Donald Schön

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Donald A. Schön
Donald schon pic.jpg
Born(1930-09-19)September 19, 1930
DiedSeptember 13, 1997(1997-09-13) (aged 66)
Boston, Massachusetts
EducationYale University (B.A.)
The Sorbonne
Harvard University (Ph.D.)
OccupationLearning theorist, philosopher
EmployerArthur D. Little, Inc.
Spouse(s)Nancy Quint
ChildrenEllen, Andrew, Elizabeth, Susan

Donald Alan Schön (September 19, 1930 – September 13, 1997) was a philosopher and professor in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who developed the concept of reflective practice and contributed to the theory of organizational learning.

Education and career[edit]

He was born in Boston and brought up in Massachusetts, at Brookline and Worcester.[1] After doing a Bachelor's at Yale University, he completed Master's and doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard University. His thesis dealt with Dewey's theory of inquiry.[2] He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and pursued advanced study in music (Piano and clarinet).[1][3]

For many years Schön was with the large consulting firm, Arthur D. Little along with Raymond Hainer with whom he worked on his ideas which resulted in his first seminal work, The Displacement of Concepts. In fact this original work was a new interpretation on the history of the ideas of all time—a complement to Thomas Kuhn's work or even a more accurate look at the dynamics of invention. His later works there presaged a lifetime of interest in the subtle processes whereby technological and other change is absorbed (or not) by social systems. In 1970, he delivered the Reith Lectures for the BBC, on how learning occurs within organizations and societies that are in permanent states of flux. These presentations were published subsequently in his Beyond the Stable State.[1]

Donald Schön became a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 and stayed on with an appointment in 1972 as Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education.[3] He remained there until his death in 1997. During these decades his long collaboration with adult education/organizational behavior expert Chris Argyris yielded key insights into the question of how organizations develop, adapt, learn or fail in these critical missions. Their collaboration led to two books in the 1970s— Theory in Practice and Organizational Learning—the latter of which was completely revised and published in 1996 as Organizational Learning II.


Donald Schön introduced several important organizing concepts to a wide range of applied fields:

  • the idea of a "generative metaphor", figurative descriptions of social situations, usually implicit and even semi-conscious but that shape the way problems are tackled, for example seeing a troubled inner city neighborhood as urban "blight" and, hence, taking steps rooted in the idea of disease.[citation needed]
  • "learning systems" - Schön was a pioneer of studies aimed at exploring the possibility of learning at the supra-individual level[citation needed]
  • reflective practice inquiry - Schön's seminal 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner, challenged practitioners to reconsider the role of technical knowledge versus "artistry" in developing professional excellence. The concept most notably affected study of teacher education, health and social care professions and architectural design.[citation needed]
  • Frame reflection - the title of a 1994 book co-authored with MIT colleague Martin Rein, prescribed critical shared reconstruction of "frames" of social problems which are otherwise taken for granted and advocated system-level learning to find solutions for "intractable policy controversies."[citation needed]

Much of his later work related to reflection in practice and the concept of learning systems. He (along with Chris Argyris) maintained that organizations and individuals should be flexible and should incorporate lessons learned throughout their lifespans, known as organizational learning. His interest and involvement in jazz music inspired him to teach the concept of improvisation and 'thinking on one's feet', and that through a feedback loop of experience, learning and practice, we can continually improve our work (whether educational or not) and become a 'reflective practitioner'. Thus, the work of Schön fits with and extends to the realm of many fields of practice, key twentieth century theories of education, like experiential education and the work of many of its most important theorists, namely John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Carl Rogers and David A. Kolb.

Schön believed that people and organizations should be flexible and incorporate their life experiences and lessons learned throughout their life. This is also known as Organizational learning (Fulmer, 1994).[4] Organizational learning is based on two things. The first being single–loop learning and the second being double–loop learning. The former refers to the process that occurs when organizations adjust their operations to keep apace with changing market conditions. And then the latter refers to not just adjusting to the market, but also to the creation of new and better ways of achieving business goals (Fulmer, 1994).[4]

Personal life[edit]

Donald Schön was married to sculptor Nancy Schön[5] who is particularly well known for her installation in the Boston Public Garden of the bronze duck family from McCloskey's children's classic "Make Way for Ducklings". Nancy Schön completed a sequence of works titled "The Reflective Giraffe" in tribute to her late husband with a giraffe as the central icon.

Major works[edit]

  • The Displacement of Concepts. London: Tavistock, 1963.
  • Technology and change: The new Heraclitus. Oxford: Pergamon, 1967.
  • Beyond the Stable State. Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New York: Norton, 1973
  • (with C. Argyris) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974.
  • (with C. Argyris) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978.
  • The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith, 1983.
  • Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.
  • (ed.) The Reflective Turn: Case studies in and on educational practice. New York: Teachers College (Columbia), 1991
  • (with M. Rein) Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books, 1994
  • (with C. Argyris) Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1996.

A bibliography was compiled in March 2015.[6]


  1. ^ a b c Donald Schon at accessed July 2007
  2. ^ Fischler, Raphaël (2012). "Reflective Practice". In Sanyal, Bishwapriya; Vale, Lawrence; Rosan, Christina D. (eds.). Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262017602.
  3. ^ a b "Prof. Donald Schon of DUSP dies at 66". MIT News. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 17 September 1997. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  4. ^ a b Fulmer, Robert M. "A model for changing the way organizations learn." Planning Review [a publication of the Planning Forum] May–June 1994:20+. General OneFile. Web.
  5. ^ Nancy Schön
  6. ^ Newman, Stephen; van der Waarde, Karel. "Schön bibliography". Retrieved 21 March 2015.

External links[edit]