The practice of reflection is known to enhance the work of practitioners in a variety of professions (Caldwell & Grobbel, 2013; LaPrade et al., 2014). However, it must be remembered that ‘reflective practice’ is a broad term that encompasses a variety of different reflective models; each with their own perspectives. To become skilled at reflection, the practitioner should choose a model (or models) that best reflect(s) their own needs and capabilities. Indeed, if we do not take a critical approach when selecting our reflective model, ‘the very spirit of reflective practice can be undermined’ (Herbert, 2015, p.361). Hence, to strengthen my understanding of Schon’s (1983/1991) theory of reflective practice, we will begin by providing a description of this theory. It will then proceed to critically evaluate Schon’s theory, considering both its strengths and weaknesses, and when/how it could best be used to facilitate reflective practice.
Schon’s theory of reflective practice was developed in his seminal book ‘The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action’, first published in 1983 and then republished in 1991. Unlike Kolb’s (1984) reflective theory, Schon’s theory is not a multi-stage or circular model of reflection. Rather, the key feature of Schon’s theory is the distinction he draws between reflection during the event and reflection after the event (Schon, 1983/1991). Moreover, it can be said that Schon places a heavy emphasis on the role of intuition in professional practice and therefore sees reflection as a practical way of synthesising tacit knowledge and ability (Kinsella, 2010). These key aspects of Schon’s theory are described in more detail below.
To provide a summary of Schon’s reflective model, it is important to define what he meant by (1) Knowing in action (2) Reflection in action, and (3) Reflection on action.
The ‘knowing in action’ concept is a less commonly cited aspect of Schon’s theory, though it seems important to acknowledge it here as it provides a basis for understanding Schon’s appreciation of the role of intuition (Kinsella, 2010).When Schon talked about ‘knowing in action’, he was referring to practitioner’s intuitive ability to know how to perform a task. For example, the ability of a teacher to obtain the attention of a classroom. As Schon put it, “Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. It seems right to say that our knowing is in our action (1983, p. 49). It is helpful for practitioners to consider what they ‘know in action’ not only to build their confidence and recognise their strengths, but also to appreciate that the abilities they will gain in the future are likely to come through action and experience. Moreover, the reflections the practitioner engages in in the future may challenge the ‘knowledge’ the practitioner has now, and this may therefore reshape their ‘knowledge’ (Schon, 1983/1991).
Indeed, the two more commonly cited aspects of Schon’s theory are ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’ (see Figure 1). As suggested by the names, reflection in action occurs during the event, whereas reflection on action occurs afterwards. Schon (1983/1991) believed that both types of reflection can be effective. Whereas reflection in action helps the practitioner to become more dynamic and responsive, reflection on action allows the practitioner to spend more time considering the situation, considering various interpretations, and thinking about how they could respond differently in the future (Hebert, 2015) Although it can be helpful to practice both types of reflection on the same event, practitioners do not necessarily have to carry out both types of reflection on the same event in order to gain insight from the reflective process (Eraut, 2006). Thus, Schon’s model is not necessarily a two-stage process model.
Figure 1: Schon’s reflective model (source: Cambridge Assessment, 2018)
Schon’s model is commonly celebrated for its ease of use and its real-life applicability. To be more specific, Schon’s model can be used during the event (as well as afterwards) so it often appeals to practitioners who are time poor and who feel as if they do not have enough time to carry out reflections after the event (Cambridge Assessment, 2018). Moreover, for practitioners working in a career where they are expected to be quick thinking, Schon’s reflective model can encourage them to be dynamic by reflecting on the situation immediately and coming up with a creative solution. It has been suggested that practitioners who practice ‘reflection in action’ on a regular basis will become more adept at it and thus will develop their ‘knowing in action’ capabilities (Kinsella, 2010).
Various fields use Schon’s reflective model, though the most common are teaching and health and social care (Caldwell & Grobbel, 2013; LaPrade et al., 2014). This is partly because these professions promote continuing professional development (CPD), and reflective practice is a key component of CPD.
It is interesting to note that Schon defined professional practice (including the reflective process) as an ‘artistry’ (cited in Kinsella, 2010). Indeed, he believed that the practitioner’s ability to reflect upon and competently manage unique and difficult situations was a form of ‘artistry’ (see Kinsella, 2010). This idea was borrowed from Dewey (1958) and it demonstrates the deep respect Schon held for a practitioner’s ability to use active reflection to enhance their professional practice.
Schon’s original book was written in the context of health and social care practitioners, thus it is not surprising that this model is applicable to nursing practice. Reflection is a requirement stipulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (2019) as well as the Royal College of Nurses (2020). Whilst these bodies do not recommend Schon’s model per se, Schon’s model is a particularly relevant reflective model for nursing practitioners (Edwards, 2017).
According to Edwards (2017), Schon’s reflective model has had a positive and transformative impact on the nursing profession for two reasons. Firstly, the emphasis on ‘reflection in practice’ recognises the fact that most of a trainee nurse’s knowledge comes from their clinical practice rather than their theoretical study. Secondly, Schon’s focus on implicit knowledge and ‘artistry’ has helped nursing to be appreciated “not only as a set of practical skills, but as a form of intelligence – a complex form of professional creativity involving reflection-in-action and on-action” (Edwards, 2017, n.p.).
Schon’s model is a good reflective model, primarily because it emphasises the usefulness of reflecting whilst in action. However, speaking more generally, Schon’s theoretical perspective is positive and empowering because it recognises the special ‘intelligence’ or ‘artistry’ of the practitioner (Edwards, 2017). Schon has lamented that, traditionally ‘the researcher’s role is distinct from, and usually considered superior to, the role of the practitioner’ (Schon, 1983, p.335). In contrast, however, Schon values the special role of the practitioner and instead helps them to access and nurture knowledge which they already have (via reflection), for the purposes of enhancing their practice (Kinsella, 2010). Thus, it can be said that Schon’s model of reflection is particularly empowering for those who use it. It must, nevertheless, be recognised that there are weaknesses as well as strengths to this model, as will be described in more detail below.
