Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner

Reflective Practitioner Conference


Victor J. Friedman
Ruppin Insitute, Israel

Reflective practitioners display an artistry which people often attribute it to some innate and rare talent (Schön 1983, 1987). In order to make this "mystery of the mastery" accessible, Schön (1983) carefully analyzed the artistry behind reflective practice and suggested an approach to learning inspired by training in the creative and performing arts (1987). Nevertheless, many people still find it difficult to put these ideas into practice or, as observer asked, "do you need to *be* Chris Argyris or Don Schön" in order to so. In this paper I shall describe a number of strategies for taking the mystery out of the mastery and making reflective practice more accessible to "normal" practitioners in a variety of fields.

In order to develop skills of reflection, people must engage in reflective conversations about practice problems in which they make their reasoning explicit, critically inquire into their ways of framing problems, and experiment with new ways of framing and acting on those frames. Learners must also reflect on their reflection in order to develop the skills required and to grapple with the obstacles to acquiring those skills. However, because reflection begins with experiencing doubt, or puzzles, in a practice situation, developing competency involves predicaments for both learners and teachers (Schön, 1987). Learners must learn to doubt what seems obvious and to *not* understand or know what to do. Experiencing doubt about one's world and one's own competence can be highly threatening. The challenge for teachers is to design reflective conversations which induce profound uncertainty without losing learners to anxiety, despair, or resistance.

The concept of "unfreezing" (Lewin, 1951; Schein, 1969) offers a theory for designing such learning processes (Friedman & Lipshitz, 1992). Unfreezing means upsetting a system's equilibrium so that change (i.e. movement toward a new equilibrium) can occur. Schein (1969) identified three mechanisms of unfreezing: disconfirmation, guilt-anxiety, and creating psychological safety. The key to teaching skills of reflection is maintaining the right balance between attempts to disturb the equilibrium through disconfirmation and guilt-anxiety and attempts to support learners by creating psychological safety. Too much threat and people may become overwhelmed and withdraw from the process. Too much safety and people may not be challenged sufficiently to take the leap.

Over the past ten years I have experimented with different ways of developing such learning processes. The following are four strategies which I have developed in response to problems that arose in my attempts to teach reflective practice. These strategies are presented in the order in which I use them in workshops ranging from two days to a week.


Many practitioners are not familiar with the work of Argyris and Schön or find it hard to understand what they have written. As a result, learners have little idea of what they are going to learn. In my experience a formal conceptual overview is almost useless, so I try to help them understand by drawing an analogy between driving a car and action in the social world. Most people have had the experience of driving quite far while thinking about something else (work, home, etc.) and being totally unaware of their driving. By reflecting on this experience people realize that any skill, and not just driving, entails the ability to produce complex actions without consciously thinking about them. They also see that at times they are able to interrupt these skilled behaviors and to employ conscious reasoning.

However, I carry the analogy a step further to discuss the natural reaction of drivers who go into a skid. For some unknown reason this reaction, stepping on the brakes and turning away from the direction of the skid, is precisely the wrong thing to do. Drivers are taught that they should pump the breaks and turn into the direction of the skid. However, in order to do this they must interrupt their natural, "skilled" reactions and replace them with something unnatural. In addition to the analogy I use a case study to illustrate the issues of "skill" and "skid" in a professional practice situation. The image of the "skid" usually becomes a central metaphor which for describing situations when their automatic, skilled reasoning and behavior are getting them into trouble .


One of the major obstacles to reflection is the tendency of people to regard their reality images (mental models) which they construct as concrete and unambiguous. In order to help learners experience doubt, I use a series of brief games, exercises, and cases which lead them to develop clear and unequivocal perceptions which are then disconfirmed. In debriefing these exercises, I ask learners to talk about what went on in their minds as they constructed their reality images and what led them to perceive the situation as obvious or unequivocal (i.e. to experience disconfirmation). Finally I provide a conceptual framework which describes how people construct reality images and the implications for action. The conceptual framework provides psychological safety because it enables learners to make sense of their difficulties.

The stimuli and the conceptual framework themselves may vary. Wim Overmeer, for instance, uses math problems with managers who have a strong quantitative or engineering orientation. Furthermore, he focuses on the way in which the learners "frame" the problem (rather than the issue of reality construction) and the implications of their framing for effectiveness in solving it.

