Systems Model Series: Cybernetics


Adapted from the article originally written by Shujin Li

for the Cabrera's Cornell University, System Thinking in Public Affairs Course



Cybernetics was first defined by Norbert Wiener as a system to study how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other. It’s a system applied to some closed signaling loop analysis, where action by the system generates some change in the system and then the change gives feedback to the system and causes the system adjust. The change keeps influencing the system to compare with a desired goal and again to action. This is called first-order cybernetics and because it deals mostly with some technical system, it belongs to first wave in my point of view.

Cybernetic Loop

                                                            (Graph source: Wikipedia)

In addition to that, there actually exists another factor in the whole system – the observer. It’s therefore necessary to clearly distinguish observers from these more mechanistic approaches, by emphasizing autonomy, self-organization, cognition, and the role of the observer. Including the observer into the whole system, there comes the second-order cybernetics, which recognizes that first-order system as an agent in its own right, interacting with another agent, the observer. Because the human system is incorporated, the second-order cybernetic system belongs to second wave.

The core principles of cybernetics system are automation and control. The system is widely applied to many fields, including engineering and biological area. Here is an example that cybernetics is used in educational system. The learning-process is the system, and the goal is success of the learner and learning process. Classroom cybernetics is constituted by Constructivism, Conversation theory and a feedback system. Constructivism includes five E’s namely- Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate. Conversation theory necessitates interaction between teacher and learner through languages. Feedback, as the most important part, is served to control the system to maintain equilibrium, move forward or even reverse it. Teaching is adjusted based on feedback provided by learners. If a negative feedback is received through conversation, the teaching process should slow down or even reverse to make sure the teacher and learner are on the same page, thus the equilibrium. Through the feedback, both learners and teachers change.

Another famous application of Cybernetics is from Stafford Beer, who established “management cybernetics”. He utilize cybernetics model in all types of organization and institutions created by human beings and to interactions with and within them. These organizations not only include private sector but also public sector. When management cybernetics is used in organizations, it’s not restricted to the actions of top manager, but all the people who want to influence the organizations.



  • It’s a loop system, so it can operate automatically and continuously.


  • If the feedback is too slow, the whole system will slow down, and hard to reach the desired purpose.


  1. Heylighen, F., & Joslyn, C. (2003). Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics. Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology, 155–169. doi: 1016/b0-12-227410-5/00161-7
  2. System Theory and Cybernetics. (2018, October 9). Retrieved from
  3. Grover, V. (2016). Classroom Cybernetics: an Approach for Effective and Efficient Classroom International Journal of Research in Advent Technology.
  4. Beer, S. (n.d.). Cwarel Isaf Institute. Retrieved from