Donald Schon's Presentation
"Educating the Reflective Practitioner"
to the 1987 meeting of the
American Educational Research Association
We are in the midst of, in our cyclical American way, we are in the midst of a new wave of school reform, and as usual we are blaming the schools for issues that properly belong to the society as a whole. Japanese imports and competitiveness have replaced references to Sputnik and Russian competition of the late ‘50s. The buzzwords, some of them, are old; some of them-- "excellence," "accountability," are new. There are some counter-voices that speak to the fact that teachers are badly paid and under-respected and inappropriately blamed.
But underneath the debate about the schools, as it cycles through our history, certain fundamental questions keep coming up: "What are the competences that teachers should be trying to help students, kids acquire?" "What kinds of knowledge and what sort of know-how should teachers have in order to do their jobs well?" What kinds of education are most likely to help teachers prepare for effective teaching?" We may be ready to re-examine questions like these and, as we do so, it may be comforting to notice that we’re not alone among the professions.
In fact, if I’m right, all of the professions, even Nathan Glazer’s major professions, are currently in the midst of a crisis of confidence which has to do with a rather fundamental issues, namely our view of the nature of professional knowledge, our view of what I call "the epistemology of practice." In this talk I want to talk about a version of that epistemology of practice which I am going to call "school knowledge," and I’m going to contrast it with the kind of artistry that good teachers in their everyday work often display, which I’ll call "reflection-in-action." I do want to point out that these ideas of mine are very much part of a tradition; in fact, I think you can really look back at the history of the schools and of educational reform and see a dialectic between a school establishment, on the one hand, and I’m talking over centuries, from Rousseau onward, and a tradition of reform and criticism which begins with Rousseau and goes on to Pestilotsy and Tolstoy and Dewey and then, as we approach more contemporary times, Alfred Schultz and Lev Vygotsky and Kurt Lewin, Piaget, Wittgenstein and David Hawkins today. So I see myself not as saying anything really new at all, but as drawing on this tradition and talking on how we might put it to use.
Let me begin with this business of school knowledge and reflection-in-action. I want to take an example from "The Teacher Project," which was a project initiated in 1978 by Jean Bamberger, who is here, and Eleanor Duckworth. And it was a project of in-service teacher education. The teachers were chosen from elementary schools in Cambridge; they attended seminars once a week. The vignette I want to pick is one in which these seven teachers are sitting watching a videotape. And on the videotape they’re seeing two boys playing with pattern blocks--you know what pattern blocks are? And there’s an opaque wall between them. One boy has a pattern in front of him; the other boy has a bunch of blocks. And the first boy, looking at his pattern, is trying to give the second boy directions for completing the pattern. And the teachers are watching this videotape. And the first boy gives a series of directions, and pretty soon it’s clear that the second boy begins to go horribly awry, and his pattern gets more and more divergent from the ones that the teachers can see in front of the first boy. And the teachers begin to talk about what’s going on. And they say the second boy is clearly a slow learner, and he doesn’t know how to follow directions. And he seems to lack basic skills. And in the midst of that, Maggie Cauley who was assisting Jean and Eleanor, and who was watching, said, "Wait a second: I think the first boy gave an impossible instruction." And they went back and played the tape again, and they saw that indeed the first boy had said, "Put down a green square," and there were no green squares, there were only orange squares, and the only green things were triangles. And then the teachers began to see the whole tape in a completely different way. And they perceived that the second boy was, in fact, a virtuoso at following instructions, a virtuoso at improvising instructions. And they said, "You know what we did was we gave the kid reason." And that notion of giving the kid reason became a slogan for much of their work thereafter in the seminar.
