Knowing-in-practice (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

A professional practitioner is a specialist who encounters certain types of situations again and again. This is suggested by the way in which professionals use the word “case” or project, account, commission, or deal, depending on the profession. All such terms denote the units which make up a practice, and they denote types of family resembling examples. Thus a physician may encounter many different “cases of measles”; a lawyer, many different “cases of libel.” As a practitioner experiences many variations of a small number of types of cases, he is able to “practice” his practice. He develops a repertoire of expectations, images, and techniques. He learns what to look for and how to respond to what he finds. As long as his practice is stable, in the sense that it brings him the same types of cases, he becomes less and less subject to surprise. His knowing-in-practice tends to become increasingly tacit, spontaneous, and automatic, thereby conferring upon him and his clients the benefits of specialization.

On the other hand, professional specialization can have negative effects. In the individual, a high degree of specialization can lead to a parochial narrowness of vision. When a profession divides into subspecialties, it can break apart an earlier wholeness of experience and understanding. Thus people sometimes yearn for the general practitioner of earlier days who is thought to have concerned himself with the “whole patient,” and they sometimes accuse contemporary specialists of treating particular illnesses in isolation from the rest of the patient’s life experience. Further, as a practice becomes more repetitive and routine, and as knowing-in-practice becomes increasingly tacit and spontaneous, the practitioner may miss important opportunities to think about what he is doing. He may find that he is drawn into patterns of error which he cannot correct. And if he learns, as often happens, to be selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not fit the categories of his knowing-in-action, then he may suffer from boredom or “burn-out” and afflict his clients with the consequences of his narrowness and rigidity. When this happens, the practitioner has “overlearned” what he knows.

A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to overlearning. Through reflection, he can surface and criticize the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized practice, and can make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which he may allow himself to experience […]

When the phenomenon at hand eludes the ordinary 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. Sometimes he arrives at a new theory of the phenomenon by articulating a feeling he has about it.

When he finds himself stuck in a problematic situation which he cannot readily convert to a manageable problem, he may construct a new way of setting the problem – a new frame which, in what I shall call a “frame experiment,” he tries to impose on the situation.

When he is confronted with demands that seem incompatible or inconsistent, he may respond by reflecting on the appreciations which he and others have brought to the situation. Conscious of a dilemma, he may attribute it to the way in which he has set his problem, or even to the way in which he has framed his role. He may then find a way of integrating, or choosing among, the values at stake in the situation.

(Schön, 1995, p. 6of & 62f)

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Assumptions in problem setting (Schön, 1995)

24 October 2010

When practitioners are unaware of their frames for roles or problems, they do not experience the need to choose among them. They do not attend to the ways in which they construct the reality in which they function; for them, it is simply the given reality. Thus, for example, a planner may take for granted that the housing problem is one of preserving and increasing the stock of decent housing; what else could it be? A development economist may assume without question that the problem in a developing country is that of increasing the rate of industrialization, the growth of gross national product, and the pool of foreign currency available for exchange.

When a practitioner becomes aware of his frames, he also becomes aware of the possibility of alternative ways of framing the reality of his practice. He takes note of the values and norms to which he has given priority, and those he has given less importance, or left out of account altogether. Frame awareness tends to entrain awareness of dilemmas.

When a professional community embodies multiple and conflicting ideas in good currency about the frames appropriate to the construction of problems and roles, then practitioners, educators, and students of the profession confront such dilemmas. One cannot be a member of the community without taking account of them. In the field of psychotherapy, as I have noted earlier, practitioners have to deal with a bewildering variety of “schools.” Leston Havens has proposed that these can be grouped into the broad categories of objective-descriptive, interpersonal, psychoanalytic and existential psychiatry. Architects face a similar predicament. They may choose, for example, to be “historicists,” focussing on the development of variations on historical precedents. They may identify with the “modern movement,” which has sought to free itself from historical precedent but has now become something of a tradition in its own right. They may concentrate on building as a craft which utilizes and gives prominence to the unique properties of materials. They may see building as an industrial process which calls for new technologies and for building-systems. Or they may give primary importance to the idea of architecture as a social process in which the users of buildings should participate in design.

