Schon's Epistemology of Practice: The Role of Reflection-in-Action

Schon, D.A. "Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology," 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.

The following are excerpts from two sections of Donald Schon's article: "Institutional Epistemology" and "Turning the Problem on its Head."


Like other organizations, educational institutions have epistemologies.  They hold conceptions of what  counts as legitimate knowledge and how you know what you claim to know.  These theories of knowledge need not be consciously espoused by individuals (although they may be), for they are built into institutional structures and practices.

....The research university is an institution built around a particular view of knowledge, as the following dilemma helps to make clear:

The dilemma of rigor or relevance.  In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.  The practitioner is confronted with a choice.  Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe.

Nearly all professional practitioners experience a version of the dilemma of rigor or relevance, and they respond to it in one of several ways.  Some of them choose the swampy lowland, deliberately immersing themselves in confusing but critically important situations.  When they are asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, or muddling through.  When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor.   When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepency between the technical rigor of the "hard" zones of their practice and the apparent sloppiness of the "soft" ones.

People tend to feel the dilemma  of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45.  At this point, they ask themselves, "Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectibility?  Or am I going to work on the problems -- ill formed, vague, and messy -- that I have discovered to be real around here?"   And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently.

What are the sources of the dilemma of rigor or relevance?

The dilemma depends, I believe, upon a particular epistemology built into the modern research university, and, along with this, on our discovery of the increasing salience of certain "indeterminate zones" of practice -- uncertainty, complexity, uniqueness conflict -- which fall outside the categories of that epistemology.

....As the professions came to place their educational branches in the prestigious research universities they looked at professional practice as though it consisted of the application of science or systematic knowledge to the instrumental problems of practice.  The conception of professional knowledge the professions thereby accepted, which I call "technical rationality," is that practice is instrumental, consisting in adjusting technical means to ends that are clear, fixed, and internally consistent, and that instrumental practice becomes professional when it is based on the science or systematic knowledge produced by schools of higher learning.

....Technical rationality fostered a separation between research and practice.  Research of the kind that was viewed as proper to the "higher schools" -- rigorously controlled experimentation, statistical analysis of observed correlations of variables, or disinterested theoretical speculation -- finds little place to stand in the turbulent world of practice, which is notoriously uncontrolled, where problems are usually ill-formed, and where actors in the practice situation are undeniably "interested."  The consequence, stronger today than ever, was that the research produced by the "higher schools" seemed to have little to say that was of value to practitioners.


The relationship between "higher" and "lower" schools, academic and practice knowledge, needs to be turned on its head. We should think about practice as a setting not only for the application of knowledge but for its generation. We should ask not only how practitioners can better apply the results of academic research, but what kinds of knowing are already embedded in competent practice.

Perhaps there is an epistemology of practice that takes fuller account of the competence practitioners sometimes display in situations of uncertainty, complexity, uniqueness, and conflict. Perhaps there is a way of looking at problem-setting and intuitive artistry that presents these activities as describable and susceptible to a kind of rigor that falls outside the boundaries of technical rationality.

Knowing-in-action. When we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way. Often we cannot say what we know. When we try to describe it we find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously inappropriate. Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. It seems right to say that our knowledge is in our action. And similarly, the workaday life of the professional practitioner reveals, in its recognitions, judgments, and skills, a pattern of tacit knowing-in-action.

Common sense admits the category of know-how, and it does not stretch common sense very much to say that the know-how is in the action – that a tightrope walker’s know-how, for example, lies in, and is revealed by, the way she takes her trip across the wire. Or that a big league pitcher’s know-how is in his way of pitching to a batter’s weakness, changing his pace, or distributing his energies over the course of a game.

Examples of intelligence-in-action include not only the exercise of physical skills but acts of recognition and judgement. Michael Polanyi, for example, has written about our ability to recognize a face in the crowd. The experience of recognition can be immediate and holistic. We simply see, all of a sudden, the face of someone we know. We are aware of no antecedent reasoning and we are often unable to list the features that distinguish this face from the hundreds of others present in the crowd. Polanyi has also described our ordinary tactile appreciation of the surface of materials. When we use a stick to probe a hidden place, we focus not on the impressions of the stick on our hand but on the qualities of the place that we apprehend through these tacit impressions. Polanyi speaks of perceiving from these impressions to the qualities of the place. To become skillful in the use of a tool is to learn to appreciate, as if it were directly, the qualities of the material that we apprehend through the tacit sensations of the tool in our hand.

