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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Reflection-in-action (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. His inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation. He does not separate thinking from doing, ratiocinating his way to a decision which he must later convert to action. Because his experimenting is a kind of action, implementation is built into his inquiry. Thus reflection-in-action can proceed, even in situations of uncertainty or uniqueness, because it is not bound by the dichotomies of Technical Rationality.

Although reflection-in-action is an extraordinary process, it is not a rare event. Indeed, for some reflective practitioners it is the core of practice. Nevertheless, because professionalism is still mainly identified with technical expertise, reflection-in-action is not generally accepted – even by those who do it – as a legitimate form of professional knowing.

Many practitioners, locked into a view of themselves as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection. They have become too skillful at techniques of selective inattention, junk categories, and situational control, techniques which they use to preserve the constancy of their knowledge-in-practice. For them, uncertainty is a threat; itsadmission is a sign of weakness. Others, more inclined toward and adept at reflection-in-action, nevertheless feel profoundly uneasy because they cannot say what they know how to do. cannot justify its quality or rigor.

For these reasons, the study of reflection-ill-action is critically important. the dilemma of rigor or relevance may be dissolved if we can develop an epistemology of practice which places technical problem solving within a broader context of reflective inquiry, shows how reflection-in-action may be rigorous in its own right, and links the art of practice in uncertainty and uniqueness to the scientist’s art of research. We may thereby increase the legitimacy of reflection-in-action and encourage its broader, deeper, and more rigorous use.

(Schön, 1995, p. 68f)


The situations of practice are not problems to be solved, but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder and indeterminacy (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

The situations of practice are not problems to be solved but problematic situations characterized by uncertainty, disorder and indeterminacy. Russell Ackoff, one of the founders of the field of operations research, has recently announced to his colleagues that “the future of operations research is past” because:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Ackoff argues that operations research has allowed itself to become identified with techniques, mathematical models, and algorithms, rather than with “the ability to formulate management problems, solve them, and implement and maintain their solutions in turbulent environments.” Problems are interconnected, environments are turbulent, and the future is indeterminate just in so far as managers can shape it by their actions. What is called for, under these conditions, is not only the analytic techniques which have been traditional in operations research, but the active, synthetic skill of “designing a desirable future and inventing ways of bringing it about.”

The situations of practice are characterized by unique events. Erik Erikson, the psychiatrist, has described each patient as “a universe of one,” and an eminent physician has claimed that “85 percent of the problems a doctor sees in his office are not in the book.” Engineers encounter unique problems of design and are called upon to analyze failures of structures or materials under conditions which make it impossible to apply standard tests and measurements. The unique case calls for an art of practice which might be taught, if it were constant and known, but it is not constant.

Practitioners are frequently embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests. Teachers are faced with pressures for increased efficiency in the context of contracting budgets, demands that they rigorously “teach the basics,” exhortations to encourage creativity, build citizenship, help students to examine their values. Workers in the fields of social welfare are also torn between a professional code which advocates attention to persons and bureaucratic pressure for increased efficiency in processing cases. School superintendents, industrial managers, and public administrators are asked to respond to the conflicting demands of the many different groups which hold a stake in their enterprises. Professionals engaged in research and development are not infrequently torn between a “professional” concern for technological elegance, consumer safety, or social well-being, and an institutional demand for short-term return on investment.

In some professions, awareness of uncertainty, complexity, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict has led to the emergence of professional pluralism. Competing views of professional practice – competing images of the professional role, the central values of the profession, the relevant knowledge and skills – have come into good currency. Leston Havens has written about the “babble of voices” which confuses practitioners in the field of psychotherapy. Social workers have produced multiple, shifting images of the nature of their practice, as have architects and town planners. Each view of professional practice represents a way of functioning in situations of indeterminacy and value conflict, but the multiplicity of conflicting views poses a predicament for the practitioner who must choose among multiple approaches to practice or devise his own way of combining them.

(Schön, 1995, p. 16f.)


Problem setting as an art (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

When leading professionals write or speak about their own crisis of confidence, they tend to focus on the mismatch of traditional patterns of practice and knowledge to features of the practice situation – complexity, uncertainty, instability , uniqueness, and value conflict – of whose importance they are becoming increasingly aware.

Surely this is a laudable exercise in self-criticism. Nevertheless, there is something puzzling about the translation of wavering confidence in professional expertise into these particular accounts of the troubles of the professions. If it is true, for example, that social reality has shifted out from under the nineteenth-century division of labor, creating new zones of complexity and uncertainty, it is also true that practitioners in such fields as management and industrial technology do sometimes find ways to make sense of complexity and reduce uncertainty to manageable risk.

If it is true that there is an irreducible element of art in professional practice, it is also true that gifted engineers, teachers, scientists, architects, and managers sometimes display artistry in their day-to-day practice. If the art is not invariant, known, and teachable, it appears nonetheless, at least for some individuals, to be learnable.

