donald schon (schön): learning, reflection and change
Donald Schon made a remarkable contribution to our understanding of the theory and practice of learning. His innovative thinking around notions such as ‘the learning society’, ‘double-loop learning’ and ‘reflection-in-action’ has become part of the language of education. We explore his work and some of the key themes that emerge. What assessment can we make now?
Donald Schon on learning and the loss of the stable state
The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are in continuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.
We must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and to our institutions.
We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.
The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning.
Schon (1973) Beyond the Stable State,
Donald Schon argues that social systems must learn to become capable of transforming themselves without intolerable disruption. In this ‘dynamic conservatism’ has an important place.
A learning system… must be one in which dynamic conservatism operates at such a level and in such a way as to permit change of state without intolerable threat to the essential functions the system fulfils for the self. Our systems need to maintain their identity, and their ability to support the self-identity of those who belong to them, but they must at the same time be capable of transforming themselves. (Schon 1973: 57)
Schon’s great innovation at this point was to explore the extent to which companies, social movements and governments were learning systems – and how those systems could be enhanced. He suggests that the movement toward learning systems is, of necessity, ‘a groping and inductive process for which there is no adequate theoretical basis’ (op. cit). The business firm, Donald Schon argues, is a striking example of a learning system. He charts how firms moved from being organized around products toward integration around ‘business systems’ (ibid.: 64). In an argument that has found many echoes in the literature of the ‘learning organization’ some twenty years later, Donald Schon makes the case that many companies no longer have a stable base in the technologies of particular products or the systems build around them. A firm is:
… an internal learning system in which the system’s interactions… must now become a matter of directed transformation of the whole system. These directed transformations are in part the justification for the business systems firm. But they oblige it to internalise processes of information flow and sequential innovation which have traditionally been left to the ‘market’ and to the chain reactions within and across industry lines – reactions in which each firm had only to worry about its own response as one component. The business firm, representing the whole functional system, must now learn to effect the transformation and diffusion of the system as a whole. (Schon 1973: 75)
In many respects, we could not ask for a better rationale for Peter Senge’s later championship of the Fifth Discipline (systemic thinking) in the generation of learning organizations.
Two key themes arise out of Donald Schon’s discussion of learning systems: the emergence of functional systems as the units around which institutions define themselves; and the decline of centre-periphery models of institutional activity (ibid.: 168). He contrasts classical models of diffusing innovation with a learning system model.
Classical models for the diffusion of innovations
Learning systems’ models around the diffusion of innovation
The unit of innovation is a product or technique.
The unit of innovation is a functional system.
The pattern of diffusion is centre-periphery.
The pattern of diffusion is systems transformation.
Relatively fixed centre and leadership.
Shifting centre, ad hoc leadership.
Relatively stable message; pattern of replication of a central message.
Evolving message; family resemblance of messages.
Scope limited by resource and energy at the centre and by capacity of ‘spokes’.
Scope limited by infrastructure technology.
‘Feedback’ loop moves from secondary to primary centre and back to all secondary centres.
‘Feedback’ loops operate local and universally throughout the systems network.
In this we can see the significance of networks, flexibility, feedback and organizational transformation. At the same time we have to recognize that the ‘ways of knowing’ offered by the dominant rational/experimental model are severely limited in situations of social change. Donald Schon looks to a more ‘existentially’-oriented approach. He argues for formulating projective models that can be carried forward into further instances (a key aspect of his later work on reflective practice).
Moreover, learning isn’t simply something that is individual. Learning can also be social:
A social system learns whenever it acquires new capacity for behaviour, and learning may take the form of undirected interaction between systems… [G]overnment as a learning system carries with it the idea of public learning, a special way of acquiring new capacity for behaviour in which government learns for the society as a whole. In public learning, government undertakes a continuing, directed inquiry into the nature, causes and resolution of our problems.