This idea of "giving reason" is associated with a view of kids’ knowledge, a view of kids’ learning, and a view of kids’ teaching, which is very different to what I take to be the prevailing view of those things in the schools and, I might add, in the schools of education. And I want to use the term "school knowledge" to talk about what I take the prevailing view of knowledge to be which is built into the schools. I think we can correctly call it an "epistemology of the schools." It’s keyed to predictability and control which are essential features of ALL bureaucracies. It is also keyed to a certain view of educational reform and is, I think, centrally associated with why it is that educational reform fails to reform. Because the centre-periphery model of reform through large scale government intervention, for example, also demands the packaging of knowledge and the presentation of replicable methods which are to be stamped in through rewards and punishments which mirrors the view of knowledge built into the epistemology of the schools. The features of school knowledge that I want to point to are these.
First of all, there’s the view that what we know is a product. There is a body of knowledge. It is a set of results which are, at best, the results of research carried out in the universities. It’s knowledge that is determinate in the sense that there are right answers: questions have right answers. It’s the business of the teachers to know what the right answers are and to communicate them to students. The knowledge is formal and categorical; it is explicitly formulable in propositions that assign properties to objects or express in verbal or symbolic terms the relations of objects and properties to one another. And let me tell you a story: the Russian cognitive psychologist, Vygotsky, who worked just after the Russian Revolution, worked with peasants, some of whom had been to the collective schools and some of whom had not. And he gave them little tests. And the basic pattern of the test was "Put together the things that go together." So he showed this peasant a hammer, a saw, a hatchet and a log of wood, and he said, "Put together the things that go together." And the peasant said, "Well, clearly, what goes together is the log of wood and the hatchet and the saw because you use the hatchet and the saw to cut the wood for firewood." And Vygotsky said--and this was his regular strategem--"I have a friend who says that the saw, the hammer and the hatchet go together because they are tools." And the peasant answered, "Then your friend must have a lot of firewood!"
The categorization of knowledge in terms of a category like "tool," as distinct from the ordinary, familiar coherences of objects as they go together in our everyday life, is what I mean by the formal categorical character of knowledge. And it is one of the key features that separates schools from life. The ways in which things are grouped together, the way in which things are treated as similar and different, are not the way in which they are grouped and treated as similar and different in our ordinary life experiences. There is also, in this view of school knowledge, the notion that the more general and the more theoretical the knowledge, the higher it is.
I remember once being quite recently at a school of education, and a graduate student was in a seminar that I was doing, and she was working with nurses, and she said something I thought was interesting. And I asked her if she would give me an example. And she then gave me a proposition which was just as general as the first proposition. So I asked again for an example, and she gave me a proposition which was just slightly less general. And I asked again, and I finally got an example. And I asked her afterwards if she thought it was strange that it took three or four tries to get an example, and she said she DID think it was strange, and she didn’t understand why she’d done that. And I think it is because she had been socialized to an institution where, tacitly and automatically, we believe that the only thing that really counts and the only thing that’s really of value is theory, and the higher and the more abstract and the more general the theory, the higher the status it is. Under such conditions it’s very difficult to give more or less concrete examples.
This view of school knowledge also includes the notion that knowledge is molecular, that it is built up of pieces which are basic units of information or basic units of skill which can be assembled together in complexes of more advanced and complicated information. And there IS the notion that it is the business of the teacher to communicate this knowledge, and it is the business of the students to receive it or absorb it. It is the business of kids to get it, and of the teachers to see that they get it. And if the kids do not get it, then there’s a need to explain why they’re not getting it, and categories like "slow learner," "poor motivation," "short attention span," are ways of describing what Clifford Geertz has called "junk categories" to remove their not getting it from the range of things with which the teacher would have to deal.
In contrast to school knowledge, there’s the kind of knowing-in-action which the second boy displayed when he responded to the first boy’s directions, and there’s the kind of reflection-in-action as he improvised when the directions began to leave him puzzled. This reflection-in-action is tacit and spontaneous and often delivered without taking thought, and is not a particularly intellectual activity. And yet it involves making new sense of surprises, turning thought back on itself to think in new ways about phenomena and about how we think about those phenomena. And examples lie in ordinary conversation, making things, fixing things, riding bicycles, and I’m now going to give you my venerable example, and I’ll apologize to anybody here who’s heard it before. Probably most of you have.
