Learning and reasoning are among the most important contributors to human evolution. We learn and reason consciously, sub-consciously and many a time even unconsciously. We learn by doing, by reflecting during action and by reflecting on action, i.e., our experience.
Evolution of technology and the emergence of global supply chain has resulted in a tremendous increase in the level of interaction among people. Consequently, our choices are made in a context that is complex and is constantly evolving, described as “problematic situation” by John Dewey and “indeterminate situation” by Donald Schön.
We will build on John Dewey and Donald Schön’s work on reflective thinking and reflective practice.
Dewey’s Theory of Experience
Dewey describes a reflective thought to be a thought that “comes after something and out of something, and for the sake of something…thinking of every day practical life and of science is of this reflective type. We think about; we reflect over…Reflection busies itself alike with physical nature, the record of social achievement and the endeavours of social aspiration. It is with reference to such affairs that thought is derivative; it is with reference to them that it intervenes or mediates.” (Pp. 1 and 2, Studies in Logical Theory).
In Dewey’s assessment, there is no qualitative difference between the methods of science and that of everyday life. In other words, thinking is grounded in our life-experiences. In support of his argument, he mentions,
“He assumes uninterrupted, free, and fluid passage from ordinary experience to abstract thinking, from thought to fact, from things to theories and back again. Observation passes into development of hypothesis; deductive methods pass to use in description of the particular; inference passes into action with no sense of difficulty save those found in the particular task in question. The fundamental assumption is continuity in and of experience.” (Pp. 10, Studies in Logical Theory)
Elsewhere, Dewey states that an experience arises from the interaction of the principles of continuity (each experience influences future experience) and interaction (situation influences our experience).
Principle of Continuity or Experiential Continuum
“every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after”.
John Dewey, Experience and Education, Pp. 35.
Principle of Interaction
“An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…The two principles of continuity and interactions are not separate from each other. They intercept and unite…the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience…What he has learned in the way of knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with situations which follow.”
John Dewey, Experience and Education, Pp. 43-44.
In other words, experiential continuum and the interactions with different situations help build capability to deal with a range of situations. The process of reflection involves looking back over what has been done so as to extract ‘net meaning’, which is the capital stock for dealing with further experiences. (Pp. 87, Experience and Education)
Dewey’s idea of ‘net meaning’ or the ‘capital stock’ or ‘knowledge’ is the frame of reference or the mental model we all build for dealing with a given situation or situations, the model which helps us develop an intuitive understanding of the situation and broadly know the cause-effect relationships and the impact of our choices and actions on ourselves and on our environment.
Dewey argues that the value of experience be judged by the effect it has on an individual’s present, future and the extent to which one can contribute to our society.
Donald Schön on Reflective Practice
Building on Dewey’s idea of ‘problematic’ situation, Schön says that a professional, often, faces an indeterminate swampy zone of practice where the problem cannot be solved by applying theory and technique derived from scientific knowledge. (Pp. 3, Educating the Reflective Practitioner)
Schön, while discussing the role of professional practice from technical rationality perspective mentions that the professional practice’s emphasis on problem solving ignores ‘problem setting’.
Every experience is situated in a physical and social context and therefore the need to understand the situation is as important as the need to choose among available means.
Schön illustrates this point by saying that a civil engineer knows how to a build road suited to the conditions of a specific site and specifications, drawing on his or her knowledge of soil conditions, material and techniques of construction. But the problem of what road to build or whether to build one at all is not solvable by the application of technical knowledge, not even using sophisticated decision theory methods. (Pp 4, Educating the Reflective Practitioner)
Schön argues that there is a tacit knowledge (professional artistry) involved even in situations where we can depend on scientific knowledge (how to build a road), which gets revealed in our intelligent action – publicly observable physical performance. He refers to such know-how as knowing-in-action – spontaneous skillful execution. (Pp. 21 to 25, Educating the Reflective Practitioner)
Schön defines an indeterminate situation to be characterised by complexity, uncertainty, stability, uniqueness and value conflict.
Pp. 6, Educating the Reflective Practitioner
On the other hand, an indeterminate situation contains an element of surprise (our expectations are not met or our assumptions are not valid) and the surprise forces us to consciously reflect about what are the possible causes behind our expectations not being met. Schön refers to this act of thinking as reflection-in-action.
Reflection-in-action helps question the structure of assumptions behind knowing-in-action. In other words, we think critically about the thinking that led to a surprise opportunity or a challenge emerge, which, in turn, results in the restructuring of strategies or ways of framing or the understanding of the phenomenon itself.
Pp. 26, Educating the Reflective Practitioner
In Schön’s words, reflection gives rise to on-the-spot experiment, with the practitioner not being dependent on categories of established theory and technique but constructing a new theory of the unique case. At the same, he or she brings “repertoire of examples, images, understandings and actions” from the past experience to bear on a unique situation – a frame of reference or a mental model. (Pp 66)
Schön argues that when someone reflects in action, he or she is a researcher in practice and builds a theory of the unique case.
While discussing the limitation of reflection-in-action, Schön mentions that artistry involves “intuitive knowing”, which a professional can describe as his or her own understanding. He mentions that it is possible that the description may not completely map the reality, but “incompleteness of description is no impediment to reflection…Although some descriptions are more appropriate to reflection-in-action than others, descriptions that are not very good may be good enough to enable an inquirer to criticise and restructure his intuitive understandings so as to produce new actions that improve the situation or trigger a reframing of the problem.” (Pp. 277, The Reflective Practitioner)
He also argues against seeing thought and action to be independent of each other by saying,
“Doing extends thinking in the tests, moves, and probes of experimental action, and reflection feeds on doing and its results…It is the surprising result of action that triggers reflection, and it is the production of a satisfactory move that brings reflection temporarily to a close.” (Pp. 280, The Reflective Practitioner)
In building the above argument, Schön introduces the idea of reflection-on-action, which involves stepping back and thinking about the “problematic situation”.
The experimental action-thinking-action loop, a practitioner learns and evolves his or her theory by reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.
Nature of Reflective Practice Case Studies
Our reflective practices cases document the evolution of a ‘frame of reference’ or a ‘point of view’ that has guided the leader’s choices in his or her functional or business role, particularly dealing with complex and uncertain situations or indeterminate situations as Schön calls them.
Cases focus on eliciting and documenting the ‘frame of reference’ by drawing upon the principle of continuity of experience and the principle of interaction with situation, as postulated by John Dewey. In other words, the focus is on how a leader’s learning from different situations has contributed to making the ‘frame of reference’ ever more complete and thereby building the capability to deal with newer situations.
Our case studies are written in active collaboration with the concerned leader and we will try to eliminate the possibility of biases in documentation through open-minded conversations, which have, in some sense, been easier as we are not documenting individual and/or the business performance.
We will be using our reflective practice framework to document the frame-of-reference and its evolution on an experietial continuum.
 Experience and Education by John Dewey, First Touchstone Edition, 1997.
 Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward A New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions by Donald A. Schön, 1987,
 The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action by Donald A. Schön, 1983.