Social workers may approach their tasks as clinical caseworkers, monitors and controllers of social behavior, deliverers of social services, advocates of the rights of their clients, or as community organizers. Indeed, in the heady days of the 1960s, some social workers moved sequentially through all of these ways of framing practice roles. Planners, as I have mentioned, construct variations on the roles of policy analysis, design, advocacy, regulation, management, or mediation. In a science-based profession like medicine, a practitioner may see himself as a clinician devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of the diseases of individual patients, as a practitioner of preventive medicine concerned with the larger life situations of whole communities, or as an advocate for the rights and needs of groups of people deprived of decent medical care.

Frame analysis may help practitioners to become aware of their tacit frames and thereby lead them to experience the dilemmas inherent in professional pluralism. Once practitioners notice that they actively construct the reality of their practice and become aware of the variety of frames available to them, they begin to see the need to reflect-in-action on their previously tacit frames …

Traditionally, the discussion of alternative frames, values, and approaches to practice tends to appear in professional communities in the mode of debate among representatives of the contending schools of thought. There is a great deal of polemical writing, in this vein, in the literatures of such fields as architecture, psychiatry, planning, social work, and divinity. There is also a literature of debate in such fields as law, engineering, and medicine between practitioners of the establishment and their radical critics. In this sort of writing, the style of communication is primarily ideological. The protagonists of the various points of view do not reflect on their frames but act from them, seeking to defend their own positions and attack the positions of their opponents. The readers of these literatures may be helped to become aware of alternative points of view, but they are not much helped to reflect on the different frames that underlie them.

(Schön, 1995, p. 310ff)


Reactive and proactive problem solving (idealized design), (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

Many of our problems derive from a dissatisfaction with some aspect of our current state. For example, we do not like the way our car is working, how sales are going, the cost of materials, and so on. As noted above, many of our problem formulation are directed at getting rid of what we do not want. We tend to be moved more by our dislikes than our likes, more by our hates than our loves. The effort to get rid of what we do not want is reactive, retrospectively oriented problem solving. The effort to obtain what we want is proactive, prospectively oriented problem solving. In reactive problem solving we walk into the future facing the past – we move away from, rather than toward, something. This often results in unforseen consequences that are more distasteful than the deficiencies removed.

In proactive problem solving we specify where we want to go, and we try to get there. Although such an approach does not eliminate the possibility of overlooking relevant consequences of our solutions, it reduces the probability of doing so. The more ultimate the desired outcome we specify, the more likely we are to consider the intermediate and long-run consequences of our immediate actions. The more immediate the source of dissatisfaction we try to get rid of, the less likely we are to take account of relevant consequences. Therefore, the chances of overlooking relevant consequences are minimized when we formulate a problem in terms of approaching one or more ideals.

When we focus on the deficiencies of our current state, we tend to view each deficiency independently. Thus viewed, many deficiencies appear difficult to remove. Because focusing on an ideal reveals the relationships between different things that can be done in the future, it tends to make us deal simultaneously with sets of interacting threats and opportunities, to treat them as a whole, as a system of problems. The effort to deal with sets of interacting problems as a whole is what planning, in contrast to problem solving, should be about.

Planning implies not only dealing holistically with a number of interacting problems, but also doing so with a prospective orientation. Unfortunately, much of what is called planning is preoccupied with correcting a number of independently perceived deficiencies.

Proactive problem solving is always imbedded in a planning process. No problem is treated in isolation, but each problem is formulated as one of a set of interrelated problems that is treated as a whole. Proactive planning consists of designing a desirable future and finding ways of moving toward it as effectively as possible.

The design of a desirable future is best carried out when it is imbedded in an idealized redesign of whatever is being planned for – a nation, an agency, a business, a group, or an individual. Such a redesign is an explicit statement of what the designers would have now if they could have whatever they wanted. Such design should be subjected to only two constraints. First, the design should be technologically feasible. This does not preclude technological innovation; it is intended to prevent the process from becoming an exercise in science fiction. It would be permissible, for example, to include office-to-office color facsimile transmission or the use of helicopters for urban transportation because these are technologically feasible. However, one should not assume telepathic communications between home and office.

An other types of externally imposed constraint – for example, economic, political, and legal-should be disregarded.

The second constraint is that the thing or state designed should be  so designed that if it were brought into existence, it could survive. The design should be operationally viable.

In addition, of course, any design is unavoidably constrained by its designers’ lack of information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, not to mention imagination. Thus an idealized state of affairs should be one in which its designers would be capable of both learning from their experience in it and adapting to changes in themselves and their  environment. It follows that an ideal system or state should be flexible , and capable of being changed easily so that it can be improved continually.

