Donald Schon: How Professionals Think In Action
Donald Schon, in his influential books Educating the Reflective Practitioner and The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action, argues that we need to look at how adults learn in practice. He introduces the notions of ‘knowing-in-action’, ‘reflecting-in-action’ and ‘reflecting-on-action’. As a practising reflective practitioner, I will take a slightly different tact than I have for other blogs. I will first compare Schon’s thoughts on education as a profession to my own experience; I will then outline lessons I have learned from being a reflective practitioner. The blog will then expand on Schon’s theories and show the need for what I call critical reflection.
Education as a Profession
Schon defines professional as “an activity … in instrumental problem solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique.” (p21) This is the world of engineering, medicine, law and the like. “Propositions which were neither analytically nor empirically testable were held to have no meaning at all.” (p33) It was into this world that non-professional occupations sought to become professionalized. They hoped to benefit from this professionalization by garnering higher status and exclusivity of work. I was involved in two such movements — the professionalization of nurses and of fish harvesters. During four years as a lab demonstrator in an Introductory Biology course, I witnessed excellent nurses, many with 10 or 12 years of clinical practice, struggling to complete biology lessons that had absolutely no relevance to their own work, so they could obtain a BSc in Nursing. I was also involved in the professionalization of fish harvesters, which was as divorced from reality as the nursing example.
Education is not detached from this debate. Some educators, in search of the status of professions and the legitimacy it brings, have embraced instrumental notions of practice. I remember the plethora of studies and directives on ‘flavour-of-the-month’ educational practices (on task, engaged learning time, etc.) made legitimate by scientific investigations. However, to relegate the craft of education to a profession is to do it a great disservice. As Eisner points out “many — perhaps most — changes in practice emanating from new views of the learner preceded rather than followed the findings of educational research.” (p449) Additionally, scientific theory simplifies what is happening in the classroom. It makes static something engaging, vibrant, living, active and evolving.
Indeed Schon, echoing Schein, contends that even the so-called professions do not fit the professional definition. He feels:
…the problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations. Civil engineers, for example, know how to build roads suited to the conditions of particular sites and specifications. They draw on their knowledge of soil conditions, materials, and construction technologies to define grades, surfaces and dimensions. When they must decide what road to build, however, or whether to build it at all, their problem is not solvable by the application of technical knowledge, not even by the sophisticated techniques of decision theory. (p4)
The Reflective Practitioner
As part of my graduate education in curriculum, I began a process of reflection on decision-making moments as a school administrator. As does Schon, I believe:
Our spontaneous knowing-in-action usually gets us through the day. On occasion, however, it doesn’t. A familiar routine produces an unexpected result; an error stubbornly resists correction; or, although the usual actions produce the usual outcomes, we find something odd about them because, for some reason, we have begun to look at them in a new way. All such experiences, pleasant and unpleasant, contain an element of surprise. (p26)
I have used reflection to locate myself in the context of my decision-making. As Haysom says:
It may be that the data brings to light something that you hadn’t noticed before and it starts you wondering. It may be that you are able to spot patterns in your actions and this prompts you to ask questions that otherwise would have remained latent. (p62)
By documenting my decision-making, I found my actions before reflection showed neither collaborative nor collegial problem solving. Time to reflect, however, brought responses that I feel are more indicative of my own personality (collaborative, collegial, critical). I realized that decisions made quickly, as is sometimes necessary, cause me to fall back on previous, less- mature modes of coping that I thought had been buried in my past.
Ann Hart and others “suggest that administrative experiences, especially those that practitioners reflect upon and subsequently integrate into a personalized professional knowledge base, are critical to … the ongoing professional learning of educational leaders.” (p8) As a new administrator, not schooled in administrative processes, I found these reflections, against the backdrop of dialogue in the literature, invaluable to my development in decision-making. Laura Lipton, in studying reflective practices for administrators, found that “they reconstructed a supervisory event, generated a cyclical self-conversation to examine their thinking, and created new meanings of those experiences.” (p1) Like Lipton and Schon, I feel that my reflecting-in-action and the subsequent reflecting-on-action allow me to improve my subsequent reflecting-in-action. Over time this allowed me to modify my decision-making process to include those things I feel are important but sometimes fail to be articulated in quick decision-making. As Pastor and Erlandson found, “teachers perceive their needs and measure their job satisfaction by factors such as participation in decision-making, use of valued skills, freedom and independence, challenge, expression of creativity, and opportunity for learning.” (p1) These are the traits, given reflection, that are present in my decision-making. These are the traits I strive to have in my immediate decision-making.
