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Schön's Theories on the Reflective Practitioner

Info: 7270 words (29 pages) Reflective Nursing Essay
Published: 2nd Sep 2021

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‘Without problems, there can be no personal growth, no group achievement, no progress of humanity. But what matters about problems is what one does with them.’

Hoff, 1992


Right at the outset, I am confronted with conflict. Answering questions of “who I am, “what I do” and “how I view the world” seem straightforward enough until scrutinised and questioned under duress. Previously held, stable and familiar ideas about my position in the work place, the professional path I’ve travelled and the knowledge I hold have been thrown into moderate disarray recently. As I reflect upon this process, I’ve struggled to articulate in a tangible and concrete way my position when viewed from a personally held and valued positivist epistemology. As this portfolio will help describe, personal constructs and preconceptions have been perturbed and have led to what can only be described as a personal paradigmatic shift. The terms used to describe these seemingly innocuous ideas, are usually easily answerable in clinical and professional terms, but they seem broader now more than ever and at the start, I’m faced with uncertainty about how to convey my thoughts around personal and professional identity. It amounts to a “crisis of confidence” in my professional knowledge and I will reflect on this experience throughout the portfolio aided by theories on learning and reflection.

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This portfolio has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my role and, in the main, I will attempt to view this process when seen against the backdrop of Donald Schön’s (1971) scholarly work on handling such professional uncertainties. I will reflect on the instability and conflict this novel and unfamiliar internal experience has provoked and ultimately how it has shaped me as a professional.

I will start by providing some context and discuss some of Schön’s thoughts about uncertainty in professional practice. I will then discuss ideas on the dichotomous epistemological position highlighted in the theory which will lead to thoughts on reflection. I will then try and synthesise my experience before providing a brief critique on the theory.

Perhaps, as a start, it would be helpful to say that I am employed as a lead/principal clinical psychologist for an NHS Trust in the UK. I currently work in a national and specialist adolescent unit. The unit caters for young people aged between 12 and 18 suffering severe and debilitating mental health difficulties that require inpatient treatment. The admission aims to provide safety; initiate, continue or resume treatment or to signpost young people into the care of community services as appropriate. So far, so good! No crisis in confidence issues there. What follows, however, will describe why these descriptions have become more troublesome of late.

The context: Uncertainty, uniqueness, instability & value conflict

Seen against the rather technical and factual job description above, one would struggle to unearth where any of the aforementioned uncertainty originates and it does not provide the details of the learning as such. But what it does, is provide a backdrop against which the learning experience originates. Of course, learning is not an isolated “event” and it is something that occurs “within the world” in which the learner lives and this learning is intimately related to that world and affected by it (Jarvis, 1987). Learning is embedded in the world and we are often engaged in learning whether or not this is formally recognised (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). From this, it appears that learning can be thrust upon us, unexpectedly, spontaneously and without warning. The workplace, naturally, is a major context for both formal and informal or incidental learning. Be that as it may, to effectively engage in any form of learning, one needs to adopt a position of open-mindedness and willingness to make mistakes (Clark, 2006). I’m not sure how conscious this position was initially, however, had I not been a willing “novice”, I’m not sure I would have placed myself in the new environment where change could occur albeit with some trepidation.

I have been working as a clinical psychologist in various settings throughout my career and, mostly, these have been within inpatient and crisis settings. The majority of this work has been with working-aged adults, 18 years and above and I have built up a relatively robust repertoire of knowledge and skills in order to do this work. I have been fortunate enough to have been quite senior in many of my roles, seen as an “expert” even in some areas and have managed to forge a space for psychological intervention where there previously was none. Of course, the topic of “expert” has been of interest over centuries and is not the subject of this portfolio as such, but, for these purposes, the expertise is defined as improved performance resulting from greater experience (Tracey et al., 2014). Skilled and knowledgeable, I teemed with confidence within the familiar world that is “adult inpatient services”.

