The Schön Experiment

Looking across the auditorium at some of the US’ most respected educators, Donald Schön presented a simple yet powerful tale he had recounted several times.

Its impact was no less emphatic for professionals who were not educators, such as designers, health workers, and for that matter journalists.

You’re riding a bike and you begin to fall to the left. How do you quickly regain your composure?

Turn Right
Turn Left
I don’t know
It’s an irrelevant question

The answer, the MIT social scientist said was to turn into the left. It has to do with the bike, which acts like a gyroscope, re-finding its centre of gravity. Racing car drivers braking around a bend at 200kph know this. But what about those who might say turn the other way? In practice, Schön continued you don’t fall off so what’s going on.

Often, we might know what to do, without necessarily being able to put this into words. This phenomenon Schön called reflection-in-action.

Doctors will sometimes detect an illness, not based on a clinical diagnosis but a hunch. Designers make use of reflection-in-action to ponder a new design like the Stata Center in MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the concept appears impossible, and journalism?

Well, swathes of journalists have creatively thought through the process of compiling a report against a deadline when the odds have been stacked against them — but there’s a catch.

Schön’s address poked at education on the one hand and the professions on the other. There is an enslavement to the packaging of knowledge in academia he said, and the rigid modular form students are taught does not give rise to what he called reflection-in-action, or reflection-on-action. One is an ongoing process, the other occurs over time.

Here, students should have the artistic freedom to experiment to develop new forms, to ‘make it up’ within a framework and assess their work thereafter. The idea caught on with many US educators doubling as action researchers who incorporated Schön’s teaching into their classes.

But arguably and generally television journalism has been in stasis.

A case in point, students undertaking television journalism or documentary will often work through how to create news and documentaries based on a rationale of the way things ARE done.

Not by what could be done, which is in stark contrast to visual, filmic or graphic designers who employ widely discursive methods to reach their goal.

News, we’re told, requires the use of one camera. You can’t use music, and the narrative has to be ‘he said, she said’ assuming total knowledge from the journalist. Often, it’s worth asking the lecturer or practitioner why?

The answers sometimes can be as disarming as they are nonsensical. Does what you see and hear represent an absolute reality? If not why do you pretend it does. And if you agree it doesn’t what we’re talking about is, trust. And that one camera? Well radio stations that would become TV Networks begrudgingly, forced by the FCC, could only afford the bare minimum — a set and one camera to go out on a story.

Schön called this condition technical rationality. In one of several books,The Reflective Practitioner, published four years earlier from his 1987 AGM talk to the American Educational Research Association, Schön elaborated.

Technical rationality confines many professions to be rooted in a scientific norm of practice, what’s called positivism where data is derived from logical and mathematical reasoning.

It leaves little room for much needed artistry in experiments that would expand knowledge in ways that are unpredictable. A popular way to look at the two systems, postivism and reflection-in-action based on artistic methods, is the Apollo 13 near disaster.

If it was logic that got the crew nearly to the moon, it was lengthy periods of reflection-in-action, tearing up the rule book, shown in the film by Gary Sinese’s character that got them safely back to earth.

Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 Copyright: © 1995 Universal Pictures

The Reflective Practitioner has since become one of the most cited and talked about books for researchers talking about their practice.

Whilst journalism is not included in Schön’s book, the similarities are clear. The way television journalism is, and delivered by experts, has been fixed for the last fifty years. It’s based on a positivism, so issues such as objectivity, balance, trust are thrust before student journalists by professionals as absolutes. They’re not. A reboot is so long overdue.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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