Imposing Cybernetics Control Theory on Students While Pretending the Impetus is Equity for All

The term cybernetics to me was always just a vague concept that had something to do with computers. I was following up on the Soviet psychologist Piotr Galperin and his behavior-orienting systemic-theoretical instruction by reading a 1975 book (translated into English in 1980, except curiously the footnotes) by one of his students, Nina Talyzina. Called The Psychology of Learning it kept referring to cybernetics, but there were no computers. Instead, cybernetics is described as a theory of control over processes. One of the processes that the Soviets and certain American educators wanted to control was human behavior.

Before anyone thinks this is just a haunting history lesson with me pouncing on disturbing intentions from the past, let me remind everyone that the US Common Core are designed as performance standards. They are about what students are to be doing. Competency is the same globally as is 21st Century Skills. Performance assessments are about action.  The shift from a mental focus to an activity focus (because that is what Marxist-Leninist theory required as Talyzina laid out) has already taken place. The significance of that deliberate shift is simply not well enough appreciated. Cybernetics, as applied to education, seeks to optimize “control of the learning process.”

That learning process is no longer to be “through the development of capacities that already exist at birth,” like mental ability, but is rather “a process of assimilation of various types of human activities by students and hence of the set of actions that bring this about.” What is going on with the learning tasks created for Common Core (described in Chapter 7 of the book), as well as the digital curricula being unveiled by Pearson (with Microsoft as partner) and Amplify (rolled out for middle school this week) among others, and the Connected Learning agenda being pushed by the MacArthur Foundation , are all examples of designing the teaching-learning [obuchenie] process in accordance with the requirements of a general theory of control.

When I recognized the full implications of what the Consortium of school districts from the last post sought (hence the hunger for Student data and continuous mentions of feedback in personalized instruction) and the gaming in classrooms (with its ability to control the visual images associated with any chosen concept and force the virtual world to conform to desired models of either reality or the future) to the cybernetic theory of how to control human behavior without that being apparent, I did some searches to see what was happening now.  One of those pulled up an essay that had been in the 2002 UNESCO Encyclopedia by the radical constructivist Ernst von Glasersfeld who I had talked about in Chapter 3 of the book. I gulped since I had not been looking for UNESCO or Glasersfeld. The essay is called “Cybernetics and the Theory of Knowledge” and it lays out how crucial the theory of constructivism in education is to the goal of behavioral control via cybernetic principles.

More gulps. The word cybernetics is derived from the Greek word “Kybernetes” which referred to a steersman of  ship. It is the etymological root of the English word “governor” as in the lead elected state officials who seem so determined these days to combine economic development with education as workforce development. The word also retains its same control function in its use as a governor on an engine, regulating possible uses. Maybe we didn’t really appreciate the significance of the term cybernetics or its applicability to education, but radicals interested in political and social transformation at the level of individual consciousness certainly do. Everything to be required, or condemned, in a Common Core classroom is now driven by turning to Vygotsky and especially Galperin (image, associations, concepts) as the necessary psychological theories (instead of Skinner’s behaviorism). Galperin’s theory especially, backed up by decades of research, laid out a means and rationale for specifying the desired activity in the real world that would then produce the hoped for mental concepts.

Those mental conceptions, because they are created by actual activity in either the real world or a virtual immersion world (of the sort pushed by MIT’s Media Lab or Amplify’s Zombie Apocalypse game), are thus controllable in a way conceptions built up by facts delivered from lectures and textbooks are not. Then we have the new assessments and now to be a new SAT to monitor the extent to which the desired concepts (in the hermeneutic-dialogical sense we met in the previous post) are connected to associated  relational qualities (also supplied) and then tied to real world problems or phenomena. Understanding here is like a web and assessments are looking to see what strategies the student’s web of understanding reaches to apply when there is no fixed or correct answer. That tells a great deal about how the student will behave as an adult when they are on their own.

Now the Cold War implications of this psychology of learning and Galperin and cybernetics as a feature of education in a supposedly free country, especially since Talyzina mentioned a UNESCO symposium in 1976 on the psychological bases of programmed instruction, are obvious. Despite what is going on now in the Ukraine and the Crimea and the current Russian role in the UN’s digital learning and Information Society initiatives I have written about, our problem in 2014 are not the big C threat of decades ago. Subjugation of the individual and control over consciousness though clearly remain a primary government goal though. That Connected Learning report above makes it painfully clear that the digital and media agenda now in education is tied to a social and economic transformation to a shareable, collaborative consumption economy.   The new motto is to be “sharing reinvented through technology.”

