LOs and Metanoia - Reflective Practice LO26971

From: Artur F. Silva (artsilva@mail.eunet.pt)
Date: 07/09/01

Linked to LO25939 - A Search for LO's and Metanoia

Dear lo-learners

Please see below my second post of this series.


Part I Introduction

I.3. Reflective Practice

In the previous mail I have summarized the main criticisms made by Schon
to the Positivist Technical Rationality. Schon presents Reflective
Practice as an alternative to that positivist epistemology.


"When we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of
everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way.
Often we cannot say what it is that we know. When we try to describe it we
find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously
inappropriate. Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns
of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. It
seems right to say that our knowing is in our action. Similarly, the
workday life of the professional depends on tacit knowing-in-action.

Every competent practitioner can recognize phenomena families of symptoms
associated with a particular disease, peculiarities of a certain kind of
building site, irregularities of materials or structures for which he
cannot give a reasonably accurate or complete description." (RP, pg.49).

"Knowing-in-action. Once we put aside the model of Technical Rationality,
which leads us to think of intelligent practice as an application of
knowledge to instrumental decisions, there is nothing strange about the
idea that a kind of knowing is inherent in intelligent action. Common
sense admits the category of know-how, and it does not stretch common
sense very much to say that the know-how is in the action that a
tight-rope walker's know-how, for example, lies in, and is revealed by,
the way he takes his trip across the wire, or that a big-league pitcher's
know-how is in his way of pitching to a batter's weakness, changing his
pace, or distributing his energies over the course of a game." (RP,

"There is nothing in common sense to make us say that know-how consists in
rules or plans which we entertain in the mind prior to action. Although we
sometimes think before acting, it is also true that in much of the
spontaneous behavior of skillful practice we reveal a kind of knowing
which does not stem from a prior intellectual operation." (RP, pg. 51).

Schon refers Ryle's "knowing how" vs "knowing that", Chester Barnard's
"non-logical processes", Polanyi's "tacit knowing", Chris Alexander's "fit
of form to context", Geoffrey Vickers's "qualitative appreciation" and
"agent-experiment", etc.


Common sense not only recognizes "know how" or "knowing-in-action" but
also recognizes that we sometimes think about what we are doing.
Expressions like "thinking on your feet" or "learning by doing" are
evidence of that.

Professional practice refers to performance in a range of professional
situations. A practitioner is a specialist who encounters certain types of
situations again and again; those situations being similar in that they
concern certain characteristics, with some variations. The practitioner is
able to recognize the patterns in spite of variations and to
reflect-in-action and interpret common patterns. As the practitioner
becomes more and more expert, and the practice more routine, the
knowing-in-practice becomes unconsciously tacit and spontaneous, and the
practitioner becomes selectively inattentive to some aspects.

Because of that he may "overlearn" what he knows and become insensitive to
changes in the situation. Reflection on practice can be a corrective to

But reflection-in-action is crucial to the capacity of the practitioner to
cope with the troublesome "divergent" situations of practice. He may
surface and criticize his initial understanding, construct a new
description, and test it by on-the-spot experiments. By those experiments
he is able to reframe the problem. Sometimes reflection-in-action is
driven by surprise (why doesn't this feet if it always did?), and can
allow for a new understanding; but in conditions of practice this normally
also changes the situation itself.

In more difficult or surprising cases one can not only reflect-in-action
but reflect on (previous) action, and even reflect on one's

Schon concludes this part saying:

"For these reasons, the study of reflection-in-action is critically
important. The dilemma of rigor or relevance may be dissolved if we can
develop an epistemology of practice which places 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 scientist's art of
research. We may thereby increase the legitimacy of reflection-in-action
and encourage its broader, deeper, and more rigorous use." (RP, pg.69).

In the second part of "The Reflective Practitioner", Schon discusses many
experiences of practices - architectural design, psychotherapy ("the
patient as a universe of one"), engineering design, science based
professions, town planning and management to try to found similarities and
differences in the way different types of practitioners reflect in

Some remarks
 - Reflective Practice is a "reflective conversation with
     the situation", patterns of behavior are experimented,
     but some create unintended consequences: the situation
     "back talks" to the practitioner;

 - In Reflective Practice the problem is not a "given";
     setting/framing the problem is an important first activity of

 - "The unique and uncertain situation comes to be understood
     through the attempt to change it and changed through the
     attempt to understand it" (recall Lewin: "to understand a social
     system one has to try to change it"); like in quantum physics
     the experiments always influence reality.

 - Reflection in Practice uses a real situation as the experiment;

 - The Reflective Practitioner tends to create a Reflective Contract
     with the client.

 - When a practitioner becomes a researcher into his own
     practice he engages in a process of research, that is also
     a process of continuing self-education.

 - The Reflective Practitioner must develop a special ability to ask

 - The Reflective Practitioner has a tendency to reshape norms
     and expectations, and, hence, can have problems when
     working within rigid institutions.

 - When a practitioner becomes aware of the way he frames the
    situations of practice he also becomes aware of the possibility
    of alternative ways of framing the reality of his practice - he
    becomes a critic of the way he and others always have framed
    the problems, and more adept at criticizing accepted paradigms,
    specially when they fail to fulfill their principles or promises.

Theories-in-Action - an experiment

I would like to finish with something that will be important for
understanding the posts on "Theory in Practice".

Schon describes an experiment done and reported by Barbel Inhelder (the
most important collaborator of Piaget, with whom she co-authored many
books) and Karnillof-Smith, with the title "If you want to go ahead get a

In this experiment, young children are asked to balance wooden blocks on a
metal bar. Some blocks are normal, but some have been conspicuously or
inconspicuously weighted at an end. The objective is to study "children's
processes of discovering in action" (this quotation and the others in this
point are from Inhelder's text).

They found that children aged 6 to 7 years old ALWAYS tried the blocks at
the geometric center. They analyzed the fact saying that it was as if
children had a "theory-in-action" of the type "things always balance in
the middle". Confronted with the counter weighted blocks, 6-year-olds
would put the block even more carefully in the middle and after the
failure would declare that the block was "impossible to balance".

Seven to 8-year-olds would act in a different way: when counterweighted
blocks failed to balance at the geometric center, they would begin to
decenter the blocks. They began with the conspicuously counterweighted and
later with the others. During this phase, they paused and reflected much.
It was like as if they were discovering a new theory-of-action: "things
balance at their center of gravity". Those children also began to see
their failures to center the blocks not as errors but as experiments to
discover the correct point. Inhelder clarifies that the use of
theory-in-action doesn't mean that children have the capacity to
conceptualize explicitly on what they are doing. The "theories-in-action"
in their heads were constructed by the experimenters by a similar process
of "reflecting on children's actions".

I hope you consider this experiment relevant to understand
reflection-in-action in child development as well as an introduction to
theories-in-use and models of theories-in-use we will discuss in a future

To conclude: this is not a summary of the book: only of some points I
found relevant. The book in itself (like Schon's follow-on "Educating the
Reflective Practitioner") are in my opinion worth reading.



Schon, Donald "The Reflective Practitioner" (RP), 1983, Basic Books, Inc.

Schon, Donald "Educating the Reflective Practitioner", 1987, Jossey-Bass
Inc., Publishers



"Artur F. Silva" <artsilva@mail.eunet.pt>

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