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.