Fabrizio Chello
Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples

The concept of reflectivity began to circulate in the pedagogical literature during the 1980s thanks to Donald Alan Schönin’s studies (1983/1993) on professional epistemologies. Its popularity was due to the specific qualities of the concept but also to the cultural setting in which it was developed, in that it was characterized by a powerful drive to rethink the relationship between knowledge and action and overcome the oppositions that had ensnared the Western tradition. The concept of reflectivity has thus also been reused by other epistemological and theoretical approaches. Some of these approaches were very different from Schönin’s, a fact which helped generate certain ambiguities and areas of confusion. This is why I outline the concept here exclusively in reference to the work of Schön and John Dewey, to whom he referred.
Schön developed the concept of ‘reflectivity’ because he believed that the crisis in the professional world, the focus of his analysis, could be traced back to the pervasive domain of Technical Rationality. Specifically, the rationality according to which professionals, as properly trained experts, apply scientific knowledge constructed through standardized research protocols to a specific problematic case in order to identify a possible solution. This idea outlines a hierarchical, deterministic and unidirectional dynamic between theory and practice, and as such it fails to take into account the changing, uncertain and ambiguous nature of the issues that professional face on a daily basis.
In order to highlight this changeable nature, Schön departed from the neo-positivist view of scientific knowledge by drawing on early 20th century American pragmatism and particularly John Dewey’s (1938/1974) volume Logic: The theory of inquiry. In this work, Dewey interprets scientific research as a reflective type of logical process through which a situation initially perceived as uncertain, ambiguous and problematic becomes clear, well-defined and manageable. Therefore, Schön (1983/1993) was able to think of professional activity as the result of a research process based on Reflective Rationality, i.e. a form of non-applicative and non-standardized rationality allowing professionals to:

  • analyze the uncertain and indeterminate situations in which they find themselves;
  • transform these situations into problems to be addressed;
  • identify the aims of their interventions;
  • design the actions and tools comprising these interventions.

According to this vision, professionals carry out an ‘artistic’ or ‘artisanal’ type of cognitive work in a tacit and implicit way during their professional activity (reflection-in-action) and/or in a more explicit and conscious way after their activity is completed (reflection-on-action).
As Mezirow’s work shows (1991/2003), Schön’s epistemological idea made it possible to uncover the potentially transformative role of reflectivity as a competence that allows professionals to look back on their activity in order to question and potentially change their perspectives.
However, this idea has also been widely criticized (see Erlandson, 2007), especially in relation to three main areas:

  1. the concept of reflection-in-action involves a time span too limited for the actor to reflect on problematic aspects; such reflection can only occur in reflection-on-action;
  2. reflectivity, although shared and dialogic, is conceived as an individual competence and, therefore, the absence of a true intersubjective perspective may lead professionals to interpret the product of their reflection in a normative way;
  3. the dominant role of language in the analysis of problematic situations leads to misunderstanding factual reality

Although these criticisms stem from different theoretical perspectives and purposes, they converge in identifying some weaknesses inherent in the constructivist interpretation of Dewey’s pragmatism that seems to have inspired Schön’s formulation of reflectivity (1983/1993). In response to these points, ‘reflectivity’ was re-read more recently in light of Dewey’s perspective (Dewey & Bentley, 1949/1974) as the function emerging from the transaction between organism and environment and, therefore, a feature that belongs not to individual professionals but to the system in which they operate.
A number of research actions in the RE-SERVES project are designed on the basis of this reinterpretation, with the aim of allowing formal and non-formal educational services to enhance their reflectivity through practices of transactional comparison so as to transform themselves into educational communities of care.

Selected references

Dewey, J. (1974). Logica, teoria dell’indagine. Einaudi. (Originariamente pubblicato nel 1938)

Dewey, J., & Bentley, A.F. (1974). Conoscenza e transazione. La Nuova Italia. (Originariamente pubblicato nel 1949)

Erlandson, P. (2007), Docile Bodies and Imaginary Minds. On Schön’s Reflection-in-Action. Göteborgs Universitet.

Mezirow J. (2003). Apprendimento e trasformazione. Il significato dell’esperienza e il valore della riflessione nell’apprendimento degli adulti. Raffaello Cortina. (Originariamente pubblicato nel 1991)

Schön, D.A. (1993). Il professionista riflessivo. Per una nuova epistemologia della pratica professionale. Dedalo. (Originariamente pubblicato nel 1983)

How to cite this text:

Chello, F. (2020). Reflectivity. In M. Milana & P. Perillo (Cur.) RE-SERVES project: Glossary.