It is interesting to note my ability to describe and define my position as something static and stable. In 1970, Schön asserted that the belief in humanity’s ability to attain any deterministic, utopian form of stable state is illusionary; that change is inevitable and any form or belief in reaching a calm, constant afterlife-within-life after time of troubles is a myth. Schön believed that modern life and social systems are in permanent states of flux, but people are afraid of change and tacitly resist it while often appearing to themselves and others as not doing so (what he termed dynamic conservatism) (Attar et al., 2016). I think, as a professional, working in an academic and scientific role, I’ve prided myself in my willingness to learn and develop – in a positivist way to be fair. Unbeknownst to me, in actuality, the rather concrete, descriptive view I had on what I do, what constitutes learning and my definition of professional practice, created the ideal setting for a “systemic shock” when I applied for, and was offered, a lead role within the aforementioned adolescent services.

Within the UK, clinical psychologists practice mostly in defined areas of interest. The broader categories of clinical, counselling or educational psychologists narrow to “specialist” or even “highly specialist” at the principal psychologist level and even further to specify children, adolescents, adults or older adults. There is primary care, secondary care and tertiary/inpatient care. The list is long and areas are well defined. Having opportunities to step out of the specialist roles or change direction after spending a significant amount of time in a certain specialism, is not that common. There are clear benefits to this approach, however, this does contribute to a somewhat disconcerting experience should one attempt to make a shift. Mezirow (1998) describes a “disorientating dilemma” which leads us to question our assumptions about ourselves and the world and this experience provides the grist for critical reflection. Moving into adolescent services and making the transition from “knowing” and “confidence” to feelings of “uncertainty” and “insecurity” in relation to my professional practice certainly felt “disorientating”. I found solace by convincing myself that skills would be transferrable and the transition would be a relatively smooth one guard the usual adjustments necessary when changing jobs. In reality, however, it felt very different. The process didn’t seem to follow my pre-existing, well thought out and defined ideas, but was rather more “unclear”. The experience was something quite novel, new and unique; scary and anxiety provoking. I perceived too many differences from my “certainties” and confidence in how I’d assumed I would manage the process waned. It would not be an exaggeration to say I started to have reservations about my decision to apply for the post and contemplated a change of course. I increasingly realised I’d put complete faith in these certainties and that these were not so reliable any longer. This culminated in the aforementioned “crisis in confidence”. There was less certainty about the future and, as options proliferated, I was faced with what Giddens (2009) describes as a “plurality of future scenarios”. I had thoughts of not being able to perform my duties within my role, that I would struggle to lead the service and then be seen as a disappointment to those who had made the decision to employ me. Foundations truly shaken, I found myself confronted with an instability and uncertainty not experienced since first embarking on the route of becoming a clinical psychologist almost twenty years ago.

Schön best predicted and portrayed problematic scenarios as described above and provided an actionable schema for tackling them (Attar et al. 2016). His work on problem setting and solving, metaphor and metaphorical insight, framing, reflection and the disruption of the “stable state” (Schön, 1971) provides a major and important linkage between such ideas and how to handle uncertainty. He was intensely aware that thoughtful practice, grounded often in uncertainty and uncertainty’s affective complement, anxiety, can become a generator of new knowledge whose validity and utility is, however, a function of practitioners’ quality of reflection in and on their action (Schön, 1992).  Schön’s starting point is that professional practice is characterised by indeterminate situations that must be transformed into determinate ones (Cushman,2014).

Schön (1983) addresses a conflict between two approaches to professional knowledge and the epistemology of practice:

  • Systematic and methodical application and adaptation of pre-existing means to well-defined ends under the realm of “technical rationality”.
  • Artistic intuitive thinking and doing “on one’s feet” through reflective practice under the assumption that, in real-world situations of practice, means and ends are by and large “fuzzy”, and evolve iteratively and determine one another over time according to one’s reflective “conversation” with the situations.

This latter is of course somewhat intolerable when coming from a so-called scientific, experimental and rational epistemology and creates what amounts to what I can only describe as an overwhelming professional headache! A widening gap between theory and practice! Schön recognised that during these challenges the established concepts of individual, professional, organisation and society decay or explode, and one is faced with more information that can be handled (Schön, 1983).

