of Second-Order CyberneticsSociocybernetics focuses on cooperative behavior.
  • Xenobots (Douglas Blackiston, 2020s) – synthetic, programmable lifeforms that are composed of biological tissues and designed to perform specific functions. Some are self-replicating. The technology is evolving quickly.


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
  • Self-Reference
  • Sociocybernetics
  • Xenobots

Map Location

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

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