Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part III)

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

Framing a problem means making a hypothesis of the situation. But you need to test the frame somehow, and that is where experiments come in.

Reflective practitioners perform on-the-spot experiments to see if they have framed the problem in the correct way, meaning that the problem can be tackled in a manner that is agreeable to the practitioner and that keeps the “inquiry” moving ahead. The practitioner takes into account the unique features of the problem in crafting the experiment, drawing on “a repertoire of examples, images, understandings, and actions.”

Unlike scientists, practitioners undertake these experiments not just to understand the situation, but to change it into something better. Experiments consist of “moves” like in chess. Any hypothesis has to “lend itself to embodiment in a move.” A practitioner makes a move and sees how the situation “responds” to that move, each move acting as a sort of “exploratory probe” of the situation.

Here is Schön on how the experiments work:

The practitioner’s hypothesis testing consists of moves that change the phenomena to make the hypothesis fit…The practitioner makes his hypothesis come true. He acts as though his hypothesis were in the imperative mood. He says, in effect, “Let it be the case that X…” and shapes the situation so that X becomes true.

Schön calls the experiments “a game with the situation.” Practitioners try to make situation conform to the hypotheses, but have to remain open to the possibility that they won’t. Schön notes

The practice situation is neither clay to be molded at will nor and independent, self-sufficient object of study from which the inquirer keeps his distance.

The inquirer’s relation to the situation is transactional. He shapes the situation, but in conversation with it, so that his own models and appreciations are also shaped by the situation. The phenomena that he seeks to understand are partially of his own making; he is in the situation that he seeks to understand.

If a move doesn’t work, practitioners should “surface the theory implicit in the move, [critize] it, [restructure] it, and [test] the new theory by inventing a move consistent with it.” When practitioners find the changes to the situation created by their moves to be satisfactory, that is when they should stop experimenting, and/or move on to the next part of the situation.

By creating these in-the-stuation experiments, Schön notes, rightly, that “practice is a kind of research.”

In the final installment, Part IV, I will review Schön’s implications for practice in the world and see how it relates specifically to design now.

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