It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Reflection in action/Reflection on action

Donald A. Schön – 1983


Schön’s work revolves around the learning process in ‘the professions’ and is a reaction to the Model of Technical Rationality, which is the reverse of the ‘Reflection in Action’ approach he proposes. It’s a model that doesn’t start from academic knowledge, but from day to day ‘tacit’ knowing in action (Schön, 1983, p.49).

Rolfe on Technical rationality versus reflective practice models reflection.

Compare it to the efficiency of learning to swim from a book and learning to swim by doing.

He further states that “when someone reflects-in-action, he [sic] becomes a researcher in the practice context”, which suggests the practitioner as researcher and theorist of their own practice. “[H]e [sic] does not separate thinking from doing” (Schön, 1983, p.68). My interpretation is that the practitioner is at the same time not the ‘expert’ (in the traditional learning environment) who entirely relies on theoretical and technical knowledge but can be a ‘flawed’ individual learning from practice on a day to day basis. In my view, this is strongly related to the practitioner not as teacher but facilitator, supporting the client; not unlike a counsellor. The practitioner recognises the “obligation to make his [sic] understandings accessible” to the client and often has to reflect anew on what s/he knows (Schön, 1983, p.295) ‘in action’.

The traditional learning environment versus a facilitative learning environment.

But, let’s return to reflective theory… this doesn’t mean that career theory (in reflective practice) needs to be completely abandoned, however. However, when we rely too much, or completely on career theory and related, we may avoid situation where this is difficult to apply, or we could interpret situations with clients in a way that is too rigid and doesn’t recognise the day to day realities of the client’s situation. Theories are after all abstractions of reality; the don’t represent reality fully. Artistry is required by the practitioner in order to do the “on the sport surfacing [?], criticizing, restructuring, and testing of intuitive understanding of experienced phenomena [sic]” (Schön, 1983, p.241). Schön describes artistry as ‘intuitive knowing’ like the ‘intuitive theories-in-action’ of an expert [ ] (1983, p.276) (in this case expert doesn’t mean ‘expert’ as teacher, but expert in the artistry of their work). This could be represented as follows:

Expert  Reflective Practitioner
I must presume to know and must claim to do so, regardless of my own uncertainty I am presumed to know, but I am not the only one in the situation to have relevant and important knowledge. My uncertainties may be a source of learning for me and for [the client].
Keep my distance from the client, and hold onto the expert’s role. Give the client a sense of my expertise, but convey a feeling of warmth and sympathy as a ‘sweetener’. Seek out connections to the client’s thoughts and feelings. Allow [their] respect for my knowledge to emerge from [their] discovery of it in the situation.
Look for deference and status in the client’s response to my professional persona. Look for the sense of freedom and of real connection to the client, as a consequence of no longer needing to maintain a professional façade.

Adapted from Schön, 1983, p.300

Recognise something?…

The keen observer will have noticed that nothing about this, especially the grid above, is new. Reflection in action is, or should be, embedded in our day to day practice in different ways. There are strong links with Roger’s client based theory as well as the models we use now, such as Egan and even the Grow model. Reflection ON action, however, is different in the sense that this happens away from the client, but with both the client and our practice in mind. Let’s have a look to see how this looks…


What does Schön’s model look like?Schön career theory of reflection - reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.


Schön himself recognises that reflection (in action) interferes/can interfere with the action. He recognises that while we are in ‘the thick of the action’ there may not be time to reflect, and if we do, the action may stop or it may affect what is going on in the intervention. (1983, p.277). Another important point he makes is that “the stance appropriate to reflection is incompatible with the stance appropriate to action” (1983, p.278), which means that if we need to reflect, we are usually in a different state of mind that the one we have when we are in the middle of the action. I would argue that, as a career professional, reflection in action works slightly differently to the reflection in action we would do when, for instance, we are driving a car. Reflecting on action every time we take an action in a car can be very dangerous as it delays the time between when we have to take action and when we actually take it. Intuition is life saving in this case.

Within the field of career guidance, we reflect more on what the client presents us with and how we respond. This is where we can, and to beneficial often have to, take a brief pause to reflect on what is going on around us, in order to respond appropriately and with focus to benefit the client (and the quality of the intervention). Intuition comes with practice and through reflection. Schön captures this brilliantly when he says that “a good coach learns to capture the complexity of action in metaphor” (1983, p.279)


There are a lot of resources to be found about Schön’s theory on the web, so I will keep it to the reference I have used on this page.

  • Schön, D.A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in action. London: Temple Smith.