If you go to the writings of the professors cited to show the economy is changing, we find the sociologist Juliet Schor (see her tag) who wrote Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. That pulls in her commonwealth vision of the future and the agenda of Gar Alperowitz and the Democracy Collaborative. Another cite turns out to be Harvard Labor Economist Richard Freeman. Finally, there is a cite to a 2008 paper by Bowles and Gintis. Uncited is their book from 1976 Schooling in Capitalist America that predicted a socialist transformation of the US that might need to become violent. I mentioned that book in this post . Its central point that education is so crucial to social change because “socialism is not an event. The consciousness developed in struggle is the same consciousness which, for better or worse, will guide the process of socialist development itself” is even more relevant when cybernetics is in use.

Making the cognitive activities, such as learning tasks or computer games, and the internal mental states created, the focus of instruction is certainly a fine way to develop and manipulate such a consciousness. It’s not like we are not drowning in evidence at this point of such broader transformative intentions from every direction. Foundations, local districts, states, federal DoEd (they openly work with MacArthur on Reimagining Education), and internationally via the UN and the OECD. Page 91 of that Connected Learning report even links to ITU’s 2011 Measuring the Information Society report. It is what led me to the UNESCO Sakhalin Declaration I wrote about already.

I can find the M-L roots of what is being pushed now. Talyzina was quite graphic about them. The public sales pitch now though for the same theories and practices is that the shift to digital and networked media (that makes cybernetics so much easier via adaptive software and the visual emphasis) is necessary to protect the life opportunities of “non-dominant youth.” To force “an environment in which opportunity and outcomes are widely shared across the citizenry” as if productive wealth is not in the minds of talented people, but in some pot ready to be rearranged. The constant drumbeat that these shifts are necessary “begins with questions of equity” and “centers on an equity agenda.” If you got a quarter for every time that report mentioned “privileged” youth or families or the “elite”, you could go out for a fine lunch.

That report once again quotes John Dewey making me very glad I laid out in the book why his vision remains so relevant to what is sought today. If we go down this road of cybernetic control over the development of a student’s adult personality (what college and career ready actually tracks back to) and adopt the vision “as progressives have argued for generations, the functions of schooling should be to prepare young people for contributing and participating in social life, which includes economic activity but also civil society, family, and community” where will we be as a nation or world in five or ten years?

Will it make the world a peaceful place? No, we will simply not see the aggression coming until it is too late. Will the public sector workers lying to us now on their intentions and lining their pockets with tax money decide to suddenly act altruistically in the name of the common good and genuine social justice? No again.

Equity and equal opportunity for all strike me as a means to federalize issues of education practice so that change can be required without consent or notice. Through civil rights law edicts. Secondly, it forces a surrender of individual primacy and sovereignty. It takes a citizen as subject to be molded at will approach.

No wonder we just keep running into all these Soviet techniques and theories. They were free to do the preliminary research on cybernetics in education. Guess where it will be continuing now?

18 thoughts on “Imposing Cybernetics Control Theory on Students While Pretending the Impetus is Equity for All

  1. This blog had been linked in an earlier post by another reader: It describes a Principal who leads a computer science group into an exercise with a program called Minecraft. In Minecraft, you use resources from your area to build structures or tunnels. It can get very elaborate. Often, this is a program a person plays solo, but in this case the class is sharing a virtual world. My youngest played this game a few years ago. While it is interesting and does involve computers, I didn’t see the potential linkages until reading your latest post.

    The Principal’s previous blog post indicated behavioral issues with some of the boys playing the game. These were corrected and everyone is now happily cooperative and working on the group goals. There are a few comments from other teachers indicating this is a fairly common activity. No mention of how this activity helps students better understand or use computers.

    Using this program as described in the linked blog doesn’t really teach the kids anything significant about computers, programming, logic, etc. It does, however, create a potential for controlled, structured social interactions in an artificial world. While they’re not apparently learning programming, programming may be happening.

    • Mike-

      Minecraft is one of the games being pushed so hard in the classroom. It is in the CL report I linked and also other MacArthur funded work.

      This interview with Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab on the difference between constructivism and constructionism really helped. The importance of a visual stimulus or real artifact to be the focal point that triggers this consciously built up mental web. It functions very differently from how my brain works because I am building up from a tremendous amount o factual information and noticing the linkages and the common people. Seymour Papert helped create the first Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. That’s what evolved into the Media Lab.