If you are riding a bicycle, and you begin to fall to the left, then in order not to fall you must turn your wheel to the ___? Quick! I’m about to fall!
How many think ‘right'?
How many think ‘left’?
How many don’t know?
How many think this is an irrelevant question?
All right, without being dogmatic, if you turn the wheel to the right you’ll likely fall off; if you turn the wheel to the left you’ll likely not fall off because you’ll be turning into the fall. It has to do with where your centre of gravity is. You’re going to bring the bicycle underneath it. It also has to do with the fact that the bicycle is a gyroscope. However, I don’t want you to take this on authority. I want you to go out and test.
And those of you who said, "You turn to the right," I presume you frequently fall off the bicycle. No, you don’t? So it raises the question of how it is that you could give the wrong answer and do the right thing. And this capacity to do the right thing, as my old friend Ray Hayner used to say, "knowing more than we can say, thank God," exhibiting the more that we know in what we do by the way in which we do it, is what I mean by knowing-in-action. And this capacity to respond to surprise through improvisation on the spot is what I mean by reflection-in-action. When a teacher turns her attention to giving kids reason to listening what they say, then teaching itself becomes a form of reflection-in action, and I think this formulation helps to describe what it is that constitutes teaching artistry.
It involves getting in touch with what kids are actually saying and doing; it involves allowing yourself to be surprised by that, and allowing yourself to be surprised, I think, is appropriate, because you must permit yourself to be surprised, being puzzled by what you get and responding to the puzzle through an on-the-spot experiment that you make, that responds to what the kid says or does. It involves meeting the kid in the sense of meeting his or her understanding of what’s going on, and helping the kid co-ordinate the everyday knowing-in-action that he brings to the school with the privileged knowledge that he finds in the school.
And on this view teaching becomes very much like what Lev Nikolayevitch Tolstoy described in his famous essay on the rudiments of reading, "Teaching the Rudiments of Reading," which he wrote in connection with the peasants’ school he founded at Yasnaya Polanya in between the writing of "The Cossacks" and "War and Peace." He said, "Every individual must, in order to acquire the art of reading in the shortest possible time, be taught quite apart from any other, and therefore there must be a separate method for each. That which forms an insuperable difficulty to one does not in the least keep back another, and vice versa. One pupil has a good memory, and it is easier for him to memorize the symbols than to comprehend the most rational sound method. Another has a fine instinct and he grasps the law of word combination by reading whole words at a time. The best teacher will be who he has at his tongue’s end the explanation of what it is that is bothering the pupil."
These explanations give the teacher the knowledge of the greatest possible number of methods, the ability of inventing new methods and, above all, not a blind adherence to ONE method but the conviction that all methods are one-sided, and that the best method would be the one that would answer best to all the possible difficulties incurred by a pupil. That is, not a method, but an art and a talent. And this is teaching in the form of reflection-in-action. It involves a surprise, a response to surprise by thought turning back on itself, thinking what we’re doing as we do it, setting the problem of the situation anew, conducting an action experiment on the spot by which we seek to solve the new problems we’ve set, an experiment in which we test both our new way of seeing the situation, and also try to change that situation for the better.
And reflection-in-action need not be an intellectual or verbalized activity. If you think about--my favourite example of reflection-in-action is jazz, because if you think about people playing jazz within a framework of beat and rhythm and melody that is understood, one person plays and another person responds, and responds on the spot to the way he hears the tune, making it different to correspond to the difference he hears, improvisation in that sense is a form of reflection-in-action. And so is good conversation which must be neither wholly predictable nor wholly unpredictable. If it’s wholly predictable, it’s boring and not good, and if it’s wholly unpredictable, it’s crazy.