An idealized design is not utopian precisely because it is capable of being improved. It is the best its designers can conceptualize now, but its design, unlike that of a utopia, is based on a recognition of the fact that no idealized design can remain ideal for long. Thus the product of an idealized design is not an ideal state or system, but an ideal-seeking state or system.

An idealized design is not utopian for another reason. Its designers’ need not pretend to have the final answers to all questions that can be I asked about the ideal. Where they do not have an answer, they should design into the state a capability of finding it. Such a design is never completed and is never absolute, final, or fixed. It is subject to continual revision in light of newly acquired information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and imagination. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 26f)

The idealized design process unleashes creativity because it relaxes internally imposed constraints. It sanctions imaginative irreverence for things as they are and encourages exploration of areas previously precluded by self-imposed and culturally imposed taboos. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 28)

An individual’s concept of what is feasible is one of the principal self-imposed constraints on problem solving and planning. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 29)

A plan, which is a system of solutions to a system of problems, can be feasible even if none of its parts are feasible when considered separately. Solutions that are infeasible can interact separately to yield a feasible system of solutions. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 30)

When explicit agreement is reached on ultimate values, differences over shorter-range objectives and means are more easily resolved. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 31)


Problems are goals (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

Choice or decision making consists of taking a course of action defined by values of one or more controlled variables. There must be at least two courses of action available, otherwise there is no choice and therefore no problem. There may, of course, be an unlimited number of courses of action available. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 11)

Not every choice situation is a problem situation, but every problem involves a choice. A problem arises when the decision maker has some doubt about the relative effectiveness of the alternative courses of action. The solution process is directed at dispelling doubt. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 12)

Using the conception of a problem set forth above we can consider problem solving with respect to what the decision maker does about each of these components:

  1. Objectives: desired outcomes
  2. Controlled variables: courses of action
  3. Uncontrolled variables: the environment
  4. The relationships among these three (Ackoff, 1978, p. 17)

It is apparent that what we want, our ends, influences our choice of means. Not so apparent is the fact that the available means influence our choice of ends. Our conception of possible outcomes affects what outcomes we desire. Our ability to solve problems is thereby limited by our conception of what is feasible. Furthermore, even our conception of the nature of the problem may be lImited in this way. However, such limits are often self-imposed. (Ackoff, 1978, p. 25)


Creativity (Ackoff, 1978)

18 October 2010

A puzzle is a problem that one cannot solve because of a selfimposed constraint. Creativity is shackled by self-imposed constraints. Therefore, the key to freeing it lies in developing an ability to identify such constraints and deliberately removing them …

Principles that guide our searches for self-imposed constraints are obviously helpful, but it has been my experience that they do not provide sufficient guidance to creative problem solving. It often takes a bigger push than a principle can provide to get over the hump of a self-imposed constraint. I have found that examples, real ones drawn from life, are often more effective because they are likely to be remembered better and longer.

(Ackoff, 1978, p. 9f)


We don’t just see the world as it is (Robinson & Aronica, 2009)

12 October 2010

We don’t just see the world as it is; we interpret it through the particular ideas and beliefs that have shaped our own cultures and our personal outlook. All of these stand between us and our raw experience in the world, acting as a filter on what we perceive and how we think.

What we think of ourselves and of the world makes us who we are and what we can be.

(Robinson & Aronica 2009, p. 81)


The sixth sense (Robinson & Aronica, 2009)

12 October 2010

One of the things Kathryn Lynn learned about the Anlo Ewe people is that they don’t think of the senses in the same way that we do. First they never thought to count them. That entire notion seemed beside the point. In addition, when Geurts listed our taken-for-granted five to them, they asked about the other one. The main one. They weren’t speaking of a “spooky” sense. Nor were they speaking of some residual sense that has survived among the Anlo Ewe but that the rest of us have lost. They were speaking of a sense that we all have, and that is fundamental to our functioning in the world. They were talking about our sense of balance.

The fluids and bones of the inner ear mediate the sense of balance. You only have to think of the impact on your life of damaging your sense of balance – through illness or alcohol – to get some idea of how important it is to our everyday existence. Yet most people never think to include it in their list of senses. This isn’t because they don’t have a sense of balance. It’s because they’ve become so accustomed to the idea that we have five senses that they have stopped thinking about it. It’s become a matter of common sense. They just take it for granted.

One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development, is common sense. They playwright Bertolt Brecht said that as soon as something seems the most obvious thing in the world, it means that we have abandoned all attempts at understanding it.

(Robinson & Aronica, 2009, p. 31)