Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner


for The On-line Conference on Don Schön's Reflective Practitioners

Dr. Willem J.A.M. Overmeer

Duxx Graduate School of Business Leadership Monterrey, NL, Mexico
Theseus International Management Institute Sophia Antipolis, France
E-mail: Wovermee@Stern.NYU.Edu
New York City Feb 18, 1998

A friend of mine once met Don Schön at a party. He was impressed by Don's work but had never met him. As he walked up to Don and introduced himself he said "I like your work". Don looked at the daughter on my friend's arm and said "I like your work too". Apart from showing a graceful way of deflecting a talk about work at a party and a sense of quick wit, this mini vignette illustrates a Don's reluctance to talk about his work and about "reflections" as such. When others talked about reflection (under non-party conditions), Don often wondered "reflection about what?" and implored "you'd have to think about SOMETHING". And a close colleague of Don, Jeanne Bamberger, added that when kids play the game of continuously repeating a world like 'rhubarb', the word starts to lose its meaning after twenty times and increasingly becomes a mere sound distorted by a rapid pronunciation. Words in good currency, like "reflection", she said, run the risk of a similar fate.

Indeed, many of us in business schools and consulting have witnessed the tide of 'in-words' like "core competence" that become grist for a particular kind of a mill -- that is, a mill that generates sound bites with the following, predictable dynamic: (i) an idea emerges as a powerful concept for a thoughtful few, (ii) it is discovered as a hot topic by a growing group of converted, (iii) it becomes a worn-out phrase discarded 'en masse' as 'old hat'. The early stages of this dynamic can be discerned in the work of Schön (as well Argyris's work and their joint work) when looking at the references people make in scientific papers about 'organizational learning'. You will see a host of perfunctory references, e.g. taking a concept such as "a theory of action" and use it to support for or even equate it with something the author wants to say. Don himself early on understood this dynamic and was wary of it. Several times in his career, when his work struck a chord with a larger group, he deliberated stepped back so as not be drawn into the maelstrom of the later stages of this dynamic. He also understood how "talk of change is often a substitute for engaging in it"(Schön, 1970). Hence, his reluctance to engage in the talk about his work in the abstract and his keen interest in the practice of others.

Let me illustrate the problem of "talking about reflection rather than engaging in it". I teach a course 'Intelligence-in-Action' at Duxx Graduate School of Business Leadership in Monterrey, Mexico. One participant, a former diplomat, had serious difficulties understanding and solving differential equations and courageously decided to reflect on the difficulties he experienced in learning mathematics.

To give you a sense of his attempt, his paper had the following headings: "Definitions", "Goals", "How to measure the process of learning?", "The problem: describing the initial point of measuring", "Understanding the problem", "Creating a solution", and "Conclusion".

NOWHERE in his paper did he attempt to show how he would ACTUALLY go about solving a differential equation. The outcome of his reflection (in "Creating a solution") was the design of "my ideal class for learning how to solve a derivative". This would involve a teacher who would: (i) "explain a real situation and state a question", (ii) "explain all or at least a few causes of that are capable of changing the situation described", (iii) "explain what is the real goal to obtain", etc.

Apart from the fact that his teacher had done these kinds of things in class, this strategy precluded him from engaging in the very problem he tried to address. His paper demonstrated considerable skills in "thinking", even in "reflecting on his thinking", but it was disconnected from the problem he tried to address -- solving differential equations. While, perhaps, an extreme case, in my work in a number of leading professional schools, I have seen multiple versions of this problem of disconnectedness between "thinking" and "doing". And, Seymour Papert (1980) states: "You can't think seriously about thinking without thinking about something".

It is against this background that Don usually invited practitioners to write cases about their practice -- i.e. to describe what they actually did to address situations that were difficult for them. He then asked them to reflect on "what they were thinking as they were doing it". One of the things practitioners often discovered was that they had non-trivial difficulties writing a case about their own practice. It was not that they were not doing anything, often quite the opposite. The question they were struggling was "how can I describe / capture what I do in such a way that it can become subject to reflection?" and "for what purpose do I reflect?" Here Don would provide help and become a "co-inquirer" into their practice. He would focus on how a practitioner framed the problem he was facing, and how the framing complicated the addressing of the problem.

