The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon

Monday 19th November – Design as a Reflective Conversation with the Situation

This text has been chosen by Melehat Nil Gülari and is taken from Schon’s The Reflective Practitioner

John Dewey (1904, 1933) was among the first to write about Reflective Practice with his exploration of experience, interaction and reflection. Schön, followed theories of Dewey. He defines reflective practice as the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base and learn from their experience.  He sets the problem in the first part of the book in chapters 1&2 in which he questions the limitation of technical rationality that seems to ignore the importance of problem setting in problem solving activity, which leads to a crisis of confidence in professional knowledge.

Basically, in this book Schön questions:

  • in practice of various kind, what form does reflection in action take? What are the differences? and what features of the process are similar?
  • Reflection in action may be directed to strategies, theories, frames or role of frames. How do these processes interact with one another, and how does technical problem solving relate to them?
  • Is there a kind of rigor peculiar to reflection-in-action and, if so, how is it like and unlike rigorous technical problem solving?
  • What sets the limits of our ability to reflect-in-action? How do individuals and institutional constraints interact with one another? And in what directions should we look to increase the scope and depths of reflection-in-action.

A brief Introduction for Donald A. Schon

Donald Schön with Horst Rittel and Herbert Simon are amongst the early contributors of cognitive design theory. After doing a Bachelor’s at Yale University, he completed Master’s and doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard University. His thesis dealt with Dewey’s theory of inquiry. He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and pursued advanced study in music (Piano and clarinet).

The Reflective Practitioner

This book reflective practitioner is considered as a seminal book, in which Shön formulated his theory about reflective activity, knowing in action and reflection in action. Schön, through his proposal of the reflective-practice concept, opposed design as rational problem solving defended by Simon in his Sciences of the Artificial (Simon, 1969/1996). To Shön design is not problem solving activity in the sense that Problem solving is generally considered as handling problems as “given,” whereas the process of “problem setting” is neglected. Starting with problems as “given,” matters of “choice or decision are solved through the selection, from available means, of the one best suited to established ends. But with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, and the means that may be chosen.

Also he argues that reflection in his words “is susceptible to a kind of rigor that is both like and unlike the rigor of scholarly research and controlled experiment” (in  the preface of the book ix). For Schön, reflection-in-action was the core of ‘professional artistry’ – a concept contrasted with the ‘technical-rationality’ demanded by  the (still  dominant) paradigm where by problems are solvable  through the rigorous application of science.

What Schön says is not anything entirely new. It is Dewey, in 1933 in his book How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process”  who introduced the concept of “reflective conversation with the situation” a way of looking at an epistemology of practice based on examining what practitioners do.

In the first two chapters, Shön argues that, technical-rationality failed to resolve the dilemma of ‘rigour versus relevance’ confronting professionals, which he suggests this dilemma is somehow the reason of the crisis of confidence in Professional knowledge and expertise. He, therefore, values the insights that come from experience, from being direct involvement with the situation. His basic idea is that through reflection-in action which responds to the belief “that our knowing is in our action, (p. 49) we can gain verifiable insight into our thought processes.

So what is reflective practice? Schön defines reflective practice as the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base and learn from their experience. He talks about reflection in action and reflection action. Reflection in action is  to reflect on behavior as it happens, whereas, Reflection on action reflecting after the event, to review, analyze, and evaluate the situation. Another term he introduces is “knowing in action” to describe tacit knowledge.

So to him, every design task is unique, and that the basic problem for designers is to determine how to approach such a single unique task.  Schön places this tackling of unique tasks at the centre of design practice, a notion he terms knowing-in-action:

In page 50 he says:

“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… 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… There is nothing in common sense to make us say that the know-how consists in rules or plans which we entertain in the mind prior to action”.

Another example he uses to describe knowing in action is riding bike. (1987) what happens “if you are riding a bicycle, and you begin to fall to the left.” People who know riding a bicycle will do the right thing when in situ, but will often give the wrong answer when asked certain questions, in a classroom or anywhere else, outside of a bike-riding situation.

“This capacity to do the right thing.… exhibiting the more that we know in what we do by the way in which we do it, is what we mean by knowing-in-action. And this capacity to respond to surprise through improvisation on the spot is what we mean by reflection-in-action.”