Good conversation, which all of us have some gift for, involves a moving between those extremes in a kind of on-line observation and action which is so natural and spontaneous to us that we don’t even think about the capacity we have to do it. And in much of this activity we need not think about what we are doing in explicit, verbal or symbolic terms, but sometimes we must. For example, when we get stuck.
Or, for example, when we want to teach somebody else to do what we know how to do. I don’t know about your experience as teachers, but mine is--the thing I find hardest in the world to do is to teach a student what I know how to do best. For example, to see interesting patterns in data, which I know how to do, I cannot teach my students to do, or I have to work very hard, or I ask myself, "What is it that I’m really doing when I do this?" And I find I’m asking myself a surprising question: I don’t know the answer to it. In order to get the answer I have to actually think about what I do, and observe myself doing it. My theories about it don’t work very well.
Reflection-ON-reflection-in action IS an intellectual business, and it DOES require verbalization and symbolization.
And when the teachers talked about giving the kid reason, they were doing a bit of reflection on reflection-in-action. And when Tolstoy wrote his paragraph, he was reflecting on the reflection-in-action that he was displaying in his school at Yasnaya Polanya.
Now, if we ask the question, "What hangs on this difference between school knowledge and reflection-in-action?", I think it is in fact a revolutionary difference, and it has to do with healing certain splits that deaden the experience of school. They are splits between school and life which make many kids--perhaps most kids--believe that school has nothing to do with life. They are splits between teaching and doing which makes it true for most of us who are teachers that what we teach is not what we do, and what we do is not what we teach. They are splits between research and practice, which means that the thing we call ‘research’ is divorced from, and even divergent from, the actual practice in which we engage. Now all of these things are associated with the argument I made in The Reflective Practitioner , not about teacher education specifically but about ALL professional education in the modern research university. And let me just recapitulate that.
There I argued that the modern research university, as Alfred Schultz has shown us, was derived from the doctrine of positivism as it had affected the German universities at the end of the 19th century, incorporated into the modern research university initially at Johns Hopkins, migrating out from there to other places like Michigan and Columbia, and eventually to the Ivy League. It was based upon the view, then revolutionary, that the university’s business is to produce new knowledge, preferably scientific, certainly systematic. And then there was the issue of what to do with practice, and the initial intent was to keep the professions out of the schools, well out of the schools. Thorstein Veblen, when he wrote The Order of Higher Learning in America, was actually angry at the University of Chicago because it was entertaining the idea of admitting a business school. And he argued that if you admit a business school, or indeed any professional school to the higher school of learning, you’ll simply embarrass the poor fellows, and they’ll put on a specious appearance of scholarship, and they’ll be unable to produce the real thing. And that the lower schools of the profession should be kept out of the higher school of the university.
Well, Veblen lost his battle, and the business school got into the University of Chicago, and then these other professionals also got their schools in and, eventually, police, and library science and so on. And Harold Wohlenski wrote an article in the ‘50s saying, "The professionalization of everything? The professionalization of every one."
But the price for getting in was a buying into this Veblenian bargain which was from the higher schools, their knowledge--from the lower schools, their problems. And the professions, as a ticket of admission to the university, had to agree to the epistemology built into the university, and to construe professional knowledge as the application of research. And so from this comes the notion of the normative professional curriculum, which Edgar Schein has pointed out in his book on professional education: First teach them the relevant basic science, then teach them the relevant applied science, then give them a practicum in which to practice applying that science to the problems of everyday life. And it also produced the institutional separation of research and practice because, if your model of research is that of scientific method in the laboratory sense, with its experimental controls, practice is a confounding environment in which to experiment. You can’t establish controls in that sense, nor can you provide analysis of statistic correlations in the sense that you can do in your study when you have access to the data.