The need for public learning carries with it the need for a second kind of learning. If government is to learn to solve new public problems, it must also learn to create the systems for doing so and discard the structure and mechanisms grown up around old problems. (Schon 1973: 109)
The opportunity for learning, Donald Schon suggests, is primarily in discovered systems at the periphery, ‘not in the nexus of official policies at the centre’ (ibid.: 165). He continues, ‘the movement of learning is as much from periphery to periphery, or from periphery to centre, as from centre to periphery’. Very much after Carl Rogers, Donald Schon asserts that, ‘Central comes to function as facilitator of society’s learning, rather than as society’s trainer’ (ibid.: 166).
Taken together, the themes that emerged in Beyond the Stable State provided a rich and highly suggestive basis for theorizing about both ‘the learning society’ and ‘the learning organization’. Yet for all his talk of networks and the significance of the ‘periphery, Donald Schon’s analysis falters when it comes to the wider picture.
While his critical analysis of systems theory substitutes responsive networks for traditional hierarchies, his theory of governance remains locked in top-down paternalism. Only an understanding of the role of democratic politics can provide answers to the purposes and conditions for the learning society he desires. The way societies learn about themselves, and the processes by which they transform themselves, is through politics, and the essence of politics is learning through public deliberation, which is the characteristic of effective learning systems. (Ranson (1998: 9)
Donald Schon’s later work with Martin Rein around frame reflection does attend to some matters of public deliberation – but the broad line of argument made by Stuart Ranson here would seem to stand. It was the contribution of two of Schon’s contemporaries – Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire – that takes us forward. The formers focus on learning webs, the debilitating impact of professionalization, and the need for an ecological appreciation; and the latter’s championship of dialogue and concern to combat oppression allow for a more committed and informed engagement with the ‘learning society’ and ‘learning organization’.
Donald Schon’s work on learning systems fed nicely into a very significant collaboration with Chris Argyris around professional effectiveness and organizational learning. Their (1974) starting point was that people have mental maps with regard to how to act in situations. This involves the way they plan, implement and review their actions. Furthermore, they asserted that it is these maps that guide people’s actions rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. One way of making sense of this is to say that there is split between theory and action. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon suggested that two theories of action are involved. They are those theories that are implicit in what we do as practitioners and managers, and those on which we call to speak of our actions to others. The former can be described as theories-in-use. The words we use to convey what we, do or what we would like others to think we do, can then be called espoused theory. This was an important distinction and is very helpful when exploring questions around professional and organizational practice (see Chris Argyris and theories of action for a full treatment of this area).
To fully appreciate theory-in-use we require a model of the processes involved. To this end Argyris and Schon (1974) initially looked to three elements:
Governing variables: those dimensions that people are trying to keep within acceptable limits. Any action is likely to impact upon a number of such variables – thus any situation can trigger a trade-off among governing variables.
Action strategies: the moves and plans used by people to keep their governing values within the acceptable range.
Consequences: what happens as a result of an action. These can be both intended - those actor believe will result - and unintended. In addition those consequences can be for the self, and/or for others. (Anderson 1997)
For Argyris and Schön (1978: 2) learning involves the detection and correction of error. Where something goes wrong, they suggested, a starting point for many people is to look for another strategy that will address and work within the governing variables. In other words, given or chosen goals, values, plans and rules are operationalized rather than questioned. According to Argyris and Schön (1974), this is single-loop learning. An alternative response is to question to governing variables themselves, to subject them to critical scrutiny. This they describe as double-loop learning. Such learning may then lead to an alteration in the governing variables and, thus, a shift in the way in which strategies and consequences are framed. (See Chris Argyris and double-loop learning).
When they came to explore the nature of organizational learning Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (1978: 2-3) described the process as follows:
When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot of too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.
Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87) Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies’ (op. cit.).
