Business Management

Reflection in Action

When we think about a professional working – such as an architect, engineer or teacher - we are tempted to view them as technologically rational problem-solvers. We imagine that they possess a body of knowledge about their subject and a set of procedures they apply to come up with an optimal "solution" to the problem. We imagine that they analyse and solve the problem in their head and then impart the solution in the form of a drawing, model, diagnosis, or lesson. The reality is very different in two ways. First, the problems that such professionals address don't have one single solution. There are many solutions that work - and often no one "optimal" solution. Secondly, the professional does not just think about the problem in the abstract. Instead, they learn by interacting with the situation to both understand it and try out potential solutions. They "play" with the situation thorough interacting with it. In the case of a teacher, they engage in dialog with students, or in the case of architects and engineers, they experiment with abstract representations such as models and drawings.

MIT theorist Donald Schöen wrote about this in the seminal 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner. He called it "reflection in action". Schöen observed a variety of professionals - architects, engineers, psychotherapists, teachers, and city planners - and discovered that they all "thought" through interacting with a situation - either an actual one such as a patient or a student, or a representation - such as a model or drawing. This is very different from our conventional model of professional problem solving - which Schöen called “the model of technical rationality”.

The case of designers such as architects and engineers is particularly interesting because they interact with the situation through abstract representations such as drawings and prototypes. It is tempting to think that they design "in their heads" and then use design tools - either digital or analog - to document their ideas. The reality is that they interact with these tools as a mode of thinking. That is why designers don't necessarily demand accuracy or fidelity in their representations. In fact, they sometimes want ambiguity - to express the tentative nature of early stages of understanding the problem and solution.

One challenge with using abstract representations is that they are disconnected from the real situation. Unlike a teacher, the designer interacts with a representation of the situation rather than the situation itself. This sometimes results in a disconnect from reality - buildings that cannot be built, products that cannot be manufactured, or designs that people cannot use or understand.

That is why a renewed focus on "making" is important. While the popular perception of “the maker movement” is around a resurgence of hobbyists making things, an equally profound phenomenon is happening in the design professions. Technologies such as 3D printing and digital fabrication are allowing design and engineering students to create actual physical prototypes of their work, thus allowing them to understand the nature of materials, techniques for forming those materials, and ways materials are joined and assembled. Students who previously manipulated abstract representations to understand their designs can now manipulate concrete prototypes which allow them to learn more clearly about the physical reality of their proposed solutions.

This resurgence of making in the design world has implications for education in general. It is very clear that automation in the form of computers and robots is – and will continue – rapidly eroding work that is rote or procedural in nature. Former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich once said that people who manipulated symbols such as words, numbers, or visual images would do the jobs of the future. He called these people “symbolic analysts”.  While this has been true, computers are also fabulous at manipulating symbols – and today even high-level symbolic analyst jobs are being automated away. What is difficult to automate is the kind of “reflection in action” that Schöen described.

Unfortunately, our education system places a premium on manipulation of symbols and denigrates the making or manipulation of the physical. As we move forward, we need to reconsider this and restore making or interacting with the physical to our educational system. In this way, we can educate a generation of designers and engineers who are no longer separated from their work by intermediate abstract representations, but can reflect in action by manipulating concrete physical representations of their work.


Jon Pittman, Vice President of Corporate Strategy for Autodesk


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Mac McConnell

Mac McConnell is VP of Marketing at Bonitasoft

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