And so the separation of research and practice. And the consequence of this is, I believe, that if you find yourself in university, you find yourself in an institution built around an epistemology--technical rationality--which construes professional knowledge to consist in the application of science to the adjustment of means to ends, which leaves no room for artistry and no room for the kind of competence that the second boy displayed in my example of giving the kids reason, or that a reflective teacher displays when she responds to the puzzling things that kids say and do in the classroom. No room for these indeterminate zones of practice--uncertainty, situations of confusion and messiness where you don’t know what the problem is. No room for problem-setting which cannot be a technical problem because it’s required in order to solve a technical problem. No room for the unique case which doesn’t fit the books. No room for the conflicted case where the ends and values in what you’re doing are conflicted with one another. And so you can’t see the problem as one of adjusting means to ends because the ends conflict.
These indeterminate zones of practice are ones that are becoming increasingly important, increasingly visible to us, and I believe they have a great deal to do with declining confidence in the professions on the part of the public. There’s also no room for the ordinary art by which people apply theory when it IS applicable to concrete situations of action. An old colleague of mine at MIT, Ted Martin, used to say--he was a teacher of calculus--"I can teach kids how to differentiate only I can’t teach them how to set up the problem." In order to differentiate, they have to be able to set up the problem, but setting up the problem is something for which there aren’t rules and no theory. On the contrary, you have to be able to set up the problem in order to apply the rules AND the theory. The challenge to the professional schools, I think, is this challenge of educating for artistry. Helping people become more competent in the indeterminate zones of practice, at carrying out processes of reflection-in-action, and reflection ON reflection-in-action. And helping them to coordinate that artistry with applied science, because I’m not arguing that applied science should be thrown out the window. I’m arguing that it has a special zone of relevance which depends on our ability to do these other things, on the one hand to set problems in ways that the categories of applied science can fix and fit and, on the other hand, to fill with art the gap between theory and technique and concrete action.
I think the source of insight and of invention in thinking about the reforms of professional education are not so much to be found in the professional schools but in certain deviant traditions of education for reflection-in-action. Education for artistry in athletics--coaching in athletics--apprenticeships in the industry and the arts--and especially education for the arts in the studios of painting and sculpture and architectural design, and in the conservatories of music and dance. And here what we find at hits best is what I would like to call a "reflective practicum." And its main features are these.
It’s a situation in which people learn by doing, and I hope the ghost of John Dewey is circling just over my head. In which they do this together, with one another, who are trying to do the same thing. Where they learn by doing in a practicum which is really a virtual world. A virtual world in the sense that it represents the world of practice, but is not the world of practice. A virtual world in the sense that, in that world, students can run experiments cheaply and without great danger. They don’t have to actually go out and build a building to learn about designing a building. And they don’t have to go out and kill a patient to learn what the carotid artery is. And they can actually go back and do it again, and they can control the pace of the doing. And within these virtual worlds there are certain crucial media which they must also learn how to use. And they learn by doing with others in the virtual world of the practicum in interaction with someone who is in the role of coach, more like a coach than like a teacher, because that coach is trying to help them do something.
And in a kind of dialogue with that coach where the dialogue consists not only in words but in doing, in performance, so the coach’s demonstrations and the students’ performances are messages which they send to one another. The student’s performance, for example, indicating, telling the coach, "This is what I make of what you have said. This thing that I’m doing now is what I make of what you have said." And the coach, observing that and seeing the problems, the difficulties that the student has. At its best this dialogue between coach and student becomes a dialogue of reciprocal reflection-in-action where each of them is reflecting on, and responding to, the message received from the other. And in a moment I’ll give an example.
This idea of reflective practicum is a very general idea, and I think it takes very different forms in different fields and the cultures of different professions in the economic constraints offered by different professions. And what I’d like to look at now is what it would mean to have one for teachers. What would it mean to educate teachers in the capacity to teach reflectively and to think about their own reflection-in-action with kids. And here again I want to draw on the teacher project which Jean Bamburger and Eleanor Duckworth devised and ran for several years in Cambridge. And I want to choose another vignette. This was an event that occurred in the early sessions of the project, and Jean Bamburger was working with the teachers with Montessori bells. And Montessori bells are bells which look the same but they produce different pitches. And there was a collection of bells on the table, and the teachers had been building, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" out of these bells. And each bell played a different pitch except for two pitches, G and C, of which there were two bells.