The important point is that the stimulus itself should involve a seemingly clear and simple situation which is then made increasingly unclear as the teacher leads the learners through a process of taking a closer look at the situation and their reasoning about it. Because reflection itself involves a high degree of cognitive complexity (i.e. thinking about how you are thinking"), learners may become overwhelmed if the instrumental problem is too complex or involves highly threatening issues. For the same reason I begin with exercises which are fun (or funny) and not too threatening to the learners' sense of competence and gradually "up the ante".


There is a fascinating gap between the awareness of that one's perception of reality is a kind of hypotheses (rather than a fact) and the ability of people to act on that knowledge by questioning and openly testing their reality images. I test this proposition test and attempt to bridge the gap between awareness and action by using a modified version of the X-Y exercise developed by Chris Argyris (1982).

Learners are asked to evaluate a manager's performance, which is almost always negative, and are then asked how they would communicate their evaluation to the manager if they were his boss. At this point most participants find themselves in a dilemma (a "skid"). If they tell the manager what they really think, they will do to him what he did to the subordinate (in the case) and which they judged as ineffective. If they don't tell the manager what they think, he will not learn from his errors.

I explore this dilemma with the participants and we role play their suggested strategies for dealing with it. Participants almost invariably act as if their perception of the situation were a fact, which they try to impose on the other either directly or indirectly. When participants (myself included) experience themselves going into a skid, I stop the action and ask them to state explicitly how they perceive situation, what they are trying to accomplish, what seems to be getting in their way, and what they are feeling. In doing so I not only focus on the difficulty of the situation, but also on the ways in which the learners produced behaviors which contradict their own intentions (i.e. producing guilt-anxiety). The next step is demonstrating specific behaviors for testing out, or "negotiating", their reality image with the subordinate and encouraging them to role play these behaviors as well.

This exercise can be extremely uncomfortable and threatening because it involves putting their competence on the line and experiencing failure. I try to induce psychological safety by openly stating that the purpose of the exercise is to give them an opportunity to experience the skid (a form of failure). In addition I frame the exercise as an opportunity to reflect on and learn from the skid rather than as a test of their competence. I try to slow down the action and make every difficulty an opportunity for open inquiry. In role playing alternatives I attempt to coach participants so that they experience success (albeit little ones). Finally I provide concepts and a theory (Model I and Model II) for making sense of the difficulties and for redesigning reasoning and behavior.


When trying to help others deal with a complex problem, many learners attempt to practice inquiry by asking the case writer for information or "yes-no" questions, or by stating their ideas about the problem in the form of a question. These strategies are based upon a tacit assumption that one needs to understand the problem or know the solution in order to help. However, inquiry, at least in the Deweyian sense (1938), begins with genuine doubt and moves towards a resolution of that doubt. In such a situation inquiry requires seeing the situation as a puzzle and appreciating the uncertainty and ambiguity. This skill of "unknowing" critical for generating a reflective dialogue in which the participants play with the materials of a situation in order to make sense and design experiments to test their understandings.

In order to facilitate inquiry I use personal cases which learners write from their own experience. Participants learn by having their own cases discussed in the group and they also have an opportunity to practice inquiry and other skills of reflection by acting as consultants to each other. As we work through the cases, I try to move the analysis through the full cycle from reflection to redesigning action while at the same time helping participants craft and reflect on their strategies for helping each other. As learners become more competent and skills of reflection becomes a more natural part of their repertoire, they take on more responsibility for designing the learning itself.

Because it is artistry, reflective practice cannot be reduced to a set of techniques that can be mastered and applied. Anyone who has observed Don Schön and Chris Argyris (or their students) knows that the artistry of reflection takes very different forms in practice. However, structure and technique can provide learners with "scaffolding" to support them while they develop their own artistry. Once learners have reached a level of mastery, the scaffolding of technique can be removed. Since different people learn in different ways, it is important for teachers of reflective practice to treat each new workshop as an experiment. Making our theories explicit and engaging in a dialogue about their experiments will hopefully make mastery of reflection continually less mysterious.


Argyris, C. (1982). Reasoning, Learning, and action: Individual and organizational. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (1938). Logic: The theory of inquiry New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Friedman. V. & Lipshitz, R. (1992) Teaching people to shift cognitive gears: Overcoming resistance on the road to Model II. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 28, 118-136.

Lewin, K.(1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.

Schein, E. (1969). The mechanisms of change. In W.G. Bennis, K.D. Benne, and R. Chin (Eds.). The planning of change (pp 98-108), New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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