Finger and Asún (2000) argue that this constitutes a two-fold contribution to pragmatic learning theory. First, their introduction of the notion of ‘theory in action’ gives greater coherence and structure to the function of ‘abstract conceptualization’ in Kolb’s very influential presentation of experiential learning. ‘Abstract conceptualisation now becomes something one can analyse and work from’ (Finger and Asún 2000: 45). Second, they give a new twist to pragmatic learning theory:
Unlike Dewey’s, Lewin’s or Kolb’s learning cycle, where one had, so to speak, to make a mistake and reflect upon it… it is now possible… to learn by simply reflecting critically upon the theory-in-action. In other words, it is not longer necessary to go through the entire learning circle in order to develop the theory further. It is sufficient to readjust the theory through double-loop learning (ibid.: 45-6)
To be fair to John Dewey, he did not believe it was necessary to go through a series of set stages in order to learn (although he is often represented as doing so). However, Finger and Asún’s main point stands. The notion of double-loop learning adds considerably to our appreciation of experiential learning.
Donald Schon's third great contribution was to bring ‘reflection’ into the centre of an understanding of what professionals do. The opening salvo of The Reflective Practitioner (1983) is directed against ‘technical-rationality’ as the grounding of professional knowledge. Usher et. al. (1997: 143) sum up well the crisis he identifies. Technical-rationality is a positivist epistemology of practice. It is ‘the dominant paradigm which has failed to resolve the dilemma of rigour versus relevance confronting professionals’. Donald Schon, they claim, looks to an alternative epistemology of practice ‘in which the knowledge inherent in practice is be understood as artful doing’ (op. cit.). Here we can make a direct link between Donald Schon and Elliot Eisner’s (1985; 1998) interest in practitioners as connoisseurs and critics (see Eisner on evaluation).
The notions of reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action were central to Donald Schon’s efforts in this area. The former is sometimes described as ‘thinking on our feet’. It involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use. It entails building new understandings to inform our actions in the situation that is unfolding.
The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation. (Schön 1983: 68)
We test out our ‘theories’ or, as John Dewey might have put it, ‘leading ideas’ and this allows to develop further responses and moves. Significantly, to do this we do not closely follow established ideas and techniques - textbook schemes. We have to think things through, for every case is unique. However, we can draw on what has gone before. In many respects, Donald Schon is using a distinction here that would have been familiar to Aristotle – between the technical (productive) and the practical.
We can link this process of thinking on our feet with reflection-on-action. This is done later – after the encounter. Workers may write up recordings, talk things through with a supervisor and so on. The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did, what was happening in a group and so on. In so doing we develop sets of questions and ideas about our activities and practice.
The notion of repertoire is a key aspect of this approach. Practitioners build up a collection of images, ideas, examples and actions that they can draw upon. Donald Schon, like John Dewey (1933: 123), saw this as central to reflective thought.
When a practitioner makes sense of a situation he perceives to be unique, he sees it as something already present in his repertoire. To see this site as that one is not to subsume the first under a familiar category or rule. It is, rather, to see the unfamiliar, unique situation as both similar to and different from the familiar one, without at first being able to say similar or different with respect to what. The familiar situation functions as a precedent, or a metaphor, or... an exemplar for the unfamiliar one. (Schön 1983: 138)
In this way we engage with a situation. We do not have a full understanding of things before we act, but, hopefully, we can avoid major problems while 'testing the water'. When looking at a situation we are influenced by, and use, what has gone before, what might come, our repertoire, and our frame of reference. We are able to draw upon certain routines. As we work we can bring fragments of memories into play and begin to build theories and responses that fit the new situation.
