How to Use Cybernetics in Education

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Cybernetics is the study of systems of communication and control in machines and living things. 

“Cybernetics can be applied to any subject in which systems are the object of study -- a literary genre, a sporting event, hospital administration, a historical event, business models, to name just a few,” says Dr. Kelly Frame, educational developer at the School of Cybernetics ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science at The Australian National University. She adds, “The emphasis is less on what students already know and more on how they can ask the right questions and become lifelong learners.” 

Frame will conduct a workshop on cybernetics at the NYCSchoolsTech Summit 2021 on July 28. During the virtual conference, which is open to all educators, Frame will explore how educators can bring cybernetics into their teaching. “Attendees of the NYCSchoolsTech Summit will be able to access a workshop and resource pack that includes lesson plans, activities, and guidance on how to incorporate cybernetic thinking tools in their classrooms,” Frame says.  

Cybernetics and the Importance of Feedback Loops  

A core component of cybernetics is feedback loops, but as any educator knows, all feedback is not created equal. “Cybernetic feedback loops involve a balance of actionable positive and negative feedback delivered in a timely manner,” Frame says. “This prompts us to think about how can we design an assessment regime so students are receiving feedback as they embark on a task in which they must apply the same skills.”

Frame suggests accomplishing this by making connections between past feedback and future assignments. “One simple way to do this is to make two copies of the feedback you give to students after a task,” she says. “Hand a copy to the student and keep a copy for yourself. When the next assessment task is about to begin, give the feedback to the students again. Ask them to reflect on which parts of the feedback they will need to be mindful of when they do the next assessment task. Before they submit the new assessment task, get them to review the feedback again, peer-review each other’s work with reference to the feedback, and do final revisions.” 

“In my experience, students struggle to absorb feedback when it doesn’t feel immediately relevant or applicable,” Frame says. “This approach makes sure that the students benefit fully from the feedback you’ve provided.” 

Cybernetics and Systems  

Another key component of cybernetics is its emphasis on systems and how they work and interact. “Cybernetic pedagogy positions the student as a constituent within a system,” Frame says. “This imbues students with both agency and responsibility, as their actions or inactions will have consequences for the system and its other constituents. For example, we know that students learn by co-constructing knowledge together, but if a student does not engage earnestly in that co-construction, the impact is not just on their learning but on the learning of their peers.” 

By understanding the system and their role within it, students can learn how to manage and transform systems for the better. “In the classroom it might be as simple as supporting their peers or communicating their needs to the teacher,” she says. “In the world, this might mean being reflective about consumer habits, identifying the best routes to communicate with local and national representatives, or designing things that solve problems.” 

To get students thinking about systems, Frame says educators should: 

  • Engage in a discussion or task about a system, which can include anything from an art movement to the steam train to a political system. “Ask your students to answer a series of questions about the ecological, social, and technological factors that informed the design or coalescence of that system,” she says. During the NYCSchoolsTech Summit 2021, the School of Cybernetics’ vendor booth will allow educators to access a resource pack, including a free lesson plan and a detailed “cybernetic thinking” scaffold. 
  • Simulate the system itself. “It’s often more powerful for us to learn by experience rather than observation,” Frame says. “You can ask students to role-play parts of a system and then ask them how they felt, how their actions were hindered or helped by the design of the system, and how they would improve the system.” She adds, “Students are more likely to remember the different parts of a system, their constraints, and their impacts, if they’ve been plugged into that system on an experiential level."

Cybernetics Isn’t Only About Tech 

“The main misconception people might have about cybernetics is that it is just about computers, AI, robots, and machines,” Frame says. “These associations often lead us to pigeonhole cybernetics as a field in which only engineers or computer scientists have authority.” 

This harms the field because it decreases the input into cybernetics from artists, lawyers, philosophers, and others, and enforces the false notion that some people are technical while others are not. “A cybernetic approach isn’t just about the construction of technology, but a macro-level vision that interrogates the design and potential impacts of a complex system, technological or otherwise,” Frame says. “Effective systems that contribute to a better world need people who specialise in the human and the ecological, not just the technological.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.