ZML Didaktik / Innovative Learning Scenarios

Introduction to the reflective practitioner

Posted on: March 13, 2018

Reading Schön’s book “Reflective Practitioner” is a great pleasure for me. In this post I will focus on the preface and Part I: Professional Knowledge and Reflection-in-Action (p. 3-69)

In the eighties Schön speculates that universities are committed to an epistemology of hard knowledge and science – mostly ignoring practical competence and professional artistry. In the first part of the book Schön explorers the causes for the crisis of confidence in professional knowledge and presents a new approach.

Since the Reformation the advancement in science and technology  and the industrial movement contributed to an increased importance of the profession. Professionals as doctors, lawyers, managers, teachers, military professionals… were shaping our society and were expected to define and solve our problems. Society depends on the work of professionals.

The Crisis of Confidence in Professional Knowledge

But in the last century there were many failures of professional actions and therefore a “crisis of confidence in professional knowledge” emerged. Professionally designed solutions to public problems often didn’t work as they should and had negative side-effects as pollution, poverty, shortage of energy and others. New technology couldn’t fix the problems and often created new problems.

In their practice professionals were confronted with situations of complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflicts. The professional knowledge couldn’t catch up with these new demands. Professionals were confronted with “messes” –  dynamically changing, complex and connected problems. This situation has led to professional pluralism where competing theories arise – which further reduces the teachability of this practice.

Nevertheless practitioners of all fields somehow succeed to make sense of complexity and reduce uncertainty in their day-to-day practice. The art of practice appears to be learnable for individuals, whereas educators struggle to describe manifold processes in terms of the model of professional knowledge.

From Technical Rationality to Reflection-in-Action

According to the model of Technical Rationality “professional activity consists in instrumental problem solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique” (p. 21). Professional work is based on general principles with respect to specific (standardized) problems. Therefore educators train specialized skills based on an underlying theory.

The model of Technical Rationality focusses on problem solving and ignores problem setting.  Professionals face a dilemma, “their definition of rigorous professional knowledge exclude phenomena they have learned to see as central to their practice” (p. 42). There is a gap between professional knowledge and demands of real world practice. Within the model of Technical Rationality professionals resolve this dilemma of rigor by “cutting the practice situation to fit professional knowledge” (p. 44) and therefore misreading situations or manipulating them. The model of Technical Rationality is incomplete and limited and therefore not entirely useful for the education of professionals.

“When ends are confused and conflicting there is as yet no problem to solve” (P. 41). Problem setting is a process to name things and to frame the context by setting boundaries and impose coherence upon the problem. Methods of inquiry of successful practitioners combine experience, trial and error, intuition, and muddling through. A new approach – an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes –  is needed.


Knowing-in-action / knowing-in-practice: Our knowing is ordinarily tacit and implicit in our actions – “our knowing is in our actions” (p. 49). “A kind of knowing is inherent in intelligent action” (p. 50). As professional practice also includes repetition, practitioners develop a repertoire of expectations, images, and techniques. In this way the knowing-in-action becomes increasingly tacit, spontaneous, automatic.

Ordinary people and professionals think about what they are doing; often stimulated by surprises they reflect their action. This process of reflection-in-action is central to the art by which practitioners deal with situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflicts (learning-by-doing). Through reflection a practitioner scrutinizes the tacit understandings and can make new sense of new situations.

For reflective practitioners reflection-in-action is the core of practice. “Nevertheless, because professionalism is still mainly identified with technical expertise, reflection-in-action is not generally accepted as a legitimate form of professional knowledge”. (p 69)

Donald, A. Schön (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

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