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He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. 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. He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and pursued advanced study in music.
For many years Schön was with the large consulting firm, Arthur D. Little. His work there presaged a lifetime of interest in the subtle processes whereby technological and other change is absorbed (or not) by social systems. In 1971, 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 classic Beyond the Stable State.
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. He remained there until his death in 1997. During these decades his long collaboration with adult education/organizational behavior expert, Chris Argyris proceeded yielding 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 implict 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.
- "learning systems" - Schön was a pioneer of studies aimed at exploring the possibility of learning at the supra-individual level
- 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 professions and architectural design.
- Frame reflection - the title of a 1994 book co-authored with MIT colleague Martin Rein, perscribed 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."
Much of his later and more influential 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 Kolb.
Donald Schön was married to internationally renowned sculptor Nancy Schön who is particularly well known for her installation in the Boston Public Garden of the bronze duck family from McLoskey'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 by Donald Schön (chronologically):
- Schön, D. A. (1963) The Displacement of Concepts. London: Tavistock
- Schön, D. A. (1967) Technology and change: The new Heraclitus. Oxford: Pergamon.
- Schön, D. A. (1973) Beyond the Stable State. Hammondsworth: Penguin/ New York: Norton
- Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Argyris, C. and Schön, D. A. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley
- Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith
- Schön, D. A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
- Schön, D. A. (ed.) (1991) The Reflective Turn: Case studies in and on educational practice. New York: Teachers College (Columbia)
- Schön, D. A. and Rein, M. (1994) Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books
- Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.