It is flexible and perhaps less time-consuming than other models because it can be performed during and/or after the event (Cambridge Assessment, 2018).
Reflecting ‘during’ an event could make the learner self-consciousness and/or anxious (Mackintosh, 1998).
It may help to build stronger management skills/dynamism, since it encourages learners to reflect in action and then react immediately. Therefore, it can be especially useful for learners working in careers where they need to be able to make fast, effective decisions (Kinsella, 2010).
This is not a stage model, so it does not attempt to explain the stages of reflection/learning.
This model acknowledges the tacit or implicit knowledge of practitioners (Kinsella, 2010). Moreover, Schon values the ‘artistry ‘of the practitioner and tries to open their eyes to what they already know (1983). This is empowering for the practitioner.
Some have argued that it is wrong to assume that the act of reflection is a semi-intuitive process, since this implies that reflection is an ability some have and some simply do not have (cited in Herbert, 2015). This is therefore not empowering for all. However, I would argue that this criticism misunderstands Schon’s theory.
It does not acknowledge the important role of peer reflection (Kettle and Sellars, 1996).
Figure 2: A table of strengths and weaknesses showing Schon’s model
When writing a reflection using Schon’s model, there are three different tasks that the practitioner could complete. These could be conducted in the below order, but this is not necessarily a requirement since Schon’s model is not strictly a multi-stage model (Eraut, 2006).
Firstly, it can be helpful to begin thinking about what one ‘knows in action’. For example, a nurse might consider what actions they carry out daily whilst on ‘autopilot’ mode (see Figure 3). As mentioned, this can help to boost confidence by recognising one’s strengths. It can also help draw the practitioner’s attention towards knowledge and skills they ‘take for granted’ as these skills or ways of doing things may become later challenged through reflective practice (Kinsella, 2010).
Secondly, as mentioned, one of the benefits of Schon’s model is that part of it can be completed ‘in practice’, thus this stage of reflection would be acted out rather than reported. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to write down the ‘reflection in action’ after the event, to synthesise an appreciation of how the practitioner reflected (acted) in practice (see Figure 3).
Finally, when carrying out the retrospective ‘reflection on practice’, it is especially useful to write the reflection down (Herbert, 2015), At this stage, the practitioner should provide a clear description of what happened, their interpretation of the event, and how they might change their behaviour in the future.
Below is an example of a nurse’s reflection using Schon’s reflective model (1983/1991). At the ‘knowing in action stage’, the practitioner began by considering the activities they know how to conduct effortlessly and without thought. In the example, welcoming a patient is the skill that the nurse knows how to do intuitively. At the ‘reflection in action’ stage, the nurse has reflected on an intervention she tried when attempting to calm down an unhappy child. Finally, the ‘reflection on action’ stage asked the practitioner to consider what went well/badly and what they would change next time. The practitioner has stated how they would behave differently next time. It is possible to see how, over time, this reflective process could reshape the practitioner’s ‘knowing in action’ statement. That is, the practitioner may gradually begin to develop a new way of welcoming patients that will eventually become intuitive but will have incorporated insights from various instances of reflection (see Kinsella, 2010).
Figure 3: An example of Schon’s reflective practice
When discussing any reflective model, it is important to provide the correct citation. Schon first wrote about his reflective model in his seminal book in 1983, which was republished in 1991. The 1991 version of the text is more commonly cited, as stated below:
Schon, D. (1991). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
This reference should be placed in the reference list of any works which refer to Schon’s reflective model.
This article has explored Schon’s reflective model and its usefulness for practitioners – particularly nursing practitioners. As mentioned, the key benefits of this model are two-fold. Firstly, it encourages practitioners to reflect whilst on the job which helps to save time and encourage dynamism. Perhaps more importantly, this model appreciates the special ‘artistry’ of the practitioner, thus it empowers them to learn and grow primarily through their own experiences rather than through external facts or theories.
Caldwell, L & Grobbel, C. (2013). The importance of reflective practice in nursing. International Journal of Caring Sciences, 6(3).
Cambridge Assessment (2018). Getting started with Reflective Practice [Online]. Available at: https://www.cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswrp/index.html [Accessed 18 July 2020].
Dewey, J. (1958). Art as experience. New York: Capricorn Books.
Edwards, S. (2017). Reflecting differently. New dimensions: reflection before action and reflection beyond action. International Practice Development Journal.
Eraut, M. (2006). Schon Shock: a care for refraining reflection in action? Teachers and Teaching, 1(1), 9-22.
Hébert, C. (2015). Knowing and/or experiencing: a critical examination of the reflective models of John Dewey and Donald Schön. Reflective Practice, 16(3), 361–371.
Kettle, B. & Sellars, N. (1996) The development of student teacher’s practical theory of teaching, Teaching and Teacher Education, 12(1), 1-24.
Kinsella, E. (2010). The art of reflective practice in health and social care: reflections on the legacy of Donald Schon. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 11(4), 565-575.
Kolb, D (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
LaPrade, K., Gilpatrick, M. & Perkins, D. (2014). Impact of reflective practice on online teaching performance in higher education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(4).
Mackintosh, C. (1998). Reflection: a flawed strategy for the nursing profession. Nurse Education Today, 18(7), 553-557.
NMC (2019). Regulators unite to support reflective practice across health and care. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nmc.org.uk/news/press-releases/joint-statement-reflective-practice/ [Accessed 15 July 2020].
Schon, D. (1991). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
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