The timing of Donald Schöns Reflection in Action – it may not be what you think

Have you, like me, passed quickly over Donald Schön’s ‘Reflection in Action’ (RIA), thinking it impractical, unwise, impossible and just plain downright dangerous?

Are you nodding sagely in agreement as to how stopping action to reflect inevitably slows down action and may lead to paralysis?  ‘The Centipede’s Dilemma’ portrays this well.

Then you are in good company as Hannah Arendt is reported to have said “ reflection is out of order in action.”

Anyway, how much simpler does Reflection-on-Practice seem? Sitting in an armchair or at my desk thinking back on events and completing the full circle of guided reflection on action right through to the ‘So what?’ But RIA is not as it seems.

A quick trigger warning might seem necessary here, I am focussing upon Schön’s 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner and it is not a critique, analysis or evaluation. It’s a hike, a walk through the timely nature of Schön’s RIA.

Schön states that when we reflect on practice in the midst of it we are reflecting in action. So far so good. This idea of reflection in the middle of action seems to be borne out by the following descriptions of RIA:

  • hot and rapid (Michael Eraut)
  • on-the-spot (Rolfe)
  • in the moment (Yanow and Tsokas)
  • momentary times, moments and quickness (Sweet)

Yet, Schön explains how RIA may not be very rapid and may stretch over minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months. There is one instance where he extends the time to years. This apparent paradox of time frame and the ongoing action is addressed by Schön as taking place within a ‘zone of time’ in which action can still make a difference to the situation. He called this zone ‘action present.’

So, RIA takes place when there is still time and opportunity to influence or change our practice actions. He gives us a couple of examples of how we might view these action-present zones:

  1. An orchestral conductor might select a single performance or a whole season
  2. A court lawyer could select either a courtroom moment or a case which lasts for months

Schön illustrates how practice situations extending over time have rhythms of  “fast-moving episodes being punctuated by intervals which provide opportunity for reflection.” Our present zones of time depend upon the characteristics of our practice and the situation and his approach enables us to select a time-frame in which to RIA.

I fully appreciate there are many, many links to follow with folks such as Dewey, Arendt, Eraut, Badiou and many others. However, my focus has been upon identifying and surfacing Schön’s own words and explanations around the timing of RIA. It is an extremely small part of the context of Schöns book and philosophy and there’s much, much more to explore and get my head around.

I have a nagging sensation that somehow Schöns RIA allows both reflection in and on action to occupy the same space ie the zone of action present. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the accepted dichotomy of reflection both in and on action. We might think instead of ongoing moments. 

Thanks for reading.


The BoBo doll question and student engagement

There were 7 heads down, earphones in, focussing on computer monitors and keyboards. The marking season is here. It’s part of a cycle of migration where students thinking and words are mobilised from student owned spaces to the hinterland of academia, aka Turnitin. Out of the hard won concentration and quiet came the phrase ‘And the student asked, did he make the BoBo doll himself?’  It’s such moments which make marking a sharing activity, an exchange, discussion about student cognition, understanding, marking criteria and outcomes. During one such interlude it was the BoBo doll question. A colleague shared his surprise when during a session on Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (more here) a student asked ‘Did he make the BoBo doll himself?’ Well, there’s no potential planning for this question. It’s unanticipated and on initial glance it seems unconnected, off-task, disconnected from the lesson focus, and no way relevant to any pre-determined objectives or outcomes. But is it? Continue reading

Sloshing about in dilemma puddles: getting in touch with your research topic

My dissertation students appear denuded of their initial enthusiasm, motivation and energy for their literature review topic. Could it be that they’re sloshing around in Piatanida and Garman’s  ‘dilemma puddles;’ having come face to face with with the very iterative nature of research. Whatever our source of research ideas we generally ‘just want to get on with it.’ But our sloshing has a purpose. Our research ideas often stem from profound indignations with events, injustices and wanting to bring about change. On the other hand it may just be a nagging feeling, a sense of knowing but not quite being able to articulate what it is that’s niggling away inside our heads. Either way, Aveyard believes that out of our sloshing comes explicit, clear, simple, realistic, unambiguous, focussed but not too narrow, answerable research topics/questions. Continue reading

Remarkable moments in adult learning

I’m touched. My soul is stirred. I feel emotional enough to write. I’ve started writing this eleven times now. I’m trying to isolate what it is that has taken hold. To distill what it is about a 3 minute video that has created a need to understand, to write, to read, to explore and harness fleeting ideas. It’s rather like an earworm which was wonderfully explored in a BBC Radio 4 programme. But this is a ‘mindworm.’ It’s tricky, slippery even, to isolate what sets off our emotional tripwire. Neuro scientists would have us believe its our amygdala, an emotional sentinel within our brain which remembers our emotional recipes. I just know that there’s something remarkable about what I’m seeing and hearing in the video stories. Continue reading

