An epistemology is a way that we know. It is about how we know what we know. The Reflective Practitioner focuses on the ways in which professionals of varied sorts know and do. Schon is offering an alternative to the “traditional epistemology of practice.”
It’s worth pointing out that the language is a little distant, the examples stiff; the book was published in 1983. Still, his broad attempt to get “professionals” to think about how they think and how they perform is critical for anyone who wants to work well. His book opens by naming the “wavering confidence in professional expertise,” a seemingly dated observation now where the world is nearly if not entirely postmodern, where most work circles are touched, shaped, and impacted by millenials who always and already suspect things like professionalism however defined.
He puts forward reflective practice where professionals are aware of their “frames” for problems, their particular ways of viewing problems and, eventually, their unique theories (i.e., ways of seeing) for addressing those problems. A lot of what he says assumes that you can solve problems without knowing how you’re solving them. Your epistemological structures would be, in a word, weak. You’d be less reflective. He wants to suggest that there’s merit and strength in learning about our theories, in becoming aware of them, and in our making them public and, therefore, open to criticism.
He advocates for professionals turning their knowledge-in-practice into a public display of that practice. Knowledge that people go get in schools and specialized training programs, for him, becomes subject to inspection. Professionals become accountable in their openness to the public. They become more capable of expressing their “artful competence,” transitioning from not knowing how they do their work to examining how much they know, how they solve problems, and how they know what they’re doing.
Re-reading my sentence, I’m struck by the heady nature of those words. The book is somewhat heady; he explains the influence of “positivism” for example, a word that makes me question my own intellectual capacities. But the examples are concrete and helpful. His goal is entirely practical. The subtitle is “How Professionals Think in Action.”
He writes about action and response, thinking through a theory of response, a knowing-in-practice, which seems different from knowledge. He says that “A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to overlearning” (p. 61), and he works throughout the book to illuminate the gifts of appreciation, action, and re-appreciation, concepts that are at the bottom of clinical pastoral education, an environment I’m swimming in currently. I can definitely see why it’s a recommended text for the supervisory education students.
Back to the emphasis on practice–in CPE language, it’s action-reflection-action, Schon points to use of self in our work. One quote captures how Schon says our experience is worth our using in our work (p. 140):
It is our capacity to see unfamiliar situations as familiar ones, and to do in the former as we have done in the latter, that enables us to bring our past experience to bear on the unique case…
He lifts up the powerful way we inspect the “materials of a situation” and use the examples of others in order to grow, “thinking from exemplars.” He’s all about having reflective conversation with the situations we find ourselves in, a particularly striking way with words.
For those interested in language, he talks about the idea of generative metaphors and how they generate new perceptions, explanations, and inventions. He is pressing his reader to reflect. For those who “cannot easily make his assumptions public or subject” to public testing, he says, that that person’s “sense of vulnerability discourages reflection” (p. 229).
I kept thinking that I want to be the kind of person whose vulnerability doesn’t discourage me. I identified with him there, the resistance, the pain, the problem of vulnerability. I kept hearing the words of my clinical supervisor and my readiness committee as we discussed fragility which has been a guiding and problematic metaphor for my ministry lately.
Even while he presses his reader, his approach is invitational. He’s writing as a scholar and consultant more than an evangelist of his theory. He says that “An individual is more likely to feel internally committed to a freely made decision.” In his writing you sense his conviction to what he says and you sense softness.
Finally, he writes about theory, something I know I’ll come to appreciate in upcoming months as I think, draft, present, and revise my theories on theology, education, and personality. He says that “an overarching theory does not give a rule that can be applied to predict or control a particular event, but it supplies language from which to develop particular interpretations” (p. 273). I think about these words in terms of educational theory and teaching but also in terms of how we engage in the work of the church. How much of what we say is about giving a rule for predictive or controlling purposes? How much is about supplying people with language from which they can develop interpretations which may or may not mirror our own?
He says that bureaucracies and stable organizations resist reflective practice. My spiritual director said something like that to me years ago. We were talking about contemplation but the same principle applies. For Schon, reflection-in-action threatens stable systems. In church language that means that contemplatives and prophets are always on the periphery, usually subject to soul-torn isolation, and generally fighting against some solid resistance. “The freedom to reflect, invent, and differentiate would disrupt the institutional order of space and time” (p. 333). And it’s true; the order a system needs is completely threatened when the people in those systems consider.