There have been three important areas of criticism with regard to this model (beyond those wanting to hang onto ‘technical rationality’). First, the distinction between reflection in and on action has been the subject of some debate (see Eraut 1994 and Usher et al 1997). Indeed Donald Schon may well have failed to clarify what is involved in the reflective process - and there is a problem, according to Eraut, around time - 'when time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited' (1994: 145). There have also been no psychological elaborations of the psychological realities of reflection in action (Russell and Munby 1989). However, when we take reflection in and on action together it does appear that Schon has hit upon something significant. Practitioners are able to describe how they ‘think on their feet’, and how they make use of a repertoire of images, metaphors and theories. However, such processes cannot be repeated in full for everything we do. There is a clear relationship between reflection in and on action. People draw upon the processes, experiences and understandings generated through reflection on action. In turn, things can be left and returned to.
We have to take certain things as read. We have to fall back on routines in which previous thought and sentiment has been sedimented. It is here that the full importance of reflection-on-action becomes revealed. As we think and act, questions arise that cannot be answered in the present. The space afforded by recording, supervision and conversation with our peers allows us to approach these. Reflection requires space in the present and the promise of space in the future. (Smith 1994: 150)
Second, there is some question as to the extent to which his conceptualisation of reflective practice entails praxis. While there is a clear emphasis on action being informed, there is less focus on the commitments entailed. Donald Schon creates, arguably, 'a descriptive concept, quite empty of content' (Richardson 1990: 14). While he does look at values and interpretative systems, it is the idea of repertoire that comes to the fore. In other words what he tends to look at is the process of framing and the impact of frame-making on situations:
As [inquirers] frame the problem of the situation, they determine the features to which they will attend, the order they will attempt to impose on the situation, the directions in which they will try to change it. In this process, they identify both the ends to be sought and the means to be employed. (Schön 1983: 165)
The ability to draw upon a repertoire of metaphors and images that allow for different ways of framing a situation is clearly important to creative practice and is a crucial insight. We can easily respond in inappropriate ways in situations through the use of an ill-suited frame. However, what we also must hold in view is some sense of what might make for the good (see Smith 1994: 142-145).
Third, it could be argued that while Donald Schon is engaged here in the generation of formal theory – ‘what we do not find in Schon is a reflection by him on his own textual practice in giving some kind of account of that he does of reflection-in-action and the reflective practicum… He does not interrogate his own method’. (Usher et. Al 1997: 149). A more sustained exploration of his methodology may well have revealed some significant questions, for example, the extent to which he ‘neglects the situatedness of practitioner experience’ (ibid.: 168). This is a dimension that we have become rather more aware of following Lave and Wenger’s (1991) exploration of situated learning. It may well be that this failure to attend to method and to problematize the production of his models and ideas has also meant that his contribution in this area has been often used in a rather unreflective way by trainers.
The impact of Donald Schon's work on reflective practice has been significant - with many training and education programmes for teachers and informal educators adopting his core notions both in organizing experiences and in the teaching content. Indeed, there is a very real sense in which his work on reflective practice has become ‘canonical’ – frequently appealed to by trainers in a variety of professional fields (Usher et . al. 1997: 143). As such they have suffered from being approached in ways that would have troubled Donald Schon. Rather too often, practitioners are exhorted to ‘apply’ his theories and exemplars to their own situations and experiences. For him reflective practice was to be enacted. It may be that his theory of reflective practice is far less ‘critical’ than it appears to be, ‘since it is not directed to its own situated practice of doing theory’ (Usher et. al. 19977: 147). However, it remains very suggestive – and for has some very real echoes in people’s accounts of their processes as ‘professionals’.
In a similar fashion, his work with Chris Argyris still features very strongly in debates around organizational learning and the possibilities, or otherwise, of learning organizations. And while there is good deal of rhetoric around the notion of the learning society, as Stuart Ranson has convincingly argued, it is Donald Schon’s work on learning systems that still provides the most thorough theoretical treatment.
Taken together with his work on design and upon the ‘resolution of intractable policy controversies’ via ‘frame reflection’ this is a remarkable catalogue of achievements. Interestingly, though, it is difficult to find a sustained exploration of his contribution as a whole. While there are discussions of different aspects of his thinking (e.g. Newman 1999 analysis of Schon’s ‘epistemology of reflective practice’), as far as I know, his work has not been approached in its totality. This is a great pity. Going back to books like Beyond the Stable State pays great dividends.