And after the teachers had practiced doing that themselves, there was a videotape of a 14-year-old boy, Ricky, who was trying to build "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." And the way he did it was something like this. He would strike the first bell, and many bells, until he found one that he liked--’bom’--he called that ‘twinkle, twink." Then he would reach for the others: ‘bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom’--find the other one and put it right next to it. Then he’d reach for the next one, and he’d go back to the beginning: ‘bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom.’ Then he would go back to the beginning again, and then search: ‘bom, bom, bom, bom, bom-bom.’ The teachers watched this, and they zoned in very quickly on the fact that Ricky kept starting from the beginning again. And Jean, who was observing it, and observing their reaction, said this was a puzzle, and the rest of that session was devoted to working on that puzzle. And the teachers gave a set of responses to begin with. They said that what Ricky was doing was exhibiting ‘rote learning.’ They took it to indicate a lack of mastery of the tune, and they felt that he lacked basic music skills. They thought it was a sign of poor auditory memory, perhaps, and seemed to show an inability to follow directions, and the need for a ‘security blanket’--these were different phrases. And one of them said, "It’s like learning your ABCs. Until you know your ABCs you have to say them all at once. But if you really know them you can recognize an A anywhere or an M. You don’t have to go through the whole thing all over from the beginning in order to get it." So that they were seeing, or some of them were, basic musical skills as the ability to produce and recognize an element, a pitch, no matter where it appeared. As one of them said, the same eight notes in "Twinkle" must be mastered so that they can be recognized in ALL songs. And they believed these were the basics, the primary skills, that Ricky lacked.
Now Jean, who understood Ricky starting over in a very different way, played a very short portion of the tape again just at the point where he began, so she played, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," and stopped, and asked the teachers to sing the next note. And none of them could do it. And they were shocked. And she asked, "Does that tell you anything about tunes, about why he needed to start over again?" And one of the teachers said, "When Kitty and I did this last week, we certainly went back and played the whole thing from the beginning. I was humming it in my head; I think I used that as the way I found the next note." But another said, "If you’d asked ME to play the second phrase, I doubt I’d have gone all the way back to the beginning."
And after some further discussion, Mary, one of the teachers, said, "You know, you’re looking for intervals; it’s the relationship between the tones that counts, not the actual tone or where it appears in the octave or anywhere else, but it’s the relationship between it and the one next to it and the one before it." And then later she said, "So in other words, all this discussion about weakness and learning mode and everything is basically down the drain, because what you’ve said is that nobody could do it any other way, right?" And still later she said, "I realized, when you were talking about that, that music is about building. Without building, you can’t have the fourth block without the first. I realized that repetition in music must be necessary because you can’t build--well, it’s like a tower, and so I visualize it with kids in the kindergarten with blocks. But it came out only because of the probing. I think you were pulling teeth, pulling it out of us."
Now, in my view, what the teachers were getting in this session was moving back between Ricky’s thinking and their own, and they came to see both his thinking and their own in a new way. They came to see that, starting over from the beginning as a way of orienting yourself in the tune is something that everybody has to do. Jean, when she stopped the tape and asked them to sing "How" was carrying out an on-the-spot experiment which she had not planned ahead of time but invented in order to respond to what she saw as their false theory of what was going on. They began by being faced with a kind of diabolical inconsistency. If Ricky lacked basic skills, they lacked them too. And so they had to see starting over in a new way, and they constructed for themselves an image which allowed them to hang on to that new way, which was Mary’s tower. And that image became a name, like giving kids reason, which they could hold.
Now, in my experience in teaching, naming is extraordinarily important--the ability to give a name, not take a name or accept it from someone else, but give a name. And I find that my students, one of the hardest things for them to do, is to be willing to give their own name to the phenomenon which they have seen. It’s as though they believe that if any thought goes through my head it must be automatically wrong, which was the opposite of Marshall McLuhan who used to believe that if a thought ran through his head it was automatically true. Forgive me, Marshall; you were great, anyway.
