From Learning Machines to Learning Humans: How Cybernetic Machine Models Inspired Experimental Pedagogies

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This article analyses how Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) translated cybernetic concepts into an experimental pedagogy tailored to the interests of the youth of the American intellectual counterculture. The existing research literature assumes that the opening of BCL to the counterculture in the early 1970s was the result of a radical shift from first- to second-order cybernetic theory; in other words, the result of a new epistemological position. This article instead attempts to identify similarities between the design of cybernetic ‘learning machines’ in the early 1960s and Foerster’s teaching methods that characterised BCL between 1968 and 1976. The article will show that Foerster’s pedagogy was inspired by a specific style of thinking that can already be found in earlier cybernetic research practices. Concerning both the early and the late phase of the BCL, oral history sources, as well as original publications and archival material, were used.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory of Education
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)112-133
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 02.01.2021