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Making distinctions: reflections on learning, knowing and evaluating

S. D. Noam Cook (Department of Philosophy, San José State University, San Jose, CA, United States)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 3 November 2014




The purpose of this paper is to offer some reflections on “making distinctions”, which in contrast to “separating”, the author views as unifying rather than dividing. The author remarks follow the theme of the conference, “Acting-Learning-Understanding”, and characterise making distinctions as inherently cybernetic both conceptually and in practice. The classic cybernetic principle of error detection and correction, for example, typically has a lopsided focus on “error”. The author treats it as the on-going single act of distinguishing between “error” and “correct”, where to determine the degree to which a system is in error is simultaneously to determine the degree to which it is correct.


This paper presents a viewpoint though conceptual analysis, reflection, and critique, drawing on examples form the research (employing ethnography, case studies, observation, and participant observation) and consulting.


In practice we detect “correct” no less than “error”. Learning entails both “error” and “correct”. Although commonly held that we learn best (or only) from error, the author argues sometimes we can best (or only) learn from what goes right. Acting entails knowing. This calls for distinguishing between knowledge, as a storable, transferable “thing”, and knowing as part of shared practice. Understanding entails evaluating. Distinguishing between morally acceptable and unacceptable, for example, can set, confirm, or change norms for distinguishing “error” and “correct”. Accordingly, evaluating needs to be a deliberate part of cybernetic and systems thinking and practice.

Research limitations/implications

Presents four areas where further research could fruitfully be pursued: assessing the distinct function of “correct” within various kinds of systems; designing and testing educational and organizational activities for learning from what goes right; designing and testing organizational and technological infrastructures that support “knowing” as coordinated designed activity; and, designing and testing means for the deliberate incorporation of evaluating as part of systems thinking and practice.

Practical implications

Suggests that educational and organizational activities could be more productive by fostering learning from what goes right. Suggests there is value in the development of organizational and technological infrastructures that support “knowing” as coordinated designed activity (vs “knowledge” seen as a storable, transferable “thing”). Suggests that the deliberate inclusion of evaluating in social and organizational systems could further more responsive and responsible action.

Social implications

Contributes to a call for publicly viable forms of cybernetic and systemic thinking and practice, including the systemic inclusion of evaluation in public affairs.


Contributes to the conceptual development and constructive critique of key concepts in cybernetic and systems thinking and practice, especially understanding making distinctions as unifying rather than separating, and as inherently cybernetic as such. Offers a critique of the common focus on “error” in error detection and correction. Argues for the importance of learning from what goes right. Identifies the need for a better understanding of “knowing” as part of practice (as distinct from “knowledge” as a storable, sharable “thing”). Argues for the need to treat evaluation as an inherent, necessary, and productive part of systems thinking and practice.


Cook, S.D.N. (2014), "Making distinctions: reflections on learning, knowing and evaluating", Kybernetes, Vol. 43 No. 9/10, pp. 1435-1446.



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