      This is psychological research that, as Talyzina noted, gets between the stimulus and the response. The desired response is always action in the real world because of the transformational hopes. The stimulus can be visual or it can be intense emotions. When MIT was determined to teach computers to ‘see’ they learned how important the ability to categorize was for that. They then took that insight and applied it to humans and education and turned to metaphors like systems to try to misleadingly guide human perception of the real world.

      It’s not an accident that the favorite euphemism for the supplied concepts that guide perception is ‘lens.’ After I wrote this post the PTSA at our determined to be cutting edge Radical Ed Reform high school sent out a list of wht they would be providing minigrants to fund in the classroom. First on the list was a ‘Visually Stimulating Classroom.’

      I had brief Attagirl moment before starting dinner.

      You will probably find the diagrams in this report helpful. It links cybernetic knowledge theory and culture theory.

        • Great link madmommy. There are so many mentions of using Marzano in charters. Parents have no idea that this is what they are committing to.

          I just found this powerpoint of Peter Senge outlining the entire Common Core implementation from the feds to states to districts to the mind of the individual student in what is clearly a cybernetic, feedback, stock and flow system.

          I also noticed Marzano mentioned a controlled approach to chaos. Remember GERG wanted to base conscious evolution on chaos theory. I am married to someone who thinks physics is fun and so is chaos theory. Boy did I get an eyeroll at this abuse of a metaphor. Much like the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It gets cited becvause most in audience do not have the scientific knowledge to get the bogus comparison.

          • That systems map has bothered me since I seen it. I’ve looked at it many times. Usually I’m a quick study but this concept has me stumped. Or I’m in denial. It seems like they want to create a mental world not based on facts or real at all but virtual and make it come true in behavior. Can you break it down in mom speak? I’m sure you have brought it down levels already, but What are they seeking to do to my childs brain?

          • LL that is an apt description of exactly what the intent is. Instead of categories your child understands that are grounded in facts, the child is given the “Enduring Understanding” or the concepts that will “let her think like a scientist.” When the Artificial Intelligence researchers were first trying to teach computers to ‘see’ they discovered just how important the human capacity to categorize by representation (the visual) or general categories was to what we noticed about the physical reality we encounter in daily life. Having obtained that crucial insight, this cybernetics theory of control is trying to game that perception via providing the categories and supposed links and insisting this is how world works. Well, without a body of facts or a textbook or a parent who tells stories from history while driving to school or the ability to read fluently, students adopt those lenses and begin to perceive the world that way. The more it is practiced at school, the more entrenched this all becomes as a habit of mind.

            To go back to our friend Bronfenbrenner, who you may remember was a graduate student in the USSR in the early 60s, the student will begin to see himself as embedded within a family and community in a world where the economy has ‘mysteriously’ ceased to function well in a world under dire environmental threats from human activity. Most of the classroom activities not tied to influencing values, attitudes, and beliefs a la Maslow, which also guides perception and dovetails with this, have to do with the environment or inequality or race or creating a belief women get a raw deal.

            I was a good student in college and law school in blind grading. Part of what an A+ student used to be was coming up with interpretations and linkages among the facts (I was a history major with a substantial economics emphasis as well) that even the prof had not thought of. Then backing it up with support. When I practiced corporate law at a big firm I was lucky enough to have some fine lawyers as teachers who taught me what legal language was supposed to do. I always saw contracts as close to living things that ought to fit a deal and knew when the change in facts necessitated a change in language.

            Contrary to the rhetoric used, knowledge does not make us more resistant to change, it actually creates flexibility. You pick up on precisely what is shifting and what the likely consequences are to be. That’s the true capacity all these ed reforms want to extinguish. The reluctance that comes from understanding in advance we are playing with fire here in foundational ways.

            A student brought up in a Whole Child, minimum of facts, inquiry emphasis will never see the likely consequences of what they have been prompted to advocate for. They will have been primed from an early age, as Alex Pentland recognized and built social learning on, to defer to the herd. The student’s very identity will be anchored in these values, attitudes, and beliefs and the history of visual images that their mind has perceived world through.