The crux of Schön’s work is really the challenging of the notion that professional knowledge or “technical rationality”, explored in the following section, is the only knowledge that professionals can draw upon to solve problems within professional practice (Mickleborough, 2015).  He argues for a new epistemology of professional practice, with its point of departure in the competence and artistry already embedded in the indeterminate zones of skilful practice. Schön focusses our attention on undervalued aspects of every professional practice, the practical knowledge, the artistry, the reflection essential for dealing with problems that do not yield to technical instrumental solutions (Harris, 1989).

Technical Rationality:

I’ve already mentioned that Schön’s work is dedicated to outlining an epistemology of practice that considers the real-world confronting professionals in everyday work situations. In my case, the crisis of changing roles. The new epistemology is seen against the backdrop of the existing dominant model of professional knowledge and what he termed “technical rationality”. The new position attempts to accommodate the uncertain, unique, unstable, and conflicting aspects of professional practice (Comer, 2015). These terms are very familiar when compared to my experience, the subject of my portfolio. The model of technical rationality consists of the application of scientific knowledge and techniques to practice problems taking no account of the exigencies pertaining therein (Comer, 2015). Put another way, technical rationality emphasises the ‘technical’, whereby knowledge and skills are applied to routinisable and pre-specifiable procedures and strategies, as well as the ‘rational’ whereby scientific theory and external research are utilised to solve problems (Koh & Tan, 2016).

Through experience and over time, I’ve become very able to define what I do. I understand the nuances of my professional practice and am able to hold the knowledge in mind when solving problems. If there is any doubt, the British Psychological Society (2008) outlines very specific roles for clinical psychologists and goes so far as to produce job descriptions for those working at certain grades. This is coupled with a variety of treatment modalities directing interventions according to researched guidelines. There are care pathways, models of care, models of supervision, audit and evaluation processes, policies and procedures and established professional standards embedded in the field of clinical psychology all with the intent to provide a systematic and specialist service by the profession. Clinical psychologists are required and expected to use the best available scientific evidence within their clinical work, which is often generated through research findings and reflected in evidence-based treatments and best practice guidelines (Fisher, Chew & Leow, 2015). Of course, none of these provisions allow for nuanced and unique changes and in particular with regards to personal and professional decisions taken outside of the norm. This creates some sort of muddle. Schön (1983) argues, the subsequent confusion arises due to an inadequate examination of the alternatives when dealing with said uncertainty and indicates that the “crisis of confidence” indeed arises from “technical rationality” being the dominant model of professional knowledge and practice (Attar et al., 2016). In other words, as evidence, method, technique and science are paramount in clinical psychology, there is often a reluctance to engage in improvisation or “artistry”. I had a plethora of knowledge and skills at my disposal, but relying on this in an unexpected, new situation was in actuality somewhat stifling. I was no longer in the position to rely on an ordered or technocratic approach to solving my dilemma.

On balance, its likely fair to add that I’m acutely aware that, before I gained experience, it was often a safe place to position myself; within the rules and facts. Schön’s arguments suggest, however, that it is necessary to become a more open learning system, capable of adapting and transforming in order to solve problems. Of course, the loss of the myth of the stable state is a frightening prospect and to be suddenly confronted with this ambiguity and anxiety is somewhat beyond tolerable bounds. Referring to professional practice, (Schön, 1983, 60) states:

“As a practitioner experiences many variations of a small number of types of cases, he is able to “practice” his practice. He develops a repertoire of expectations, images, and techniques. He learns what to look out for and how to respond to what he finds. As long as his practice is stable, in the sense that it brings him the same types of cases, he becomes less and less subject to surprise. His knowing-in-practice tends to become increasingly tacit, spontaneous, and automatic, thereby conferring upon him and his clients the benefits of specialisation”


