In their 1974 work Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön support the Constructivist argument that individuals (and in the context of this article, knowledge workers) have schemata or mental maps both for their skill assets and they contend, with regard to how to act in situations. This directs the way they plan their activities, execute their tasks, and how they reflect upon their actions once tasks (or components of larger-scale tasks) are complete. They assert that it is these mental maps that guide people’s actions rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. This has implications for approaches to organisational learning.
Further, knowledge workers (unlike academics, for example) are typically required to apply their skill- and experience assets in real-world situations which exhibit degrees of uncertainty about both the situation itself and the desired outcomes. Much of the real-world job of the knowledge worker is more concerned with problem setting then problem solving. To move from a problematic situation to an actual problem, the practitioner must
frame the problem: …determine the features to which they will attend, the order they will attempt to impose on the situation, the directions in which they will try to change it. In this process, they identify both the ends to be sought and the means to be employed.
This process is what Schön describes as reflective practise. He divides reflective practise into two subcategories, notions of reflection-in-action, and reflection-on-action. Reflection-in-action has been colloquially described as ‘thinking on your feet’ and involves building new understandings based on previous experiences to predicate actions in the situation that is unfolding at present:
The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.(p.68)
So, when investigating a situation individuals should consider – and use – strategies based upon their repertoire, the situation’s frame of reference, what has gone before and potential outcomes. Michael Eraut in Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence (1994) – who we will encounter in a later article in this series when we explore non- and informal learning, and as such is worth discussing here – negatively criticises Schön’s evaluation. Eraut considers reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action as iterative processes, rather than as discrete actions:
When time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited. In these circumstances, reflection is best seen as a metacognitive process in which the practitioner is alerted to a problem, rapidly reads the situation, decides what to do and proceeds in a state of continuing alertness.(p.144)
Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Eraut, M. (1994). Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence. London: Falmer Press.