Blog all sticky-tabbed pages: The Reflective Practitioner

Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner is a classic in design circles. Apparently. I’ve met very few people who could articulate why it was a classic, or why it was so widely referenced. I think it’s usually referenced when someone, usually an academic, uses the term “reflective practice” to describe what they do.

On with the quoting of bits that I liked.

Many people use the term “academic” in its pejorative sense. On the other, complaints about the elitism of obscurantism of the universities tend to be associated with a mystique of practical competence. When people use terms such as “art” and “intuition”, they usually intend to terminate discussion, rather than to open inquiry. (p viii)

Schön is not backwards in criticising the social sciences.

The prestige and apparent success of the medical and engineering models exerted a great attraction for the social sciences. In such fields as education, social work, planning, and policy making, social scientists attempted to do research, to apply it, and to educate practitioners, all according to their perceptions of the models of medicine and engineering. Indeed, the very language of social scientists, rich in references to measurement, controlled experiment, applied science, laboratories, and clinics, was striking in its reference to these models. (p38)

You’ll notice a bit jump in the page numbers here. The middle section of The Reflective Practitioner is a bunch of case studies of reflective practice.

This next part seems very important. All practice is not reflective. You actually have to reflect and consider why you use the approach you do.

When a practitioner becomes aware of his frames, he also becomes aware of the possibility of alternative ways of framing the reality of his practice. (p310)

Of course, this is very difficult.

Traditionally, the discussion of alternative frames, values, and approaches to practice tends to appear in professional communitues in the mode of debate among representatives of the contending schools of thought. There is great deal of polemical writing, in this vein, in the literatures of such fields as architecture, psychiatry, planning, social work, and divinity. There is also a literature of debate in such fields as law, engineering, and medicine between practitioners of the establishment and radical critics. In this sort of writing the style of communication is primarily ideological. The protagonists of the various points of view do not reflect on their frames but act from them, seeking to defend theor own positions and attack the propositions of their opponents. (p312)

Again, Schön sticks it to (some) social scientists. My note to myself for this paragraph was “ouch!”.

And even when sociologist of knowledge have more recently concerned themselves with the professions, as in the growing sociology of science, their perspective is atop to be rather distant from the concerns of the practitioner. They seem to be less interested in helping practitioners to reflect-in-action than in pursuing the self-initiated research agenda of their own scholarly community. (p312)

Right at the end of the book, Schön gets around to (sort of) describing the kind of partnership between practitioners and academics he has been arguing towards.

In the kinds of reflective research I have outlined, researchers and practitioners enter into modes of collaboration very different from the forms of exchange envisaged under the model of applied science. The practitioner does not function here as a mere user of the researcher’s product. He reveals to the reflective researcher the ways of thinking he brings to his practice, and draws on reflective research as an aid to his own reflection-in-action. Moreover, the reflective researcher cannot maintain distance from, much less superiority to, the experience of practice. […] Reflective research requires a partner ship of practitioner-researchers and researcher-practitioners. (p323)

It’s a fascinating book. I will admit to not reading it in depth and skipping some of the middle sections.

I think The Reflective Practitioner would benefit from someone doing “Schön Revisited”. There seems to be far more in the book, richer and more nuanced, than I had understood from reading other people’s work referencing it.

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3 thoughts on “Blog all sticky-tabbed pages: The Reflective Practitioner

  1. Schön references Polanyi a couple of times in passing when talking about “tacit knowing” and “non-rational” modes of thinking and knowing.

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