Having referred to reflection several times already, at this juncture perhaps it makes sense to elaborate on the term and generate an understanding of what is meant bit in the context of the portfolio. Critical reflection is inextricably linked to professional development and continual self-conscious critique is crucial to continued competence (Williams, 2001). Reflection is seen as a conscious and explicit reassessment of the consequence and origin of meaning structures (Taylor, 2001). Brown and Brown (2015) posit that the transformation and interpretation of paradigms occurs through critical reflection. They add that learning, including elaborating on, and establishing or transforming current points of view is helped by this process. In Mezirow’s transformative learning theory, similar emphasises is placed on the importance of critical reflection during the learning process (Kitchenham, 2008). Brookfield (1991) proposes three phases of critical reflection including identifying assumptions that underlie some actions, scrutinising the accuracy and validity of these assumptions and reconstituting these assumptions to make them more inclusive and integrative. Fenwick (2004) adds that reflective practice recognises and celebrates knowledge generated outside institutions, challenges knowledge and values personal experience. Gibbs (1988) highlighted the importance of critical reflection, stating that it cannot be overlooked and is fundamental to learning and pivotal in successful analysis of self.

Reflective practice continues to be debated and discussed in the profession of clinical psychology. The concept is increasingly valued and the British psychological Society (2008) suggests that clinical psychologists should be cognisant of the importance of self-awareness and the need to appraise and reflect on their own practice. In fact, in a survey by Fisher et al. (2015), it was reported that reflective practice is highly valued by psychologists and extremely useful in bettering the understanding of self, working more closely with clients, managing challenging clinical situations, improving awareness of professional roles and in maintaining standards.

Although several other writers have elaborated on various aspects of reflective practice, Schön’s work is considered central to theorising about this activity. In his view, reflection, when it takes place as one is engaged in an experience, reshapes what one is doing whilst one is doing it. Schön distinguished between the discussed “technical rationality” and “reflection-in-action”.

"Reflection in action’ is tacit and intuitive" Schön (1987)

Schön (1987) highlights the need for reflection-in-action to be able to deal with situations that are new, nuanced and unfamiliar. In effect, those situations that go against the normal experience and are unexpected. Schön believes that reflection-in-action is a crucial component in what he terms the artistry of competent practitioners (Schön 1992). Reflection-in-action is reflecting on practice whilst in the midst of it (Schön, 1983). It is therefore bound by the action in the moment. From what he suggests, this is the sort of experience allows one to solve problems based on professional judgements and relies on more experiential and supple knowledge. Schön considers that someone who is engaged in reflection-in-action becomes a researcher in the practice context and therefore breaks free of the dichotomies of technical rationality and can be both rigorous and relevant (Newman, 2006). I think Schön would go as far as stating that this sort of reflection is essential for professionals to go beyond intellectual and technical knowledge. It is where practitioners surface and criticise tacit understandings and can make new sense of problem situations (Schön 1983). Schön argues that there is a kind of knowing inherent in the actions of skilled practitioners that, if articulated, may provide this new epistemology, thereby legitimising the knowledge embedded in practice. His concept of “reflection-in-practice” was based on the analyses of a range of practice professions including psychotherapy and architecture, and, based it on close observation and analysis of what practitioners of these professions do in their everyday practice (Comer, 2015). Rolfe (2014) similarly highlights the concepts put forward by Schön as paramount during on-the-spot experimenting when addressing complex problems. In being confronted with a less than clear plan during my first days in post, I had to draw on previous knowledge but also rely somewhat on instinct in approaching service users and colleagues alike. The uncertainty that befell me, and being in a position of leadership certainly required some improvisation and innovation, not to mention tolerating anxiety.