Chester Barnard has written on "non-logical" processes that we cannot express in words as a process of reasoning, but evince only by a judgment, decision, or action. A child who has learned to throw a ball makes immediate judgments of distance that he coordinates, tacitly, with the feeling of bodily movement involved in the act of throwing. A high school student solving quadratic equations has learned spontaneously to carry out a program of operations that she cannot describe. A practiced accountant of Barnard’s acquaintance could take a balance sheet of considerable complexity and within minutes or even seconds get a significant set of facts from it, though he could not describe in words the recognitions and calculations that entered into this performance.

All of these are examples of what Polanyi calls "tacit knowing" and what I would like to describe as "knowing-in-action." I submit that such knowing-in-action makes up the great bulk of what we know how to do in everyday and in professional life. It is what gets us through the day.

If a skilled performer tries to teach (and therefore, in part, describe) her knowing-in-action to someone else, she must first discover what she actually does when confronted with a situation of a particular kind. So a piano teacher might say, for example, "I don’t like the way you play this transitional passage. Let me play it so that I can see what I do." She must observe what she does before she can describe it. And there is no guarantee, even then, that she will be able to describe it accurately. Similarly, a calculus teacher might have to "see what he does" he is asked to say how he sets up a problem of differentiation or integration. Often, we misstate what we know how to do. Indeed, when we ask people to describe what they know how to do, we are likely to get an answer that mainly reveals what they know about answering such a question. If we want to discover what someone knows-in-action, we must put ourselves in a position to observe her in action. If we want to teach about our "doing," then we need to observe ourselves in the doing, reflect on what we observe, describe it, and reflect on our description.

In many instances, of course, this is not what we do. And failing this, we teach in bad faith, which is to say that what we teach is not what we know-in-action. I think this is also true of teaching in the sciences, for they also involve a practice – the practice of doing scientific research – and such a practice includes its own forms of knowing-in-action. But if we ask physicists or mathematicians, "Do you teach what you do?" they may very well reply, "Of course not! How could you expect that? We teach research results." Yet there is a great deal of critically important knowing-in-action that is not captured in research results as they are usually formulated in textbooks or published papers.

Reflection-in-action. We all have, in greater or lesser degree, the capability of reflecting on what we know as revealed by what we do. And we also have the ability to reflect-in-action to generate new knowing, as when a jazz band improvises within a framework of meter, melody, and harmony: the pianist laying down "Sweet Sue" in a particular way, and the clarinetist listening to it and picking it up differently because of what the pianist is doing – and nobody using words.

The process of reflection-in-action begins when a spontaneous performance – such as riding a bicycle, playing a piece of music, interviewing a patient, or teaching a lesson – is interrupted by surprise. Surprise triggers reflection directed both to the surprising outcome and to the knowing-in-action that led to it. It is as though the performer asked himself, "What is this?" and at the same time "What understandings and strategies of mine have led me to produce this?" The performer restructures his understanding of the situation – his framing of the problem he has been trying to solve, his picture of what is going on, or the strategy of action he has been employing. On the basis of this restructuring, he invents a new strategy of action and tries out the new action he has invented, running an on-the-spot experiment whose results he interprets, in turn, as a "solution," an outcome on the whole satisfactory, or else a new surprise that calls for a new round of reflection and experiment. This is the sort of thing a physician may do when encountering a patient whose particular configuration of symptoms is "not in the book." It is what a good teacher does as she tries to make sense of a pupil’s puzzling question, seeking to discover, in the midst of classroom discussion, just how the pupil understands the problem at hand.

In the course of such a process, the performer "reflects" not only in the sense of thinking about the action he has undertaken and the result he has achieved, but in the more precise sense of turning thought back on the knowing-in-action implicit in action. The actor reflects "in action" in the sense that his thinking occurs in an action-present – a stretch of time within which it is still possible to make a difference to the outcomes of action.