Reflection-in-action is the reflective form of knowing-in-action: It is Schön’s assumption that “competent practitioners usually know more than they can say” (Schön, 1983, p. 8): this illustrates the classical, generally applicable difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. Likewise the difference in German, “können” and “wissen”,”Knowing how”, and “knowing what”.

So after introducing his key concept and background, I would like to summarise the chapter 3.

Chapter3: Design As a Reflective Conversation with the Situation

In the chapter 3, he uses protocol study as a method of investigation to articulate reflection in action, from a case in architecture profession. He chooses architecture because it as an established field of design, that he had the opportunity to observe and study.

At the beginning of the chapter, he briefly overviews the design field. -As a designer I noticed he considers the product design under the heading of engineering.- I found, his observation, even in 1983, about design was expanding to all sorts of fields, is quite interesting. It is still valid. Design is expending to all sorts of fields, hence he recognises the risk of ignoring the profession specific knowledge, goals, context and media that exist in these fields. But he also says it might bring the opportunity to discover, a generic design process underlying these processes. He mentions various perspectives and notions exist in Architecture, which underlie their actions. He also notices that it might be confusing especially for students. He asks “How should we regard the controversies among the contending schools? Should we take them as competing definitions  of the field, which entails very different concepts  of professional knowledge and practice ? or stylistic  variations of a design process that is essentially the same for all schools.

Then he introduces his case as an example that he believes represents a generic design process shared by various design professions. He uses the metaphor “design as a conversation with the materials of situation” to open up his discussion.

He explains that in the design process there are various variables, possible moves, norms and interrelations. As a result of this complexity a designer produces consequences, happily or unhappily,  that are different than those indented. When this happens, in Shön’s words p 79, “the designer may take account of unintended changes he has made in the situation by forming new appreciations and understandings and by making new moves. He shapes the situation in accordance with his initial appreciation of it, the situation “talks back” and he responds to the situation’s back talk”(First paragraph). In a good design process this conversation with the situation is reflective.

In his example, he observed 20 min session of a design critiquing between architecture student, Petra and tutor Quist. He starts by introducing studio environment, how students work and design there.  In the session, first Petra describes her design process and the problems she encountered within that. Then Quist reflects on Petra’s sketches. Quist, by using his repertoire of design experiences, reframed the problem which led to re-appreciation of the situation. He evaluated her sketches in term of norms drawn from several domains, from scale and verbal strength.

Shön notices, “Drawing and talking are parallel ways of designing and together that make up, what Shön calls, language of designing”p. 80. Their dialogue is concise and difficult to be understood by outsiders, which he calls  “dycthic utterances”( eg. here, that,this )can only be interpreted through drawings. Later in the analysis part, he identifies the elements of design language, which is predominantly a spatial action language. He also summarises in a table the terms, words that are used in the protocol. Despite this language seem informal, the terms connote a lot of professional knowledge.

In the particular example, Petra has taken the land contours seriously-privatised and accept the norm that building shape and land contours must fit one another. Her norm privatising causes of the problems that she encountered. Quist criticised her sketched for missing a discipline, which leads to, in Quist words, “screwy site”. Quist says

“You should begin with a discipline, even if it is arbitrary”.

Discipline means a set of rules, a method, a geometry. That geometry which can be very strong and bold at the beginning and then soften in time, Quist suggest. I suppose, In thesis, perhaps, we may call equivalent of this as a meta theory that informs actions and decisions.

In the text, reader can also find some drawings demonstrating their discussion, although I think people outside the discipline may find it difficult to understand and relate with the discussion.

Through analysis of the protocol, Shön points out some keys aspects. Framing problem is  one of them. He claims that not being able to find a solution is resulted from “framing the problem”. Designers, therefore, need frame and re-frame the problem. Each decision is a local experiment that contributes to the reframing the problem. In Page 99, he states “the designer must consider not only the present choice but the tree of further choices to which it leads, each of which has different meanings in relation to the systems of implications set up by earlier moves”.  Designers continuously ask, what if, what is next, so what. Thus design practice is not the application of technical rationality, it is a reflective conversation with the materials of the situation. Materials of design are talking back to him apprehend unanticipated problems and potentials.  As he appreciates such new an unexpected phenomena, he evaluates the moves that have created them.

To answer his earlier question regarding different styles of design schools, he states, in page 103,

“Designers might differ, for example with respect to the priorities they assign to design domains at various stages of the process. They might focus less on the global geometry of buildings as Quist does, than on the site or on the properties and potentials of materials.  But whatever the differences designers have, such as backgrounds, experiences and priorities, they are likely to find themselves in a complex situation and a conversation with the situation”.

