Reflective Inquiry in Social Work Practice

Presenter: Donald A. Schon, Ford professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Dr. Schon reviewed ideas set forth in his book The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals Think in Action and explored their current application to social work, Dr. Schon said that "It is time to reconsider the question of professional knowledge" a nd encouraged participants to reflect on situations in which "we cannot say what we know." He noted that skillful practitioners continually engage in a process of reflection-in-action which may be difficult to describe. Dr. Schon reported findings from a three-day seminar in Jerusalem in which participants examined cases from eight projects in services to children, youth and families at risk. Most salient in the practitioners' case discussions was the manifest capability for reflective inquiry in the prac tice situation -- the ability to rethink on-line the nature of problematic situations, reframe problems, read client messages and see problems as opportunities for investigating new intervention approaches and techniques.

Dr. Schon proposed a partnership between social work practitioners and researchers based on the following principles: 1) experienced social work practitioners know a great deal -- as revealed by their patterns of practice -- that they often are unable to put into words; 2) through reflection-in-action, they function not only as users but as generators of knowledge; in situation-specific ways they confront models and maps of situations and reframe problems and roles. The challenge to academic researcher s is to help practitioners generate good descriptions of what they know and of the understanding they gain in their practice. Researchers' task are to 1) help practicing social workers consider their knowing-and-reflecting -in-action; 2) put practice gene rated understanding into explicit, verbal form; 3) give explicit form to the intermediary steps through which practitioners make the transition from general principles to concrete decisions and actions; 4) help make practice knowledge cumulative by identi fying patterns of understanding, problem settings and strategies of action generated in multiple practice situations; and 5) critically analyze these patterns suggesting alternatives and proposing experiments to test them. Such a partnership promises a vi tal, substantive and ultimately more useful career for research. For practitioners, it fosters appreciation of their role and more fully develops the capacity for lively, rigorous reflection on practice.