Reflecting on Reflection-in-action.  Yet we also have the ability to reflect on such a process, reflecting on reflection-in-action. This may sound fancy, but it is illustrated by the relatively mundane experience of a basketball player who spends Sunday morning looking at a videotape of Saturday’s game, asking himself, for example, "How was I trying to get past that guard? Why didn’t it work? What moves should I try next time?" Reflection-in-action occurs in the medium of words. It makes explicit the action strategies, assumptions, models of the world, or problem-settings that were implicit in reflection-in-action. It subjects them to critical analysis and perhaps also to restructuring and to further on-the-spot experiment. A practitioner such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a machinist may reflect in this way on a particular episode of reflection-in-action or on a sequence of such episodes, thereby making explicit and subjecting to critique and testing the strategies, assumptions, or problem settings implicit in a whole repertoire of situational responses.

Deweyan inquiry and action research. In the domain of practice, we see what John Dewey called inquiry: thought intertwined with action – reflection in and on action – which proceeds from doubt to the resolution of doubt, to generation of new doubt. For Dewey, doubt lies not in the mind but in the situation. Inquiry begins with situations that are problematic – that are confusing, uncertain, or conflicted, and block the free flow of action. The inquirer is in, and in transaction with, the problematic situation. He or she must construct the meaning and frame the problem of the situation, thereby setting the stage for problem-solving, which, in combination with changes in the external context, brings a new problematic situation into being. Hence the proper test of a round of inquiry is not only "Have I solved the problem?" but "Do I like the new problems I’ve created?"

Deweyan inquiry is very close to the notion of designing in the broad sense of that term – not the activities of "design professions" such as architecture, landscape architecture, or industrial design, but the more inclusive process of making things (including representations of things to be built) under conditions of complexity and uncertainty. This broader sense of designing includes a lawyer’s design of a case or legal argument, a physician’s construction of a diagnosis and a course of treatment, an information technologist’s design of a management information system, and a teacher’s construction of a lesson plan.

Design inquiry consists not only in creating plans but in enacting them. It is undertaken in particular situations of practice. When it is effective, it deploys knowing-in-action already accessible to the practitioner, and it may also generate and test new knowledge for action – for example, a view of what may be wrong with a patient (conceived, as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once wrote, as a "universe of one"), or of what potentials and constraints are inherent in a particular architectural site, or of how a particular set of mathematical concepts and procedures might be explored and communicated through a new lesson plan. Such practice knowledge – generated in, for, and through a particular situation of action – may be made explicit and put into a form that allows it to be generalized.

The kind of generalization I have in mind is not the "covering law" variety – a general, perhaps statistical, proposition applicable to all instances in which certain combinations of variables are present. It consists, rather, in framing the problem of a problematic situation, and strategies of action appropriate to its solution, in such a way that both the problem and the action strategies can be carried over to new situations perceived as being similar to the first. In the new situations, one must still test the validity, actionability, and "interest" (the term so beloved of academicians) of the practice knowledge derived from the initial situation. Through these processes of reflection-in-action and reflection on reflection-in-action, the newly generated practice knowledge may be modified and incorporated into the practitioner’s repertoire so as to be available for projection to further situations.

This is very much what Kurt Lewin, the renowned social psychologist and "practical theorist," meant by action research. During and after World War II, Lewin dealt with such mundane problems as how to get children to drink orange juice and eat liver. But through such practical inquiry, he developed the idea of the role of the "gatekeeper" in gaining acceptance for new ways of thinking and acting, and the notion of fields of social forces and quasi-stationary equilibria within them, which have long since entered into our common stock of ideas in good currency about the operation of the social world.

In Lewin’s work, we find the idea that a practitioner’s reflection on knowing- and reflection-in-action give rise to actionable theory. Such verbally explicit theory, derived from and invented in particular situations of practice, can be generalized to other situations, not as covering laws but through what I call "reflective transfer," that is, by carrying them over into new situations where they may be put to work and tested, and found to be valid and interesting, but where they may also be reinvented.