Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part II)

See Part I of this review for the introduction and background.

The everyday life of practitioners involves “tacit knowing-in-action,” that is, we instinctively know stuff and know how to do stuff, even if we can’t explain how to do it. We make judgments, evaluate situations, and recognize patterns without much thought. Shades of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink here. But practitioners sometimes need to think about what they are doing while they do it. This is what Schön calls Reflection-in-Action. Something challenging or puzzling happens and the practitioner has to reflect on what the best way is to address it, what his or her actions should be in response to it. This is where the “art” of practice comes in.

An expert practitioner, Schön says, (I’m paraphrasing here) is one who can selectively manage large amounts of information, spin out long lines of invention and inference, and has the capacity to hold several ways of looking at things at once without disrupting the flow of inquiry. Schön notes that it is important to realize that in most areas of practice, there are competing schools of thought about the nature of the practice and how to best solve problems. But the structure of reflection-in-action crosses the divide between them.

Here’s how reflection-in-action works, according to Schön:

When the phenomenon at hand eludes the normal categories of knowledge-in-practice, presenting itself as unique or unstable, the practitioner may surface and criticize his initial understanding of the phenomenon, construct a new description of it, and test the new description by an on-the-spot experiment.

This isn’t a rare occurrence, Schön asserts. Indeed, for some practitioners, this is the core of their process. I certainly know it is for me, frequently.

Chapter 5, “The Structure of Reflection-in-Action,” is really the heart of this book, and I’ve underlined about half the chapter in my copy. I’ll do my best to summarize.

When confronted by an unusual situation, practitioners “seek to discover the particular features of his problematic situation, and from their gradual discovery, designs a intervention.” The problem is not given–“There is a problem in finding the problem.” Practitioners, while still having relevant prior experience, still treat each case as unique, and thus “cannot deal with it by applying standard theories and techniques.” The practitioner has “a reflective conversation” with the situation.

The first part of this conversation is to reframe the situation, to put yourself into the situation and impose some sort of order onto it. By reframing, practitioners seek to both understand the situation and to change it. When reframing, practitioners have no idea what the implications of the new frame will be, just that within the frame, practitioners can then practice the methods they know to try to solve the problem.

Once the situation is framed, practitioners take reframed problem and conduct experiments on it to “discover what consequences and implications can be made to follow from it.” If these consequences and implications don’t suit the practitioner, the situation is reframed again and again until it does. In design, we call this iteration. The situation itself “talks back” through the unintended effects and practitioners have to listen and change the frame appropriately.

How do practitioners know if they have chosen the right frame? Schön lays out the criteria:

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

Thus, Schön, says, practitioners judge a “problem-setting by the quality and direction of the reflective conversation to which it leads. This judgement rests, at least in part, on his perception of potentials for coherence and congruence which he can realize through his further inquiry.”

How practitioners construct experiments to test problem frames is in Part III of this series.

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