To go further, Schön also distinguishing between knowing-in-action as the tacit, intuitive and spontaneous knowing that allows for skilful performance. It is tacit in the sense that it is revealed by action but cannot be described. It is the ordinary practical knowledge and the simplest component of reflective practice (Newman, 1999). Schön describes knowing that is manifested in doing and that is built into and revealed by performance of everyday routines of action where the situation of action is not problematic and the smooth flow of the action is not interrupted by surprise (Schön, 1992). The practitioner’s attention is drawn to the knowing when situations present as uncertain, unique, unstable or involving a conflict of values and it is then, where there is an element of surprise, that reflection-in-action is prompted (Comer, 2015). So, it seems what Schön is suggesting is that when practice is stable a practitioner can acquire the knowing-in-action that is the basis of this skilled performance however when things are unstable, expectations do not occur. It is clear, If I relate this back to my experience, having knowledge did not necessarily guarantee stability in fact, quite the opposite. Schön (1983) warns that as practice becomes repetitive and routine and knowledge becomes increasingly tacit and spontaneous the practitioner may start to miss important opportunities to think about practice. He even goes as far as to suggest that a practitioner can become selectively attentive to phenomena that don’t fit the knowing-in-action or try and force the situation to a situation that matches available techniques and so there is this danger that situations can be misread or manipulated towards one’s own interests and in so doing this helps maintain confidence, pride and sense of expertise.

I came from a position of knowing-in-action, likely carrying on with my practice in a comfortable, stable and familiar way. When the setting changed and things became unfamiliar, my knowledge didn’t seem to match, creating a perturbed state. In this moment, however, it is my view that I unwittingly engaged in the aforementioned reflection-in-action process. It was intuitive and improvised rather than deliberate and conscious. Being confronted with the prospect of not relying on, or indeed being bound by, the technical rationality surrounding the profession of clinical psychology, often lauded as the gold standard, tapped into a sort of on-the-spot experimentation. Indeed, it became a moment where the art of improvisation and implementation of skills came together. Of course, it stemmed from and was generated from, “knowing”. It was almost as though there were, metaphorically speaking, satellites of artistic skill hovering around, within and from the already established technical rationality. It was an opportunity to “practice within my practice” and celebrate tacit knowledge, skill and improvisation in dealing with new challenges.

Synthesis of the event/Problem framing/artistry

Given the aforementioned information and my experience, perhaps it is a good opportunity to attempt to amalgamate things.  Schön argued that the only way to learn and cope with the complex, rapidly changing world is to take an existential stance in the form of reciprocal, reflective conversation with the situation (Cromer, 2015). The “conversation” is a metaphor for the transaction with the matters and materials at hand, where there is feedback that evokes uncertainty. As mentioned, the shock and surprise, or as Mezirow would call it, disorientating dilemma, forced me to think-in-the-moment in the midst of my actions in order to frame and reframe the problematic situation.

For Schön, the practice of problem setting or interactively naming, framing and constructing temporarily stable ends from unstable situations, is the artistry of professionals (Cushman, 2014). I came from the “place of knowing”, was confronted with a new and novel situation where this knowledge was insufficient to allow for flexible thinking an problem solving, used experience and drew upon tacit knowledge, internal resources, skill and improvisation in order to provide leadership and intervention in a new and unfamiliar setting. Being able to draw upon my own professional expertise, coupled with on-the-spot reflection-in-the action, allowed for the situation that included my worries and concerns about being a lead psychologist in an unfamiliar service area, to be transformed in a way that resolved the uncertainty, at least for that moment. I had obvious skills, those that were transferable, as well as academic and theoretical. I had information gathered from the evidence and research. But, as discussed, expertise goes beyond this scientific knowledge or “technical rationality”. My intuition told me to “get stuck in”, use the skills I have and improvise. My decision making was influenced by, but not limited by the knowledge I held and this played a crucial role in the way I moved forward. My gut feeling led me to engage with the young people on the ward, hold conversations with them, but adapt my style and approach to match this new level of development. Similarly, Where the service had been running without a lead for some time, I needed to bring together thoughts relating to running the service effectively. I had to look beyond what would normally do within the team as it was so different in many ways. Drawing on previous practice, and my awareness of the importance of role proximity to others within the team, I was able to quickly forge alliances and garner support. With the knowledge that models of intervention are invariably based on community setting services, I had to adapt not only the models I was already familiar with but present them in adolescent-appropriate ways, jostling with my own feelings of insecurity all the while.