Argyris, M. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in Practice. Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Landmark statement of 'double-loop' learning' and distinction between espoused theory and theory-in-action.
Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Public and private learning in a changing society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 236 pages. A very influential book (following Schön’s 1970 Reith Lectures) arguing that ‘change’ is a fundamental feature of modern life and that it is necessary to develop social systems that can learn and adapt. Schön develops many of the themes that were to be such a significant part of his collaboration with Chris Argyris and his exploration of reflective practice.
Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith. 374 + x. Influential book that examines professional knowledge, professional contexts and reflection-in-action. Examines the move from technical rationality to reflection-in-action and examines the process involved in various instances of professional judgement.
Schön, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 355 + xvii pages. Development of the thinking in the 1983 book with sections on understanding the need for artistry in professional education; the architectural studio as educational model for reflection-in-action; how the reflective practicum works; and implications for improving professional education.
Anderson, L. (1997) Argyris and Schön's theory on congruence and learning [On line]. Was available at http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/sawd/arr/argyris.html
Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: D. C. Heath.
Eisner, E. W. (1985) The Art of Educational Evaluation. A personal view, Barcombe: Falmer.
Eisner, E. W. (1998) The Enlightened Eye. Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London: Falmer.
Etzioni, A. (1968) The Active Society. The theory of societal and political processes, New York: Free Press.
Finger, M. and Asún, M. (2000) Adult Education at the Crossroads. Learning our way out, London: Zed Books.
Hainer, R. M. (1968) ‘Rationalism, pragmatism and existentialism’ in E. Glatt and M. W. Shelly (eds.) The Research Society, New York: Gordon and Breach.
Husén, T. (1974) The Learning Society, London: Methuen.
Hutchins, R. M. (1970) The Learning Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Newman, S. (1999) Philosophy and Teacher Education: A Reinterpretation of Donald A. Schon's Epistemology of Reflective Practice, London: Avebury
Pakman, M. (2000) ‘Thematic Foreword: Reflective Practices: The Legacy Of Donald Schön’, Cybernetics & Human Knowing, Vol.7, no.2-3, 2000, pp. 5–8. http://www.imprint.co.uk/C&HK/vol7/Pakman_foreword.PDF
Ranson, R. (1998) ‘Lineages of the learning society’ in S. Ranson (ed.) Inside the Learning Society, London: Cassell.
Richardson, V. (1990) ‘The evolution of reflective teaching and teacher education’ in R. T. Clift, W. R. Houston and M. C. Pugach (eds.) Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education. An analysis of issues and programs, New York: Teachers College Press.
Russell, T. and Munby, H. (1991) ‘Reframing. The role of experience in developing teachers professional knowledge’ in D. A. Schön (ed.) The Reflective Turn. Case studies in and on educational practice, New York: Teachers Press, Columbia University.
Schön, D. A. (1967) Invention and the evolution of ideas, London: Tavistock (first published in 1963 as Displacement of Concepts).
Schön, D. A. (1967) Technology and change : the new Heraclitus, Oxford: Pergamon.
Schön, D. A. (1985) The design studio: an exploration of its traditions and potentials, London : RIBA Publications for RIBA Building Industry Trust.
Schön, D. A. (1991) The Reflective Turn: Case Studies In and On Educational Practice, New York: Teachers Press, Columbia University.
Smith, M. K. (1994) Local Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Usher, R. et al (1997) Adult Education and the Postmodern Challenge, London: Routledge.
Schön - Educating the reflective practitioner. Address to the 1987 meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Bibliographic reference: Smith, M. K. (2001) 'Donald Schön: learning, reflection and change', the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/et-schon.htm
Prepared by Mark K. Smith
© Mark K. Smith
First published July 2001. Last update: February 11, 2005