Donald Alan Schön, skilled first as a philosopher, is most known for his work with the development of reflective practice and learning systems within communities. His innovative ideas of a learning society and reflection-in-action have become important, well-known terms in education. Schön’s work is grounded in John Dewey’s theory of inquiry. Starting with Dewey’s concept of thinking in problematic situations, he moved beyond this by clarifying the process of practical inquiry. His life’s work was devoted to encouraging individuals to be constantly effective in practice.
Schön was born in Boston and raised in Brookline and Worcester. He graduated from Brookline High School in 1947 and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1951. He studied philosophy at Yale and at the Sorbonne. He received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and continued his education at Harvard, where he earned his master’s and doctorate in philosophy. The focus of his doctoral dissertation was John Dewey’s theory of inquiry.
Schön taught philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, briefly before serving two years in the U.S. Army. He also lectured periodically during this time as an assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Kansas City. In 1963, he joined the Department of Commerce in the Kennedy administration and directed a new Institute for Applied Technology in the Bureau of Standards. In 1966, he left government service and returned to Cambridge, where he cofounded and directed the Organization for Social and Technological Innovation (OSTI), a nonprofit social research and development firm.
Schön believed that change was a fundamental feature in life and that change was necessary in order to develop social systems that could learn and adapt. He argued for the need to learn, understand, guide, influence, and manage these transformations. Schön wanted people to become adept at learning, a theme he wrote about in Beyond the Stable State.
In 1972, Schön was appointed Ford Professor of Urban Planning and Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a position he maintained until his retirement in 1992.
He was committed to developing alternatives in which actual practices acquired from experience (rather than science) constituted the core of professional knowledge. It was this thinking, conceptualized in his 1983 book The Reflective Practitioner, that created a new model for higher education. In 1987, Schön published Educating the Reflective Practitioner in which he created a model for reflection-in-action and examined implications for improving professional education.
From 1990–1992, Schön served as the Chair of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He died from leukemia at age 66. At the time of his death, he was Ford Professor Emeritus and senior lecturer in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.
- Schön, D. (1967). Technology and change: The new Heraclitus. New York: Delacorte.
- Schön, D. (1971). Beyond the stable state: Public and private learning in a changing society. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
- Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
- Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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