Looking back, I wonder whether the pool of information came from but I’m reminded of when I first started to work within inpatient settings and the difficulties I encountered then. I recall similar thoughts and worries when I noted for the first time that traditional models of psychology interventions were not necessarily compatible within these sorts of environments. I have previously been forced to forge a way forward and carve out a role for psychology where there hadn’t been one. There was paucity in evidence base for the specific care pathway, and so I was obliged to design interventions drawn from best evidence, but also based on interpretation, intuition and reframing. It’s worth adding that this is now my working definition of “evidence base” i.e., a definition more in line with that of Sackett et al. (2000) who define evidence base as the judicious and explicit use of current best evidence in making decisions, plus the integration of best research evidence and includes clinical expertise.

Furthermore, it may seem that, on the face of it, evidence based practice functions in opposition to concepts such as intuition, improvisation and instinct. However, in my view these two concepts can exist in a mutually beneficial relationship where one struggles to survive without the other. Practical and evidence-based knowledge can only really be applied in expert ways through experience and an individual’s expertise. Indeed, within the field of psychology, technical rationality rains supreme and during professional training one is not encouraged to recognise intuition as a reliable source when solve problems. I think the field of psychology has inherited a problem of the modern age where credence is given to those professions most closely aligned with the scientific method. It may be the case that professions are most likely to receive status and prestige should they be measurable in technocratic ways. I’m drawn to Schön’s premises of a core of artistry, having artistry as an exercise of intelligence and that science and research are bound by artistry (Schön, 1987). What Schön has done is help us reconsider the relationship between rigour and relevance and in so doing not to side-line the artistry of practice and favour technical rationality.

At the start of this journey, I may not have been fully able to describe or understand my feelings associated with uncertainty, but there was something about acknowledging the feeling and recognising that something felt wrong and needed action. My actions, seemingly instinctual, embodied my technical knowledge, however. I had to reassess the situation, confront my fears and engage in my practice. Schön (1983) would likely describe this phenomenon as performing skilled actions and not being able to put the rationale into words and describe it as knowing-in-action. This is where I employed skill, made judgments and used the evidence base, but was not be able to describe the criteria, rules or procedures for making these decisions. In effect, I relied on ‘‘tacit recognition, judgments, and skilled performances’’ to solve the problems (Mickleborough, 2015). I believe that this process of on-the-spot reflection and experimentation through which the theories I was using were being developed and modified were what was described as reflection-in-action as described in the previous section. I recognise that the instability, uniqueness and ambiguity accompanied by the anxiety really was the source of an opportunity for reflection. I’m not entirely convinced, however, that this was a conscious process but it has highlighted how the theory and technical rationality are indeed conditional, tentative and subject to change. I think through this process, my need for certainty has been reduced and I feel freer to embark on improvised and innovative applications of knowledge which in a way feels as though it has improved my grasp of the theory rather than become a barrier to implementing it. This change is somewhat similar to thoughts from Brown and Brown (2015), when they suggest that critical reflection allows for the deconstruction of prior assumptions and pull apart previous beliefs, values and attitudes. The result being that I am more confident in experimentation and less worried by new environments with regards to professional practice.

Critique of Schön’s model

The work of Schön has become influential in many professions. In fact, Schön is one of the most widely cited authors in the field of reflective practice. Over the course of the last 30 years professions have witnessed unprecedented popularity in “reflective practice”. It seems prudent, therefore, to step back and consider whether there is any room for critique. Perhaps the allure and popularity of his work has grown out of a shift from positivism and view that means and ends, research and practice and knowing and doing are dichotomies that should not be separated (Newman, 1999). It seems one is susceptible to succumbing to the appeal that Schön’s epistemology allows some “less scientific” professions to regain esteem and status in a way.

A concern could be the way in which Schön introduces the assumed dichotomy between reflection and technical knowledge and his strong support of reflection-in-action in professional practice. This may in a way convey an inappropriate view of the nature of knowledge needed for professional practice. Harris (1989) worries that practitioners may be convinced that reflection-in-action may be seen as essential in professional practice, but questions this as her view is that reflection is informed by experience, examples, observations, experiments and puzzles and that the body of evidence and that knowledge includes method that informs and guides reflection about it. In other words, to inform reflection-in-action in professional practice, one must have the body of knowledge already addressing this practice. Harris further suggests that the dichotomy introduced between tacit and codified knowledge again conveys an inappropriate view of the knowledge useful in professional practice.