For instance, in the course I described above, one participant, and an heir to a family business that was experiencing severe financial difficulties, wrote a case about firing employees. The case included his rendition of a dialogue he had with an employee to be fired, a woman suspected of having "a bad attitude" and being "very aggressive". The dialogue showed HOW he got into trouble -- an escalating conflict that led the woman to go to the local government agencies, thereby complicating the task of laying off people. The participant wanted to fire people without upsetting them and, as a result of this framing, would "ease in" his conversations in the following way:

(i) He started out by trying to "break the ice" and asking her "have you been okay?" She answered with a terse "Yes thank you".

(ii) He then told her that "our company is passing through a very difficult time, the situation is getting more serious every day, and we are not being able to support the level of expenses that we are have now". She responded with exasperation "So, what are you trying to tell me?"

(iii) Next he tried to be "nice" to her by saying "You have been working for us for several years, and I am very grateful for your collaboration; but now we come to a point were we need to ask you to leave the company". Aggravated, she answered pointedly "So, you are going to fire me now?" to which he responded "Don't take it that way, it is just that I have to do this".

The employee responded to his "easing in" with increasing exasperation (sensing indirectness) and became increasingly upset in large part BECAUSE of his strategy of easing in. This strategy was grounded in the framing of the problem -- a dilemma of how "to fire without upsetting the one being fired". The way the practitioner framed the task made it increasingly difficult for him to address it. What he wanted to avoid -- the employee becoming upset -- actually did happen but mostly through his own behavior. Underneath this framing of the problem, it turned out, was another framing of the problem -- firing as "severing a tie" or "amputation". Instead of merely breaking off a relationship unilaterally, the practitioner began to see that he could provide help because of his standing in a social network and could call other firms that might be in need of workers.

Don focused on this design task and tried to help practitioners become aware (i) THAT they intuitively frame and design tasks, and (ii) that THE WAY they frame tasks gets them into trouble of their OWN making. Very often this trouble complicated their task to the point of overwhelming them (as in the case of the practitioner mentioned above), or, in Herbert Simon's terms, to the point that it overloaded their bounded capacity for information processing. Don then helped practitioners reframe and redesign the task in a way that would undo some of the added complexity thereby making the task more manageable. This, in turn, would lead to new design dilemmas which might upset the practitioner. For instance, a participant may not see as his task to assist laid-off employees in finding a new job because it puts an extra work load on him in already taxing circumstances of keeping a family business afloat. It is under the conditions of facing an upset practitioner who may challenge him that Don showed a deeper competence. Don not only tried to articulate and develop this competence; he also tried hard to help others to develop this competence within themselves.

Drawing on Dewey, he would describe this competence as being able: (i) to face the "radical uncertainty" inherent in an indeterminate situation of practice, (ii) to continue to inquire and to keep moving" so as to "transform the situation into a more manageable one", (iii) to engage, when necessary, in "on-the-spot experimentation" within the action frame (so as to make a difference).

If we take Don's advice about "reflecting on SOMETHING" seriously, then what are the implications for this "on-line" conference? What does it mean to have a conference on "reflective practice", in particular when the conference is "on-line"? Don would probe for examples of the practice of participants. After he would have explored their cases, he might ponder how some of his ideas expressed in book form, actually help participants in their work as teachers, consultants, researcher, administrations, etc.? What would they do differently in concrete case? How does their work test his theory? And, faced with such a novelty as an "on-line conference", Don would probably be alert as to how this technology influences the quality of the dialogue that is taking place. I hope that every participant of this conference will heed this advice.


D.A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action, New York: Basic Books, 1983.

D.A. Schön, Beyond the stable state, New York: Norton, 1970

Seymour Papert, Mindstorms, New York: Basic Books, 1980.

A terrific example is Giovan Francesco Lanzara, "Shifting stories", in D.A. Schön (ed.), The reflective turn, 1989.

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