Academic journal article Public Administration Review

You Know More Than You Can Say: In Memory of Donald A. Schon (1930-1997)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

You Know More Than You Can Say: In Memory of Donald A. Schon (1930-1997)

Article excerpt

Let me introduce you to Don Schon, the extraordinary author of The Reflective Practitioner, as I knew him. As Ford Professor of Planning and Education in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, he was my faculty advisor from 1977 to 1988. If I could, I would take you to his office, where promptly, at the appointed hour, this tall, graceful man would open the door to release one student and warmly welcome you in. He would close the door, light his pipe, and focus his full attention on the matter at hand. He had always read whatever you might have left for him, a proposal--the latest draft of a dissertation--and would be ready with questions, generally in the form of "What are you saying here? Tell me what this is about?"

He would listen attentively and then, inevitably, go to the blackboard. There he would deliver a smooth and artful performance, both orally and with chalk, sketching out the sense he had made of your material. As you struggled to follow his soft, rapid speech and decipher his almost illegible script on the board, you would realize with surprise that he had found a deeper meaning in your writings than you ever imagined. At the end of the hour, as he ushered you out, you would be left with fresh insights, inspiration, and sometimes confusion. But you always had something to think about, to reflect on.

Donald A. Schon was always seeking the deeper meanings behind words and phenomena, looking for what lay beneath the surface, the underlying concepts. He looked behind ideas in good currency for hidden metaphors, behind the myth of the stable state at the evidence of accelerating technological change, behind what people said they were doing or thinking for their tacit "theories in use," and behind competent professional practice for reflective "knowing-in-action." He looked behind a statement of a problem for how it was set, behind a story for how it was framed, and behind interpersonal interactions for the other person's reasons.

To tell you more about Don, to help you understand what he was about, to give him reasons, is difficult. He loved to tell stories, but only as a way of introducing or illustrating concepts. He wrote almost nothing about his personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I considered interviewing his many august colleagues--Chris Argyris, Martin Rein, Bish Sanyal, and many more --but Don always advised against using indirect evidence. "Look at the directly observable data," he would say. In other words, read Don's texts, study Don's words. But over more than three decades, the sheer volume of his output was impressive: eight books, several edited volumes, and an incredible number of articles. He discouraged his students from attributing meanings to what people say--far better to quote them directly. But how to select passages, when his ideas are so elegantly phrased and his phrases so original, his arguments so well-honed, and his stories so rich and nuanced? So the problem of writing this paper came down to the problem of "setting the problem" or "framing" Schon. The problem was deciding where to draw the line and what to leave out, treating the "information-rich" materials with "selective inattention," as Schon would say, and then deciding what to emphasize and how to put it all together. Inevitably, I framed this paper in a way he would have liked, through the lens of my own experience, but in my own way, as a kind of Petra to his Quist--to be explained later.

Within this framework, this paper begins with a biographical sketch to place Schon's writings in context and to suggest his range of interest and experience. Then it sets the stage, with insights into the man, his basic concepts, and early theories. The bulk of the paper considers questions of interest to public administrators, as addressed by major concepts and illustrative stories in The Reflective Practitioner and Educating the Reflective Practitioner, including the story of Petra and Quist. …

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