A Teaching Note: Why Donald Schon Is Not Referenced As The Business World Is Seeing the Power of Reflection?

In response to today’s fast-changing and volatile business environment, corporate learning departments are being transformed. Needing to be more agile, organizations are pivoting from the development of skills to the development of mindsets and capabilities — cultivating the ability of employees to learn and grow. From a holistic perspective, a 2019 white paper by BetterUp, a mental health and mobile coaching startup valued at $1.73 billion, is branding reflection as a powerful tool for workplace learning and performance. BetterUp’s paper finds that the act of reflecting after learning a new skill or accumulating experience with a task can deliver greater results for employees and organizations. Citing a Harvard’s 2014 working paper, BetterUp believes that self-reflection through external coaching could create lasting employees and meaningful organizational change.

In reading the above papers, I found that neither referenced Donald Schon, who has written several of the most remarkable texts on reflection in the past several decades. Instead, both papers cited the work of John Dewey in which learning comes from reflecting on experience with emphasis on reflection after practice (i.e. reflection-on-action). For those who have read Schon, his works are anchored in Dewey — for example, Schon’s dissertation was on Dewey. However, pivoting from Dewey, Schon puts forward a new school of thought on professional practice that elevates experiential-intuitive practices. At the heart of Schon’s professional learning model is his conceptual framework of knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action. The former is tacit knowledge that is gained through doing, and such knowledge cannot be easily articulated or taught to others. The latter is an active and non-propositional process that is central in reframing or developing new knowing-in-action, which requires thinking about doing while doing simultaneously. 

In so many words, the knowing of practitioners is developed within action, and reflection during the action is a focal point for individual learning and professional artistry. On the one hand, Schon has advanced the need for setting a direction before the action, practicing reflection-on-action, and advocating for reflective practicum (i.e. such as studio and clinical settings). On the other hand, he appears to see the above practices as more of a background than being in the forefront for developing professional knowledge and creativity.

If I understood Schon correctly, a teacher learns to teach by plunging into teaching, as opposed to theoretical study or evidence-based training; once a teacher has gained the knowing-in-teaching then evidence-based instruction can be understood or leveraged. Teaching requires not only being “present” to students while delivering content, but also thinking quickly to adjust and shape (along with being open to the surprises of) the unfolding teaching situation. By implication, educating teachers is effective when the educational setting promotes “coaching” processes that help teachers to reflect, particularly in learning the artistry of practice. Thus, teachers who consistently practice the dual focus of reflection-in-action with support of coaches will be dynamic as they enter the classroom, knowing that each class has its own uniqueness and conflicting demands. 

In thinking about what Schon would say about BetterUp’s advocacy of employee reflections in the workplace through outside consultancy coaching, I think he would be very curious about professional coaching as a reflective practicum. I would like to image him taking up the white paper’s invitation for readers to pause and reflect on its findings. Perhaps he would write: if the focus is cultivating the employee’s ability to learn and thrive in performing their tasks, then helping employees to (re)frame and (re)adjust their performance-in-action is essential; moreover, Schon would likely provide a sport analogy such as a basketball coach accompanying the point guard to engage in “talkback” or conversation with the setting (i.e. assessing how the team’s offense is unfolding) and “backtalk” or the feedback cycle from the setting (i.e. observing how the other team’s defense is reacting to the offensive plays).   

Overall, I find Schon’s reflective practices to be very persuasive, especially for those who are interested in individual learning and professional identity development from a bottom-up perspective. However, as a teacher, one of the challenges in making reflection-in-action more integral is to identify sound reflective strategies used by other teachers; and whether they frame Schon’s theory as a circular model of reflection, “pull” model towards reflection-in-action, or that reflection-in-action is minimally applicable in teaching. In this light, I’m sharing my practices in action through a visual graphic below. I welcome your own thinking in action as well as your feedback or coaching insights.  

FOOTNOTE

* I utilize the intuitive mind in judging what is going on at the moment as well as interpreting for new insights. For example, in one instance I recognize how I was full of energy and excitement in lecturing a new topic that I was exploring and learning. Thus, a “reframe” for me is to continue to integrate new topics in which I’m more of a learner, and continue to judge whether students are interested because of it. 

** I utilize “reflective research,” reflection before, during, and after the research on the meaning and purpose of the research topic; here, I listen to my own perspectives and, at the same time, learn with the more rigorous perspectives. For example, I had wanted to understand more deeply on why there’s a gap between my teaching intentions for what students should do and what students actually do. One source that I found to be valuable for me is Danielle Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast, and Slow (2011).

REFERENCES

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast, And Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Schön, D.A. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York, Basic Books or London: Maurice Temple Smith ltd.

——- (1987), Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

——- (2008), ‘From Technical Rationality to Reflection-in-Action.’, in Patsy Healey (ed.) (2008), Political Economy, Diversity and Pragmatism. Critical Essays in Planning Theory: Volume 2, Taylor & Francis, pp.365-416 [e-book].

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