            Does that help? Constructivism in its reading, math, and science versions is making sure there is not a barrier of information nor a habit of rational practice that would impede seeing the world and filtering daily experiences through whatever ‘lenses’ education imposes. Remember college (that Lumina DQP and the Crucible Report) and graduate schools are also on board with this idea that their purpose is transforming perspectives, not knowledge acquisition. The transmission of knowledge is thought to simply perpetuate the past. Sad as the more you know, the easier it is to pivot and learn new areas. People like me or you really are the actual lifelong learners.

        • Look at this. RISC is citing the very performance-based paper I wrote about already. That hugely troubling CompetencyWorks paper calling for a new federal role that I wrote about February 5, 2014. More data gathering that gets at the mental black box that guides future behavior. So now that entire discussion should be seen through the cybernetics theory of control.

          Maybe the federal role is to give the Consortium the authority they seek and the federal mandate gets obscured by the fiction this is a local district policy, not the update of the 90s attempt Ed Secretary Richard Riley was so heavily involved in. Then at federal level. Now through Knowledge Works, its present and previous subs, Carnegie’s policies including Moises Naim’s book, EdLeader21, and now the Consortium.

          • Thank you, that was helpful. I am processing this area and grasping slower, but getting it. This one seems particularly dark, as in that creeping evil no one wants to discuss. Individual minds should be off limits as you’ve said before.

      • The MIT reference was very interesting. This further raises the question of why are teachers using Minecraft in computer classes. Resnick appears to be in the “teach kids to use” camp rather than the “show them how to play a game” group. I quite agree with the concept of teaching kids how to actually write computer code to explore how things are done with computers. The idea of using creative expression may be where people are going with Minecraft, but that’s more of a using computers for art class concept and doesn’t serve any purpose in regards to teaching them about computers. Now, teaching them how to write the code to generate a modifiable world would be a completely different proposition.

        The cybernetic reference brought to mind the recent removal of 120 professional journal articles that had been computer generated:

        I have trouble reading this type of paper. The concepts always seem to be overly elaborate and often confusing, often like words and phrases are just tossed together so the reader feels incompetent because they can’t fully understand what is written. However, it seems generally in-line with the concepts in Senge’s books. Very close, if not identical, to the concept of businesses as learning entities.

  2. Well Robin, after reading your posting I opened an email for an educators blog. It just reenforced what you had said. This is scary stuff! Here is what it had to say………..David Sudmeier commented on About.

    in response to dianeravitch:

    My website is I am a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University. I was born in Houston, Texas, attended the Houston public schools from kindergarten through high school, and graduated from Wellesley College in 1960. I received my Ph.D. in the history of American education in 1975. I […]

    Call Me Unreliable

    New grading models are based on the premise that a standards-based system requires that scores on assessments be both valid and reliable.

    Many believers in standards-based grading claim a score is valid when the score represents a student’s performance on a standard and that a score is reliable when students who demonstrate the same understanding of a standard receive the same score.

    This is all very “scientific” sounding. How much real science is involved, though?

    Reliability is the central issue—so what makes an assessment reliable? Well, a measurement made once should be replicable; if we are measuring distance, we use a tool that accurately measures it, like a ruler. If we are measuring time, we might use a “reliable” stopwatch. Doing so should make replicating measurements simple and practical. Both distance and time can be measured reliably because we agree that each has an objective reality and a corresponding system for its measurement.

    So what are we measuring at school? I assume we are measuring student learning.

    I’ve never seen an objective measurement of learning. Learning is not an objective construct. It has been operationally defined by some as “What you know and can do,” but a remarkable number of educators and psychologists reject that notion as a convenient reductionist fallacy. That definition is based on the belief that learning is an outcome. Learning can be described in a variety of ways—as open-ended inquiry, for example. If we view learning as primarily a process or journey that has no distinct conclusion, learning might best be judged by the unexpected outcomes that accompany it—and not accept authoritarian demands that outcomes conform to pre-ordained “standards” or “proficiency scales.”

    Since it isn’t possible to measure or observe learning directly, it must be inferred from the performance of students. We give tests; we ask students to respond to questions or to solve problems or perform some skill relevant to a content area. We create scales to clarify how performance is to be evaluated—in the hope and belief that we’ll all “measure learning” reliably. We create “common formative and summative assessments” so that students can be “guaranteed” a specific experience and outcome.

    But it doesn’t work.