A further critique from Kinsella (2007) includes a lack of conceptual clarity surrounding the term “reflective practice”. From my experience too, in working with staff from a variety of professions, I have found that the understanding and conceptualisation of reflective practice is widely diverse. The notion of reflective practice is challenging and may refer to a complex array of cognitively and philosophically distinct methods and attitudes (VanManen, 1995). Rolfe (2014) found that there often a misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misapplication amongst professionals of reflective practice. Reflective practice in reality seems to have become a catch all term for an ill-defined process. In other words, that concept of reflective practice remains elusive in a way and is open to multiple interpretations and is applied in a myriad of ways (Kinsella, 2007).

Kinsella also highlights the focus on the individual in Schön’s theory and the exclusion of the “other” (Kinsella, 2007). In the view of Sandywell (1999) an emphasis on individual reflection fails to consider the accounts of others within the community within which the reflection occurs. This of course runs the assumption that what the practitioner’s account is a true representation of what has happened at the cost of other perspectives. I wonder about this in the context of the portfolio as it brings to light my contribution to the unsteady state, and how this is influenced by my perspectives and knowledge and how this process was a rather “inner-contemplative” one.

Taylor and White (2000) highlight that Schön’s theory fails to acknowledge the problematic nature of language and discourse within practice environments. Again, this related to the practitioner’s views as being “true” with little consideration of language use or the manner in which what has been talked about has been constructed. The question of whether accounts can be taken as non-problematic reflections of reality is never posed and in so doing reflective practice assumes a so-called realistic view of language and suppresses certain accounts, infusing them with others (Kinsella, 2007).

Given that the term “reflection” is so widely used and so often associated with Schön’s work, the baggage which comes with the term “reflective practice” may now be proving more of a hindrance that a help. Perhaps it is time to think about how to give recognition to the view that philosophy need not be an academic discipline dissociated from the realities of everyday social practices and engaged in by specialists operating outside them (Newman, 2006). Similarly, it may be useful to think of a practice that suggests an approach in which practitioners can adopt in different social contexts in which they find themselves.


“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution . . . (Schön 1987, p. 3).

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This portfolio has had as its focus the complex time I had adjusting when confronted with the uncertainty of changing roles within my own professional practice. In effect, I was practicing in Schön’s ‘‘swamplands’’, and because I have been taught and have practiced in a way that focusses on technical knowledge, I have previously lacked the ability to solve complex experiences. Kinsella (2007) refers to this situation as a ‘‘theory/practice’’ gap, where I had the theories and research at my disposal, but was missing the “know-how” in order to utilise this knowledge to solve the real-world situation.

There is some criticism of Schön’s theory although, on balance, I have to agree when he points to the exclusion of phenomena that are central to real-world practice. It is unfortunate that he is unable to take his argument far enough in explaining what these phenomena are however.

I have discovered that a new epistemology of practice, based on Schön’s theories of reflection-in-action, has and will continue to help me navigate uncertainty. My new position questions whether I, or indeed clinical psychology as a profession should be able to incorporate “gut feelings” in professional decisions. I’ve asked different questions such as how one can rely on more intuitive processes to solve challenging problems, how one can utilise intuition along with technical knowledge, and how one can foster intuition in further professional development. Schön provided the answer over 30 years ago, and through reflection I am able to incorporate both my technical expertise and intuitive knowledge to become a more skilful practitioner. I think the field of clinical psychology has jealously guarded espoused theories, theories-in-use and behavioural worlds, but adopting such a new and tentative yet creative stance may just plant the seed that these fixed held structures can be challenged. The status quo may not be the “gold standard” after all. If anything, Schön’s work on the reflective practitioner has demonstrated that change, instability and divergent skills are at the heart of professional practice.


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