If it is true that professional practice has at least as much to do with finding the problem as with solving the problem found, it is also true that problem setting is a recognized professional activity. Some physicians reveal skills in finding the problems of particular patients in ways that go beyond the conventional boundaries of medical diagnosis. Some engineers, policy analysts, and operations researchers have become skilled at reducing “messes” to manageable plans. For some administrators, the need to “find the right problem” has become a conscious principle of action.

And if it is true, finally, that there are conflicting views of professional practice, it is also true that some practitioners do manage to make a thoughtful choice, or even a partial synthesis, from the babble of voices in their professions.

Why, then, should leading professionals and educators find these phenomena so disturbing? Surely they are not unaware of the artful ways in which some practitioners deal competently with the indeterminacies and value conflicts of practice. It seems, rather, that they are disturbed because they have no satisfactory way of describing or accounting for the artful competence which practitioners sometimes reveal in what they do. They find it unsettling to be unable to make sense of these processes in terms of the model of professional knowledge which they have largely taken for granted. Complexity, instability, and uncertainty are not removed or resolved by applying specialized knowledge to well-defined tasks. If anything, the effective use of specialized knowledge depends on a prior restructuring of situations that are complex and uncertain. An artful practice of the unique case appears anomalous when professional competence is modelled in terms of application of established techniques to recurrent events. Problem setting has no place in a body of professional knowledge concerned exclusively with problem solving. The task of choosing among competing paradigms of practice is not amenable to professional expertise.

(Schön, 1995, p. 18f)


An unprecedent requirement for adaptability (Schön, 1995)

24 October 2010

The crisis of confidence in the professions has been interpreted by professionals who have given serious thought in their own fields to the adequacy of professional knowledge. On the whole, their assessment is that professional knowledge is mismatched to the changing character of the situations of practice – the complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflicts which are increasingly perceived as central to the world of professional practice […]

Even if professional knowledge were to catch up with the new demands of professional practice, the improvement in professional performance would be transitory. The situations of practice are inherently unstable. Harvey Brooks, an eminent engineer and educator, argues that professions are now confronted with an “unprecedent requirement for adaptability”:

The dilemma of the professional today lies in tlie fact that both ends of the gap he is expected to bridge with his profession are I. changing so rapidly: the body of knowledge that he must use and the expectations of the society that he must serve. Both these changes have their origin in the same common factor – technological change … · The problem cannot be usefully phrased in terms of too much technology. Rather it is whether we can generate technological change fast enough to meet the expectations and demands that technology itself has generated. And the four professions – medicine, engineering, business management and education – must bear the brunt of responsibility for generating and managing this change. This places on the professional a requirement for adaptability that is unprecedented.

(Schön, 1995, p. 14f)


Problem setting (Schön, 1995)

24 October 2010

The struggle to define the situation, and thereby to determine the direction of public policy, is always both intellectual and political. Views of reality are both cognitive constructs, which make the situation understandable in a certain way, and instruments of political power. In the larger societal conversation with the situation, problem setting, policy definition, and interpretation of the situation’s “back-talk” are always marked by intellectual inquiry and by political contention.

(Schön, 1995, p. 348)


Expert knowledge is tainted by values and personal interests (Schön, 1995)

24 October 2010

The idea of reflective practice leads, in a sense both similar to and different from the radical criticism, to a demystification of professional expertise. It leads us to recognize that for both the professional and the counterprofessional, special knowledge is embedded in evaluative frames which bear the stamp of human values and interests. It also leads us to recognize that the scope of technical expertise is limited by situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict. When research-based theories and techniques are inapplicable, the professional cannot legitimately claim to be expert, but only to be especially prepared to reflect-in-action.

From this perspective, it is not difficult to see how the traditional epistemology of practice holds a potential for coercion. We need not make the (possibly valid) attribution that professionals are motivated by the wish to serve class interests or protect their special status. Whenever a professional claims to “know” in the sense of the technical expert, he imposes his categories, theories, and techniques on the situation before him. He ignores, explains away, or controls those features of the situation, including the human beings within it, which do not fit his knowledge-in-practice. When he works in an institution whose knowledge structure reinforces his image of expertise, then he tends to see himself as accountable for nothing more than the delivery of his stock of techniques according to the measures of performance imposed on him. He does not see himself as free, or obliged, to participate in setting objectives and framing problems. The institutional system reinforces his image of expertise in inducing a pattern of unilateral control.

If we accept these criticisms of Technical Rationality, we will no longer uncritically accept the professional’s claim to mandate. autonomy. and license. If there are important limits to the scope of technical expertise, we will want to make sure that professionals do not overstep those limits in their claims to authority based on merely technical competence. If technical expertise is value-laden, and technical experts have interests of their own which shape their understandings and judgments, then we will recognize the need for social constraints on professional freedom. On the other hand, we will also respect the professional’s claim to extraordinary knowledge in the areas susceptible to technical expertise, and we will place a special value on practitioners who reflect-in-action both on their own evaluative frames and in situations which transcend the limits of their expertise.

(Schön, 1995, p. 345ff)