The epoch-making book, 'The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action' by D. A Schön (1983), is a work in which the author advocates a revolutionary shift from formalism to the study of experience. There was no other work other than this that revolutionised educational practices greatly since the first thought of reflection had come from John Dewey in 1933. Presenting the concept, Dewey described how reflection could help an individual to develop thinking and learning skills. He defined reflection as, “the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further consideration to which it tends” (Dewey, 1933, p 9).
Schön’s work is divided into three parts in ten chapters. Part 1 consists of two chapters, titled 'Professional Knowledge and Reflection in Action'. The first chapter casts doubts about traditional ways of understanding professional knowledge. The second one recognises the traditional with 'technical rationality' and moves to the unconventional view of 'reflection in action'. Part 2, titled 'Professional Contexts for Reflection in Action', takes the book's lion share with 7 seven chapters dedicated to the part. The author uses a series of case studies in five different professions to elaborate on his idea of 'reflection in action'. Architecture, Psychotherapy, Engineering, Town Planning and Management are the represented fields. Part 3, the concluding part, is a single chapter in which he considers the professional implications of 'reflection in action'.
As an educational Professional, my takeaways lie in the second part. Each case study begins with an account of the intellectual history of the represented fields. The emphasis of the case studies is a kind of particular, personalised account of professional problems. Schön presents an architecture and a psychotherapy case in chapters 3 and 4, which culminate into a theoretical study of the structure of 'reflection in action' in chapter 5. The case studies do not have any theoretical base and the participants were not looking for a theory; neither they were looking for a standard solution for any problem. They were trying to resolve a particular and unique problem instead. The author highlights these facts and makes interesting observations which make sense in his 'turned around' perception on practice and practitioner thought. He writes, "Through the unintended effects of action, the situation talks back. The practitioner, reflecting on this back-talk, may find new meanings in the situation which lead him to a new reframing" (Schön P.135). The idea of a situation 'talking back' in answer to reflective and thought questions is continuously presented in the book. His theory is repeatedly referred to in case incidents that develop "accounts for artistry in situations of uniqueness and uncertainty" (Schön P.165). This contradicts the traditional technical rationality.
More case studies are presented in chapters 6, 7 and 8 with the same pattern. Part 2 is concluded in Chapter 9, in which Schön elaborates on the rudiments of the theory. He highlights the commonalities across the professions and, more importantly, the limits of the commonalities.
The book is a must read for all who take reflective practice seriously.
Author: Dr Venunadhan B. Pillai, Executive Principal, Vellore International School, Chennai
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