Monday 8 October 2012

Educational Cybernetics and Recursion

The central problem that Educational Cybernetics addresses is "how do we think holistically about education?" The fundamental problem with the educational discourse is that since Plato it has been dominated by categorisation. There are reasons why this has happened (see my suggestion here:, but it produces deep confusion as policy makers, educationalists, institutional managers and others try to negotiate the boundaries between psychology, philosophy, sociology, management, history and so on. And technology now makes the mix even more toxic. The old categorisations (the categorisations of  the curriculum for example) are even more challenged by the blurred distinctions of the sheer variety of different kinds of agency mediated through technology. These appear to challenge the institutional structures that once supported those activities within the ancient categorised structures.

Cybernetics allows for a different way of conceiving categories, not as distinct entities but as epiphenomenal products of processes. If we can grasp the processes, the we can situate the epiphenomena. Whilst this may appear to be an ontological challenge - that cybernetics asserts that the world is process  and not substance -  it need not be. It need only be a pragmatic suggestion. After all, if categorisation in a complex world of technology no longer works because it confuses people too much (particularly politicians), then if a process perspective helps to simplify the complexity, greater coordination of action may be possible, and (who knows!) better policy!

The principal idea that cybernetics employs to address reductionism is recursion. Put most simply, recursion involves applying the same simple idea at different levels of thinking and experience. Without thinking critically about this in detail (which we must!) it is clear that should such thinking succeed then it can simplify the complexity of difficult domains of education and the plethora of categories. The challenge is whether educational thinking can be simplified in this way and retain its essential character. That is where discourse in educational cybernetics needs to penetrate. It must be clever enough to apply recursions at all levels of education, whilst sensitive enough to feel what might be missing.

This latter point is most important. Education, it seems to me, is directly connected to absence. Any exploration of recursive mechanisms which doesn't account for what's not there will simply result in a new kind of categorisation - a new kind of positivism. This will always make itself vulnerable to attack from philosophers who will eagerly point out the deficiencies of the approach... and nothing will have been solved. But to think of absence and presence together in recursive way may indeed promise something new, and a deep way of thinking of education within a world where our old ways of thinking simply don't work any more.

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