    Human beings seldom see things in exactly the same way as other humans. Tools like proficiency scales are subject to variable interpretation and application. Humans make subjective judgments of non-objective realities, using measuring tools that are blunt instruments. Judging complex thought and performance—even with established standards—is a messy, awkward process that ought to caution against certainty, guarantees, or claims of “objectivity.” Taking the illogic of standards-based evaluation to its nadir, proponents also want to use these unreliable scores for evaluation of a second party—teachers themselves.

    In the end, education itself is inherently un-reliable. That’s one reason it holds fascination for both teacher and student. Acknowledgement of this fact may free us from the discomfort that trying to shoehorn objective measures into a subjective framework produces.

    And if reliability eludes us, validity is out the window as well.

    Just ask a scientist.

    We’d be better off with an honestly un-reliable system.

    © David Sudmeier, 2014

  3. I actually understand it as the opposite of Marxism. This is why what we get in America of Soviet Psychologists is usually called neo-Vygotskianism. The leaning theory you cite actually does the opposite of transformational “constructionism” that would be in line with Marxism and of course, the revolution. The whole “practice” application of learning theory today is to get people into jobs available in the “capitalist” economy. I agree with you that there is a lot of talk about being creative and a critical thinker and using tools (like the computer) for your own uses, but in actuality placing people into slots already existing for them in Capitalism.

    • Hi guest. You realize this post is based on a book published by Progress Publishers Moscow in 1975 that was translated to English in 1980 although footnotes remain in Russian. Secondly Marxism is fundamentally about fundamental transformation of relationships within the material world by first changing consciousness. Sometimes as here it is openly referred to as fitting with the tenets of Marxism-Leninism.

      My book has a very alarming discussion of the well-connected American social reconstructionist using education, Theodore Brameld, who brags about the ability to get people to use and embrace Marxist tenets by leaving off the M word and calling it sociology or psychology or pedagogy. In Chapter 1 of my book I talk about Marx’s vision for using education and how John Dewey built on it. Most global ed reforms in 2014 still revere Dewey’s work.

      You may also find this old post helpful. When I wrote it there were multiple translations into Russian and other Eastern European languages.

      On capitalism, I wrote recently about Professor Christopher Laszlo’s 2014 conference and the kind of crony insider connected view the UN and most countries, including US see as an open Industrial Policy in the future centered around Low Carbon “Green” Energy. No longer a consumption oriented economy but a needs economy called–distributed capitalism, Capitalism 3.0, For Benefit capitalism, Support Economy. All have tags. Aso Gar Alperowitz’s work on the economic vision attached to these education reforms.

      • Oh, I agree that Vygosky is a bit of a Marxist (less so in the recent translations without the censorship; I can read Russian). I was commenting on recent work in social learning theory. I read it in a way that is different from your reading. I read most of the strands of contemporary learning theory to be about the child as an individualist thinker and producer of culture, being able to draw on available materials, thoughts, and tools in fundamentally new ways. The labor-oriented path that might be read as socialistic is the implication of that, which is that most public policy people then ask: how do we get those kid into available technology jobs? That’s the part I think is problematic.

        • Guest, if you can read Russian you can read all the Galperin articles that get cited, but have actually remained in Russian.

          It sounds like you are describing the dialogue we have been having in the comments of a different post being called Education 3.0. It is linked to cybernetics, but Talyzina was quite clear about the ingredients of the theory of control over human behavior and that it was based on Galperin’s work.

          AS you know Vygotsky died young, in the 30s, from TB. I have the Davydov speech to the AERA in 95 on Vygotsky and we have talked about Ilyenkov’s Theory on Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete on the blog as fitting this Enduring Understanding to concrete example push of the Common Core. Talyzina again is citing all of these Russian psychologists and philosophers who remained alive in the 80s.

          We can disagree, but my reading of Vygotsky, which is heavily influenced by having several of Professor Wertsch’s books, is that his feelings and pride would be hurt by your saying he was a bit of a Marxist. Finding a means of creating the perfect Hominus Sovieticus was his passion. I would argue that using education to instill a different type of consciousness that will feel compelled to act to transform the world as it currently exists remains the focus of CHAT and that a fair number of the references to Vygotsky are a shorthand for an entire body of psych research that went on after his death.

          I am not quite following your narrow view of what is problemmatic here. I would describe most of this as problemmatic. This is not, after all, just a matter of 2 well-educated parents deciding to put their verbally precocious offspring in a Montessori preschool. But I genuinely love a good discussion and there are footnotes in Talyzina especially that I long to read.

          Off to work on today’s post.

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