Slow down you move too fast – Literature reviews

I met with a small group of BSc (Hons) students today to talk about their dissertations. Eight thousand words to select and craft in just over 6 months instills a sense of urgency, and, I’m encouraging them to ‘slow down.’ I could see the disbelief and panic etched on their faces as they’re keen to get going. After all, it’s just one of many assignments they’re currently juggling. I’ve overheard some in the wider student group state that they’ve already got most of the articles they need, so imagine how my little group felt. I hope going through some of the plentiful information they have and sharing a few tips has helped allay some of  their initial concerns. Continue reading

Withitness and mobile phones in my classroom

I am in a classroom. It would be pointless to say everything is fine, because it isn’t. It’s noisy, which I like. A buzz of conversation, dialogue and exchange is interrupted by the hushed vibrations of mobile phones. Messages and e-mails are opened and read, images shared with desk neighbours and replies crafted in the subterranean space under the desks.  Continue reading

We need to talk about rapport

I just don’t understand. I wasn’t bowled over but a word has stealthily crept under my radar and brought about behaviour which can only be described as rummaging. It settled quietly, hibernating in my subconscious, breaking out as sporadic searching of boxes, bookshelves and stacks of lever arch files.  As the dust settles and glimpses of a bigger picture flash momentarily in a visual part of my brain, I’m instantaneously hijacked by another impulse which pulls me to another part of the bookcase or stack.

Continue reading

Looking for a first line?

I would give anything to be able to write a coherent blog. So much so that I’ve even considered using my weekly Twitter stats as a ‘starter for 10.’  My current paucity of creativity and ability to foreground what I know and feel is whizzing in my head is baffling. What appears as I’m trying to think about my experiences, thoughts and connections is nothing. Nothing appears. It’s like an absence. Yet I know stuff has surfaced as I’ve apprehended them as scrawled notes on a lined A4 pink sheet of paper. It reads: Sat. Radio 2 – Nirvana at 9.35 am on BBC Radio 2 Sounds of the 60’s – a particularly good playlist that day, earworms and sticky notes, Ruby Wax, ESKA – singer on Woman’s Hour (scroll down for the link), colour theory and Assad from ‘Educating Cardiff.’  Assad appeared to be struggling with the transition to ‘big’ school. I was rather taken aback by the negative views and predictions about Assad on the twitter community – #educatingcardiff. I saw a child struggling to make sense of the transition to ‘big school.’ He voiced it himself during the programme (19 mins in) when he says “we used to be the big ones, now we’re the small ones.” Assad, like Aaron who received very positive and supportive comments in the twitter community, were 2 kids ‘at sea’ but showing it in very different ways.

Continue reading

Wiggle and high reactives:introversion

My sensory antennae were spinning. I was losing my buoyancy and in ever- increasing circles of unfocussed, jagged, environmental sensory data. Was I just plain daft? I didn’t know how to do it? I was panicking and needed to breathe……panic… do I ?…I will relax…..breathe………..breathe………it’s only…………breathe…….breathe…………BREATHE! I was sinking fast. I did my best to smile, look calm, ask a question or two; whilst knowing that I needed to be in a quiet place. It’s not that I don’t like people, I do. It’s just that meeting new people in new situations requires energy, focus, concentration, planning, preparation, time, forethought, fortitude and sheer bravery. But at this moment my confidence, my speech, my memory and who I was whizzed out of the windows and doors. I was struggling. I tried desperately to listen but couldn’t hear as my need to breathe muffled all conversation. My mind a vortex of disconnection;  my own Corryvreckan. Continue reading

Knitting and Naked garden at my local library

I’m sat in my local library space. Why, because my internet provider informs me that I’m near my data usage allowance of 40Gb. Apparently my usual use averages out at 19 and I’ve no idea why I’ve exceeded that this  month. Anyway, the clock starts ticking again from 00.01 tomorrow, yipee! I find all this confusing as I’ve followed the link to check my usage and it’s still steadily on the increase even though I’m not using it. Having been brought up in the ‘austerity britain’ of the 50’s I find myself reluctant to upgrade or pay extra for a few Gb. Also I sense pressure to upgrade as the large button on the warning e-mail is bright pink and centrally situated.

I’ve gotten used to getting out of the house and popping to the library. I can plug in my laptop, connect my phone and be entertained by the comings and goings during the mornings. Yesterday, a knitting group appeared at a desk not far away, and, families appeared to be outside making stuff in a little enclosed garden (it’s called the Naked garden) as it’s a space between the library and the integrated cafe. And, I’ve only heard one very unhappy child. Continue reading