But the teachers were at that point trying to import their received school knowledge into the interpretation of Ricky’s behaviour. The experiment that Jean carried out helped them to see that what they were doing was not what they were teaching; what they were doing was different to the way they were interpreting Ricky’s behaviour. And she produced what I would call a "hall of mirrors." And I think the reflective practicum in teaching, as in certain other fields like managing and consulting, must be a hall of mirrors because the teacher of the teacher is also doing the thing that she is teaching. And so the kids--the teachers saw their own confusion in the kids’ confusion; they saw their own competence in the kids’ competence, and in Jean’s reflective teaching, her on-the-spot experiment that she produced for them, she was doing for them what she also hoped they would come to learn to do. But at the first instance they were not appreciative. In fact they were extremely angry, and they called the experience a "trial by fire." They said it was devastating; they said it made them profoundly uneasy. In the break after that session, nobody would talk to her.
My experience in other kinds of reflective practicums such as the design studio in architecture is that the phenomena of confusion and mystery and anger are endemic at the beginning. And everybody feels confused. And people keep on asking, "What are we really doing?" In architecture it takes the form of asking, "What is designing, really?" "What are we supposed to be doing?" What does it mean to be thinking architecturally?" And I even had one student who said he was going to leave the studio and go out and work and try to find out what it was they were arguing about. And another student who said, "It’s a sort of Kafkaesque thing. At the crit, at the end of the term, you listen to the inflections and the tone of the voice of your critic to see if anything is really wrong." And this experience, I think, goes to a paradox which is at the heart of learning any new, any really new skill which is at the heart of learning a kind of artistry when you cannot in principle know what it is you’re supposed to be learning, and yet you must learn it. And nobody described this paradox better than Plato in his dialogue, "The Meno." And you remember, in that dialogue, Socrates is talking to Meno, who is the Socratic fall guy for that one. And Meno pretends to know what virtue is. And Socrates quickly shows him that he hasn’t the faintest idea what virtue is, and Meno becomes absolutely furious, and he finally bursts out with this: "But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?"
I like to tweak my friends in artificial intelligence with the notion that the Meno will be around long after artificial intelligences are forgotten! The experience of the students in the architectural studio, like the experience of the teachers in the teacher project and, I believe, the experience of the students in any reflective practicum is that they must plunge into the doing, and try to educate themselves before they know what it is they’re trying to learn. The teachers cannot tell them. The teachers can say things to them but they cannot understand what’s meant at that point.
The way at which they come to be able to understand what’s meant is by plunging into the doing--the designing, the teaching, the examination of their own learning--so as to have the kinds of experience from which they may then be able to make some sense of what it is that’s being said. But that plunge is full of loss because, if you’ve taken that plunge yourself, you know the experience. You feel vulnerable; you feel you don’t know what you’re doing; you feel out of control; you feel incompetent; you feel that you’ve lost confidence. And that is the environment in which you swim around, trying to design or trying to teach or trying to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to learn to do until you get to the place where you can understand what people are saying to you. And you become angry and you become defensive. Or defensiveness, at any rate, becomes a very present danger--"a clear and present danger." And what’s extraordinary is that, for the same students in this design studio, for example, after six months or a year, they were understanding perfectly well what was being said. They could complete their teachers’ sentences; they could speak elliptically, using shortcuts that were mysterious to ME, but they understood what they were talking about.
So many of them, not all, teachers and students, coach and students, had achieved a kind of convergence of meaning which came after the pervasive confusion and mystery after the early part of the process. And in between the two comes the dialogue--what I will call a dialogue--between coach and student which is a dialogue of words and a dialogue of actions like the dialogue of "Twinkle, twinkle little star," and Mary’s tower--a dialogue in which, when it works well, student and teacher, coach and student, are communicating through demonstration and description combined, responding to one another’s performances as indicators of what they understand and what they present to be understood. And the coach’s task is a threefold task, I think.
