This article is part of a series of articles covering reflective practice and will look at who Donald Schön was and the ideas about practitioner self-reflection that he developed.
It will also look at the advantages and disadvantages of his work, as well as some alternatives. Finally, we will present some examples of Schön’s ideas in practice.
About Donald Schön
Donald Schön was born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 19th, 1930. He graduated from Yale University in 1951 and went on to complete both Masters and Doctoral studies in Philosophy at Harvard University. He also studied music at the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1953, he began lecturing at UCLA. After time in the army, Schön joined the Institute for Applied Technology in the National Bureau of Standards as a director. He subsequently moved to a similar position at the Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (OSTI). In 1963, he published his book Displacement of Concepts, followed by Technology and Change: The New Heraclitus in 1967. He is perhaps most well-known for his work in The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action, which we will be looking at below.
Schön joined MIT in 1968 as a result of his published works and was appointed Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education in 1972. He enjoyed playing jazz and chamber music and this helped him formulate his theory of improvisation or ‘thinking on one’s feet’. Schön believed that people should be able to incorporate their life experiences into their work.
Schön’s Theories About Reflection
Schön’s made the distinctions between knowing-in-action, reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action.
Knowing-in-action is a practitioner’s ability to carry out a task without much thought. This can perhaps be thought of as automatic or habitual actions. For example, a nurse will wash their hands many times throughout the day and follow the correct hand-washing technique every time without much cognitive effort.
If you are familiar with other models of reflection, you will know that reflective practice is often described as a deliberate process to be performed following an event or situation to extract meaning and learn from the experience. This is what Schön means by reflection-on-action.
Reflection-in-action is a type of self-reflection that occurs during practice. Whilst carrying out tasks the practitioner will be accessing their bank of knowledge to aid their decision-making. This can include both theoretical knowledge and insights that may have been obtained during reflection-on-action sessions. It can also include, specific knowledge about the particular situation, such as the needs and preferences of the patient or client. It is often referred to as ‘thinking on one’s feet’ and brings together all the information available to a practitioner at the time to make a decision about the best course of action.
Another concept developed by Schön (alongside Argyle) is that of double-loop learning.
They argue that many businesspeople learn in what is a single-loop process. When they encounter a problem, they use their knowledge and experience to find a solution within the governing variables of the situation. Governing variables can be thought of as assumptions about the situation.
In contrast, double-loop learning involves questioning or challenging the underpinning governing variables, with the aim of achieving a better outcome than would be attained by working within the existing restrictions. A phrase that is congruent with this idea is ‘thinking outside the box‘.
Examples of each of these ideas can be found below.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Schön’s theories
Here, we will be exploring the pros and cons of Schön’s work.
The advantages of Schön’s ideas include:
- Reflective practice is no longer just a retrospective process but can be performed whilst on-the-job
- Reflective practice can be performed at a much deeper level as we learn to question our assumptions and prejudices
- Can be used to explain why experienced practitioners often know what to do without understanding why they know what to do (intuition)
- Can benefit practitioners with limited time that may not always be able to reflect following a situation
However, there are also some disadvantages associated with using the Schön reflective model.
- If overused, deliberate reflection-in-action may immobilise us or take our focus away from the task in hand
- It is not a self-contained model in itself – these ideas should be used in conjunction with other models that describe the process of reflection
- Double-loop learning requires more time and effort than single-loop learning, which may not be practical for practitioners with busy schedules
Alternatives to Schön’s model
As discussed above, Schön’s work is not a model of reflection in itself but can enrich the process of reflection using existing models. Models that may be combined with or used as alternatives to Schön’s work are discussed below.
Kolb’s model of reflection is one of the earliest theories about experiential learning and, because of its simple 4-step cycle, it can be easy for beginners to grasp the concepts of the reflective practice.
Gibbs’ model builds upon the work of Kolb and although there are more steps to the process, it is still a great introduction to the reflective practice cycle.
Based on a literature review of pre-existing models, Atkins and Murphy’s framework for critical reflection provides a more detailed examination of the reflective practice cycle.
Similarly, Johns’ model aims to bring a deeper level of understanding to the reflective practice process by using a questioning model that helps practitioners to challenge their underlying assumptions, including their values and beliefs.
An Example of Schön’s Reflective Practice
The following example illustrates how Schön’s ideas about reflection work in practice. This example comes from the field of early years education.
An early years practitioner has planned a physical activity for the 4-year-olds that he is responsible for. The activity is an obstacle course for the children to complete. The practitioner is aware that there is a child that uses a wheelchair in the group that will not be able to complete the course because of their restricted mobility and so (to ensure that they are included) he plans for this child to blow the whistle for the other children to start.
The practitioner begins the session by sitting the children down and explaining to them what they will be doing. This is something that the practitioner always does when initiating an adult-led activity and so could be thought of as knowing-in-action.
The practitioner then explains to the child in the wheelchair that they are going to be his helper and gives them a whistle. Unexpectedly, the child throws the whistle on the floor and yells that they want to do the same as the other children. Because the practitioner knows that it will not be physically possible for the child to traverse some of the obstacles, the practitioner decides to add and remove some of the obstacles so that the child is able to participate. This is an example of reflection-in-action.
That evening the practitioner takes the time to consciously reflect upon the day’s events. He realises that he had planned the activity without taking into account the needs of the child in the wheelchair and the responsibility he had given the child had been more of an afterthought. He thinks about how the child must have felt to not be involved in the same capacity as the other children and feels disappointed and guilty about his error. He concludes that in future, he should always ensure that the needs and preferences of all children are considered during the activity planning process. This is an example of reflection-on-action.
The process of reflection resulted in the practitioner challenging their pre-existing ideas about equality and inclusion. Despite having a lot of theoretical knowledge in this area, the practitioner realises that he has underlying prejudices in this area that have now been brought to the surface. He recognises that his thoughts regarding inclusion are that all children are able to participate in some capacity. But this is not always appropriate – a better principle is that all children should be given the opportunity to participate in the same way as their peers. These insights fundamentally alter the practitioner’s ideas about inclusive practice going forward, thereby improving their future practice. This is an example of double-loop learning.