Workplace Learning: Mental Maps – Theory in Practice

In their 1974 paper Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön support the Constructivist argument that individuals – particularly knowledge workers – develop mental maps or schemata to organize their skill assets and, the authors contend, with regard to how to act in work-based situations, and respond to the challenges they encounter.

Graphical representation of a mental model or schema

Graphical representation of a mental model or schema

These schemata direct the way workers

  1. plan their activities
  2. execute their tasks
  3. how they reflect upon their actions once tasks (or components of larger-scale tasks) are complete.

Argyris and Schön assert that it is these mental maps that actually guide workers’ actions rather than the practices and theories they (that is, workers) explicitly espouse. 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. Appropriately constituted mental maps can help the knowledge worker navigate the problem scenario, based upon prior knowledge, and experience of similar challenges encountered in the past.

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 practice. He divides reflective practice into two subcategories: 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 behavior. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.


Thus, when investigating a situation individuals are 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 later in this series of blog posts, when we discuss non- and informal learning, and as such is worth discussing here – negatively criticizes Schön’s evaluation, considering reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action as a iterative process 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.





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.