He also suggests, we would have observed better this conversation If Quist demonstrates less virtuosity.  He does not states the reason of his reflections. Therefore, Schön argues, we saw a simple, direct and confident demonstration, and less iteration.

In rest of the book Schön investigates other professions and compares their thinking in action.


In “reflection-in-action”, “doing and thinking are complementary. Doing extends thinking in the tests, moves, and probes of experimental action, and reflection feeds on doing and its results. Each feeds the other, and each sets boundaries for the other” (Schön, 1983, p. 280)

To finalise my summary, I will briefly mention some of reflections to this seminal work.

Criticism and influence

Nigel Cross (2011) finds Schön’s study, acute and sensitive and recognises as the most influential study on designer at work, one reason he indicate veracity of the analysis is recognisable both designers and design researchers. but he also notes that:

“What is surprising in that such an influential study is based on just one partial example of design activity-and even that is not a “real” design example, but is taken from observing an experienced designer tutoring a student in a university architeture studio.” p.23

Schon’s argument has widely influence education, health and social care.   Fish and Coles (1998), for instance, saw it is tool revise and improve the professional practice. Reflective practice is widely adapted also critiqued by various disciplines, educators, health services. Finally I read some criticism about Schön in Linda Finlay’s paper (2008) . The difficulty in reflection is noted especially for busy professionals short on time. Also Applying reflective practice is difficult without falling in bland, mechanical, unthinking ways.

It has also a dark side. reflection is psychologically explosive…[it] is like laying down charges of psychological dynamite.

Some noticeable criticisms  summarised by Finlay (2008) are:

Eraut (2004) faults the work for its lack of precision and clarity.  Boud and Walker (1998) argue that Schön’s analysis ignores critical features of the context of reflection.  Usher et al (1997) find Schön’s account and methodology unreflexive, while Smyth (1989) deplores the a theoretical and apolitical quality of his conceptions.  Greenwood (1993), meanwhile, targets Schön for downplaying the importance of reflection-before-action.  Moon (1999) regards Schön’s  pivotal concept of reflection-in-action as  unachievable, while  Ekebergh 2006 draws on phenomenological philosophy to argue that it is not possible to distance oneself from the lived situation to reflect in the moment.  To achieve real self-reflection, she asserts, one needs to step out of the situation and reflect retrospectively (van Manen, 1990).

Please feel free to add comments,

Melehat Nil Gulari

Brookfield, S. (1990) Using critical incidents to explore learners’ assumptions, in J.Mezirow (ed.) Fostering critical reflection in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985) Promoting reflection in learning: a model. In D. Boud, R.
Eraut, M. (2004) Editorial: the practice of reflection.  Learning in Health and Social Care, 3(2), 47-52
Ekebergh, M. (2007) Lifeworld-based reflection and learning: a contribution to the reflective practice in nursing and nursing education.  Reflective Practice, 8(3), 331-343.
Finlay, L. 2008. Reflecting on reflective practice Available at:
Fish, D. and Coles, C. (1998) Professionalism eroded: professionals under siege. In D Fish and C. Coles (eds.) Developing professional judgement in health care: learning through the critical appreciation of practice. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
Greenwood, J. (1993) Reflective practice: a critique of the work of Argyris and Schon. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 19, 1183-1187.
Keogh and D. Walker (eds.) Reflection: turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.
Moon, J. (1999) Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: theory and practice. London: Kogan Page.
Simon, H.  (1969) The Science of the Artificial. Cambridge:MIT Press. 1996 3rd Ed.
Smyth, J. (1989) A critical pedagogy of classroom practice. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 21(6), 483-502
Usher R, Bryant I, Johnston R (1997), Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge. Learning Beyond the Limits, London: Routledge.
van Manen, M. (1990) Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. New York: State University of New York Press.
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3 Responses to The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon

  1. Pingback: Time to Reflect « Cafe on Partnerships Series

  2. yrachus says:

    Good Post. I find the ideas of Ivan Illich in his book “de-schooling societies” really complement the work of Schon. They both look at institution constraints to education in a similar light while proposing different solutions.

  3. Pingback: Finding your purpose: A reflective practitioner works out loud | Mara Tolja

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