Another by-product of this process is the identification of patterns of problematic situations. A number of decision-making moments had a commonality such that generic solutions were available. Different instructors bring up problems related to different programs, but they are just variations on a common theme – problems with venues, costs, students and other things. They are symptoms of larger basic situations. With the identification of these generic situations, a specific principle or solution can be applied. Once this becomes part of in-action decision-making, these events are no longer problematic but rather everyday decision-making. Further, if one sets a precedent for this, these decisions can be given over to the instructors, who have knowledge of the accepted solutions to these situations.
Nothing can live in a vacuum; neither can one evolve without influences from outside. Perhaps selfishly (or perhaps altruistically) I realized that I need a community of communicative, critical thinkers around me. This dialogue can take place with other ‘cultural workers’ and through my church, volunteer activities and course work. However, I really felt it necessary to incubate this in the school where I worked. Our conversations help each of us become more critical in our everyday adult education.
I feel an analysis of position in the domain of education is an important first step in the continual evolution of an educator. It is necessary to set a baseline from which change can be measured. A reflective practice can help. A step-wise process can be utilized:
- Dialogue with co-workers, peer research, literature reviews
In this way, even if the practitioner’s knowledge of ideologies and philosophies of teaching are limited, he or she can look at critical developmental moments in personal history, writings, assessments of teaching done by peers, reactions to primary and secondary literature and self-reflection to try to gain an idea of present frame of reference and improve upon knowing-inaction. But what of the larger cultural influences that may not come out in reflective practice?
Ellwood, in discussing technology states that “…the more complex truth is that technologies carry the imprint of the cultures from which they issue.” (p7) Thus “the romantic notion of science as a pursuit of pure, unadulterated ‘objective’ truth, with the scientist working in isolation from the mundane reality… has now become dangerously untenable.” (p485)
These two statements are a sign of the realities that are emerging to refute the long-standing tenet, within science, that its validity and objectivity is beyond reproach. An issue of Nature magazine that I read some years back made me question even more fundamentally the beliefs I hold about knowledge. The first is the ‘overthrowing’ of the long-held truth that things evolve to be bigger. The second is Stephen J. Gould’s editorial based on this finding that points out the social character of scientific endeavor. The discussion (an example of the fox judging his guarding of the chicken coop) brings out the feeling that scientists have a general belief that bigger is better and it caused them, for 125 years, to continue to pick species that conformed to their beliefs (horses, dinosaurs, etc.), rather than look at the hundreds of examples that do not fit.
This then brings out a larger question: is our reflection-on-action limited by our hegemony? If this is the case then one can improve educational practice, but only within the confines of what is intuitively acceptable, which undoubtedly is hegemony-based. By adding into the reflective practice research, literature, and dialogue with peers, we can push the bounds of our own experience. If these include proponents of various positions and are done in a critical way, this may suffice. But we must not become complacent. We must continue to expose our practice to critical self-reflection and balanced outside critique.
Eisner, Elliott, “Can Educational Research Inform Educational Practice?” Phi Delta Kappan March 1984
Ellis, Thomas, “Motivating Teachers for Excellence.” ERIC Digest 6, ED 259449, 1984
Ellwood, Wayne, “Seduced by Technology”. New Internationalist, December 1996
Harding, S. (Ed.) Third World Network. “Modern Science in Crisis: The Third World Response”. In The ‘Radical Economy of Science’. 1993
Hart, Ann et al, “Problem-solving Errors of Educational Leaders.” ERIC ED 397524. 1996
Haysom, John, Inquiring Into The Teaching Process, Research in Education Series 12, OISE Press, 1985
Lipton, Laura, “Transforming Information into Knowledge: Structured Reflection in Administrative Practice.” ERIC ED 361903. 1993
Schon, Donald, The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books. 1983
This is the second in a series of blogs that will look at the underpinnings of education and the thought leaders that have helped to inform our educational evolution.