Thursday 2018-12-13

The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schőn

Schőn points out that mistakes will be made, regardless of how "professional" one's work is. Ultimately, he concludes that everyone needs to learn how to debug and routinize -- i.e. cope with uncertainty.

"In contrast, the minor professions suffer from shifting, ambiguous ends and from unstable institutional contexts of practice, and are therefore unable to develop a base of systematic, scientific professional knowledge."
-- From Technical Rationality...

This book was written in response to post-1960's society's apparent lower regard for the professional classes. The cause of which Schőn cites the apparent complicity of the professions:

Advocates for peace and for the civil rights of minorities joined forces and turned against the experts whom they saw as instruments of an all-powerful establishment. Around such issues as environmental pollution, consumer exploitation, the inequity and high cost of medical care, the perpetuation of social injustice, scientists and scientifically trained professionals found themselves in the unfamiliar role of villain.
-- The Crisis of Confidence...

Schőn then blames the progression of the Enlightenment to Positivism to the Current Woes:

Now, in the light of the Positivist origins of Technical Rationality, we can more readily see why these phenomena are so troublesome.

From the perspective of Technical Rationality, professional practice is a process of problem solving. Problems of choice or decision are solved through tbe selection, from available means, of the one best suited to established ends. But with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen. In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to the practitioner as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain.

-- From Technical Rationality...

And that the cure lies in paying attention to knowledge outside of the established science -- i.e. professionals should not consign all of their cases to the Procrustean bed of knowledge handed down on high from their training programs:

Every competent practitioner can recognize phenomena -- families of symptoms associated with a particular disease, peculiarities of a certain kind of building site, irregularities of materials or structures -- for which he cannot give a reasonably accurate or complete description. In his day-to-day practice he makes innumerable judgments of quality for which he cannot state adequate criteria, and he displays skills for which he cannot state the rules and procedures. Even when he makes conscious use of research-based theories and techniques, he is dependent on tacit recognitions, judgments, and skillful performances.
-- From Technical Rationality...
He reflects on the phenomena 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 phenomena and a change in the situation.

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case.

-- From Technical Rationality...

Schőn has jumped the shark at this point: is it really the case that professionals in the late 1800's were also robotic implementors of rote Science? Were they as robotic as their 1950's counterparts? Is roboticism rising? What's the metric of comparison?

In the end, Schőn's claims come across as irretrievably Ivory-Towered: "Most practitioners are stupid; what basic Science can we teach them -- without it being too much of a burden."