Design is a Reflective Practice: A Summary of Schön’s Views

Posted on August 20, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


Schön defined reflective practice as the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base and learn from their experience. He introduced the following three notions:

  1. Reflection in action: reflect on behavior as it happens, so as to optimize the immediately following action.
  2. Reflection on action: reflecting after the event, to review, analyze, and evaluate the situation, so as to gain insight for improved practice in future.
  3. Ladders of reflections: action, and reflection on action make a ladder. Every action is followed by reflection and every reflection is followed by action in a recursive manner.  In this ladder, the products of reflections also become the objects for further reflections.

Further, Schön posited that the mental habit of reflection and ability to move across the ladders of reflections is central to professionals’ approach to their work.  He saw ‘design’ as ‘reflection in action’ in which changing a given situation takes precedence over the interest of understanding it.  He also observed that for a designer, the phenomena/situation continues to change during their work. Some  key observation of Schön in this regard are as follows:

Designers begin with situations that are at least partially uncertain, ill-defined, complex, and incoherent. Designers construct and impose a coherence of their own.  Subsequently they discover consequences and implications of their constructions – some unintended – which they appreciate and evaluate, sometimes leading to reconstruction of initial coherence – a reflective conversation with material of a situation. They spin out a web of moves, consequences, implications, appreciations, and further moves. Each move is a local experiment that contributes to the global experiment of reframing the problem. Moves create new problems to be described and solved.  Moves have expected/or unexpected consequences in many design domains and implication bindings on later moves. In this process, designer reflect in three dimensions:

1.  The domains of languages in which the designers describe and appreciate the consequences of their moves, e.g., use, technology, form, cost, scale, character, representations, quality, standards….

2.   The implications they discover and follow. Designers evaluate their moves in terms of:

i.   Desirability of their consequences.

ii.  Conformity to/violation of implications of earlier moves.

iii.  Their appreciation of new problems or potentials they have created.

3.     Their changing stance towards the situation with which they converse:  Can/might, should/must, what if, unit/total, moves/appreciation of outcomes, and tentative adaption of strategy/commitment.

Hazzan and Tomakyo highlight the importance of ability of reflection for software developers. They posit that mental habit of reflection and ability to move across the ladders of reflections are closely associated with software engineering processes. They also give examples of such ladders of reflection for soft engineering tasks.

Evolutionary software development approaches including agile methods draw their strength from the possibility of continuous reflection.  One of the key principle in the agile manifesto is, “at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”


1.   Schön D., The  reflective  practitioner, Basic Books: New York, 1983.

2.   Schön D., Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1987.

3.   Theories that can help teachers/trainers/e-learning designers to think like educators, help students to improve their learning ability, and also help Software Developers in developing domain competence and readiness.


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