The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schön

The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action by Donald Schön was a good summer read. The book was highly relevant to me for two reasons: (1) the case studies themselves were interesting (especially the architect one, which is related to my interest in design), (2) Schön's objective, which was about setting an epistemology of practice that place "technical problem solving within a broader context of reflective inquiry, shows how reflection-in-action may be rigorous in its own right, and links the art of practice in uncertainty and uniqueness to the scientists' art of research". To some extent, what I appreciated in this book was that the author recast the notions of research and practice in novel ways. This was important to me as I constantly try to rethink my own stance. Actually, this is what happen when I state that I am a researcher although I left academia or that I avoid mentioning any "academic discipline" next to the term "researcher". Besides, having a BSc in biology, an MSc in Human-Computer Interaction from a psychology department and a PhD in in Human Computer Interaction from a computer sciences department doe not really help here.

Schön basically shows that the world cannot be split in two categories such as practitioner and researchers, on p. 308-309

"Clearly, then, when we reject the traditional view of professional knowledge, recognizing that practitioners may become reflective practitioners in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict, we have recast the relationship between research and practice. For on this perspective, research is an activity of practitioners. It is triggered by features of the practice situation, undertaken on the spot, and immediately linked to action."

This activity that we calls "reflective research" can be discriminated into four types:

  1. Frame analysis: the study of the way in which practitioners frame problems and roles.
  2. Repertoire building research: accumulating and describing description and analysis of images, category schemes, cases, precedents and exemplars to be brought to unique situations
  3. Research on fundamental methods of inquiry and overarching theories: discover how the process of recognition and restructuring works by examining episodes of practice to enter into a way of seeing, restructuring and intervening which they may wish to make their own.
  4. The study of reflection-in-action: research done by practitioners triggered by features practice situation, undertaken on the spot and is immediately linked to action.

Later on in the book, he confronts the epistemology of technical rationality (research produces abstract theories that could be useful to solve problem, applied in practice) and what he calls an "epistemology of practice" which is more inductive and substitute "problem solving" by "problem setting/spotting":

"In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to practitioners as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations that are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense. "

What is important in this piece is also the critique of the technical rationality. Inherited from Positivism, the model of practice for lots of professions has the one of the Engineer. The practitioner's question ("How ought I to act?") becomes a scientific question and answers could be derived through scientific theories. Schön criticizes this through the book and I won't enter into the details here. What is interesting to me is the part about how the technical rationality often leads to the "mystique of technical expertise", the sort of wizardry some folks impose on others, showing that "they know (and you don't)". Schön as a good take on this:

"The idea of reflective practice leads, in a sense both similar to and different from radical criticism, to a demystification of personal expertise. It leads us to recognise that for both the professional and counter professional, special knowledge is embedded in evaluative frames which bear the stamp of human values and interest. It also leads us to recognize that the scope of technical expertise is situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict. When research-based theories and techniques are inapplicable, the professional cannot legitimately claim to be expert, but only to be especially well prepared to reflect-in-action"

Which leads him to state some tips about how to judge a claim without being an expert. I like them a lot and think they should be used more often (p301):

  • "judge the man rather than his knowledge". Challenge him and see how he responds to challenge. Look how he responds to challenge. Look for the combination of confidence and humility, advocacy of a position, and openness to inquiry which is characteristic of reflective competence.
  • Use your own ignorance. Do not be afraid to admit ignorance, ask for help in understanding and expect to get it.
  • Ask for sources of risk. Push for the limits of the other's confidence. Ask what risks are attendant on a proposed course of action.
  • Seek out more than one view. Assume that is is normal and legitimate to compare practitioners' approaches to a problem. Use multiple meetings to build up a sense of the proper questions to ask and the criticisms of a particular approach that need to be answered"

Finally, a great part of my interest has been devoted to the description of the "reflection-in-action" process per se, or how practitioner do what they do. Schön's contribution here consists highlighting the "fundamental structure of professional inquiry"

He explains how the first step is about identifying the problem ("There is a problem in finding the problem") where the practitioner has "a reflective conversation" with the situation at hand: "The practitioner conducts an experiment in reframing the problematic situation (...) judges his problem-solving effectiveness in terms of an objective function". At this point, the person does not really know what the solution to the problem will be (nor that the problem is soluble) but the frame imposed on the situation is one that lends itself to a method of inquiry in which he/she has confidence. Nevertheless, Schön lists a set of question employed to evaluate the fitness of the frame:

  • Can I solve the problem I have set?
  • Do I like what I get when I solve this problem?
  • Have I made the situation coherent?
  • Have I made it congruent with my fundamental values and theories?
  • Have I kept inquiry moving?

Then, there are two possibilities when it comes to "solving the problem". On the one hand, the practitioner can bring past experience, familiar categories. This is close to analogical reasoning/case-based reasoning as described by cognitive psychologists. On the other hand, he/she "conduct" and experiment, that he refers to as "a game with the situation" which is done through hypothesis-testing. In the context of design, this corresponds to what he calls “move experiment”: iterations that are evaluated and serve as a basis for generating new solutions. He insists also on the fact that this move experiment is an "interaction of making and seeing", which is an important characteristic of design. This notion of experiment is described in thorough details by Schön because he wants to show the differences with what the model of technical rationality implies when it comes to "experiments". In the case of practitioners' work, there are three types of experiments that correspond to 3 types of reflection-in-action:

  • Explorative experiments, which follows a "What if?" logic: "when action is undertaken only to see what follows, without accompanying predictions or expectations"
  • Move-testing, which implies an intention on the part of the practitioner
  • Hypothesis-testing, that corresponds to the traditional notion with formulated hypothesis consisting of different variables. Unlike move-testing hypothesis-testing is much more complex and analytical.

And what are the consequences of such experiments? let's get back to the book because the phrasing here is REALLY important:

"When a move fails to do what is intended and produces consequences considered on the whole to be undesirable, the inquirer surfaces the theory implicit in the move, criticizes it, restructures it, and tests the new theory by inventing a move consistent with it. The learning sequence, initiated by the negation of a move, terminates when new theory leads to a new move which is affirmed. (...) Other theories of action or models might also account for the failure of the earlier move and the success of the later one. But in the practice context, priority is placed on the interest in change and therefore on the logic of affirmation. It is the logic of affirmation which sets the boundaries of experimental rigor."

With this quote, I end here this chaotic review because it circles back to I started to discuss at the beginning: the different definition of rigor for practitioner. I am pretty sure I will now used this quote (and material) to discuss practitioners' work with my student. I found it strikingly revealing and highlight the difference of attitude between academics and professionals.

Why do I blog this? lots of excerpts and quotes here but this blog is my notepad, the place where I reference this sort of material for futures enquiries. The place where my frame are being built and where futures moves are being hypothesized.

Of course, there are tons of others theories of knowledge and problem solving, some coming from cognitive psychologies, others from management sciences. However, I find interesting to read Donald Schön's approach given its proximity to different practitioners' field and its peculiar theoretical stance.

People interested in this book may also have a glance at Dan Saffer's extensive review as it uncovers interesting connection with designers' work.