It requires always substantive attention to the specific problem that’s being worked on: the design of this school; the presentation of this videotape. The coach has to be able to demonstrate and describe in relevant ways about that.
Moreover, he has to be able to describe and demonstrate in ways that are particularized, as Tolstoy said, to the difficulties and possibilities of THIS particular student at this time, to say the things, to discover the things, that will allow THAT student to understand.
And thirdly, to do it by building a relationship in which defensiveness is minimized. He can’t guarantee it, of course, because if a person chooses to become defensive, in the end there’s nothing you can do about it. But the things that I do influence the possibilities for defensiveness for others.
And in the coaching process I argue these three problems--the substantive problem-solving, the particularizing of description and demonstration, the reduction of defensiveness--are happening all the time together in combination. And a really good coach is one whose artistry involves being able to do those three things in combination.
Now, the introduction of a reflective practicum into a professional school is an uphill business. The introduction of reflective teaching into a primary or secondary school is an uphill business. If you think about introducing a reflective practicum into a school of education you must work against the view that practice is a second-class activity, because in the school of education I think it is.
You must work against the view that theory is a privileged form of knowledge.
You must work against the doctrine that teachers are to be taught the results of research carried out by researchers, which I think helps to account for a widespread sense of the irrelevance of courses in schools of education.
You work uphill against the notion that the teacher is a blank slate who needs to be trained and has nothing to bring.
And you work against what I am describing as the ‘squeeze play’ currently operating in the profession as in many professions where, on the one hand, the actual institutional conditions of practice restrict what it is that a practitioner can do--how many degrees of freedom. If Michigan passes a competency testing law for teachers, and bases that law on prevailing views of school knowledge, it doesn’t make it easier for a teacher to engage in reflective teaching. And if at the same time there is a resurgence of technical rationality in the university, which there is, the combination of those two things squeezes what I’m calling for.
But on the other side of the ledger there is this, I think--I mean, you’ll tell me in a moment--a general uneasiness about the schools of education, a general uneasiness as though, you know, "We may not be doing it right; we may need to think again." There is a nucleus of people who are already engaged in the business of trying to help teachers become reflective teachers. I know many of them myself, and I don’t know the field very well, so there must be many more. There are many others who WANT to move in this direction, and the current, cyclical iteration of the educational reform provides a window, an opportunity, to move in this direction. Against it there is the Balkanization of the schools--the division into pieces that don’t talk to one another.
The little camouflage of this Balkanization with the surface cordiality of academic institutions which drives me nuts, as it may you, and the normal cynicism of the schools which leads people to believe that of course it’s all unchangeable--"too bad, but unchangeable." And yet I think there’s plenty of evidence that it IS changeable, and there are people who I think are wanting to change it in the direction such as the one that I’ve been trying to describe today. I think the ways IN to the development of a reflective practicum could come through internships for teachers. It could come in very interesting ways through the introduction of the computer, not that the computer’s so wonderful but the computer provides an opportunity for looking at education in new ways. And Jean Bamburger’s recent work on what she calls "the laboratory for making things" is an example. And in my own work at MIT, looking at Project Athena there, which is to do with computers in education, I see other examples. Continuing education for teachers provides yet a third kind of example, and work like Gaalen Erickson’s at the University of British Columbia or Tom Russell’s and Hugh Munby’s at Queen’s, are cases in point. But all this depends on there being at the heart of the school a core of people, at least a small group of people, who are prepared to create a new kind of research presence, who want to produce experiences and knowledge which is usable by teachers. I think that's the crucial feature--that their research would be usable. That it would be engaged collaboratively with teachers, that it would be conducted on line in experience with teachers, and that it would be aimed at healing the splits between teaching and doing, school and life, research and practice, which have been so insidiously effective at deadening the experience of school at all levels.