Schön’s concepts

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(Activity 3.7 based on Chapter 1, Blackmore (ed) (2010))

I have heard of Schön before.  Mostly in connection with his work on reflective practice and also from his work with Argyris on learning (Ramage and Shipp, 2009).  I had not really come across his work on change where he uses ideas connected with social learning.  He is included in the course as one of the ‘early’ works on social learning systems – the chapter in the book was written in 1973.

After reading the Chapter, I come away with the following understanding of Schön’s key concepts

Public learning

When I first saw this phrase I thought of it as synonymous with learning by the public – individual or collective – but after reading the Chapter I realised it was slightly more than that.

Schön talks about learning systems at different levels – business, organisations, societies and governments.  Learning takes place when a social system “acquires new capacity for behaviour” (page 6).  As an aside, he seems to be conflating the use of the word system as synonymous with a unit of social organisation such as a business or organisation and it feels as though he is using system in an ontological way.

He introduces the notion of public learning in association with the level of government as a learning system.  It seems it is learning carried out by government for, on behalf of and with the public or as Schön puts it “a special way of acquiring new capacity for behaviour in which government learns for the society as a whole” (page 6).  Government does not just need to learn to solve new problems it must learn to create the right mechanisms and structures for solving those problems and to discard any that are no longer appropriate.

Ideas in good currency

Ideas in good currency are “ideas powerful for the formation of public policy” (page 10).  This was not a phrase I had heard before its use in this chapter but looking at the phrase I would have thought of it as ideas-in-use.  There seem to be similiarities here with Schön’s later work with Argyris on theories-in-use (Ramage and Shipp, 2009, Chapter 28).

Criteria of an effective learning system

Schön comments that ideas in good currency often lag behind what is relevant for the situation the social system confronts.  For him, an effective learning system is one that can “transform its ideas in good currency at a rate that is commensurate with its own changing situation” (page 10).

His projective model of a dynamically conservative social system

This is a process that Schön describes to explain the emergence of ideas in good currency.  He says it is a semi-invisible process and is often ignored in theories of policy making.

Schön explains that a social system is dynamically conservative and at any given time is made up of structural, technological and conceptual dimensions.  The conceptual dimensions represents the set of ‘ideas in good currency’.  Change is precipitated by a disruptive event or sequence of events – this creates a demand for new ideas.  This ‘void’ gets filled by ideas that are already present in the margins of society – as though they have been waiting in the wings.  However, their widespread adoption is complicated by political conflict and policy debate.  If they do get adopted they become an idea in good currency and appear “obvious” (summarised from page 11).

In considering the current position of systems thinking and practice as a set of ideas that are present in the margins of society, I made the following post to the course forum:

Maybe I am grasping at my narrative of hope here… But do you not think that ideas related to Systems thinking and practice (and the traditions that informed it) are beginning to gain good currency?

If I use as a basis Schon’s description of the projective model of a dynamically conservative system on page 11.

We have had mgmt, policy and economy planned on modernist principles – linear cause and effect etc for a long time.  But the crises of economy, issues arising in globalisation etc are causing disruptive sequence of events.  Ideas from the ‘marginal’ areas of society – postmodernism, Systems and the traditions that informed it are beginning to provide good explanations for this.  So people are using phrases like systemic failure and words like complexity; the Munro review of child protection is based on systems principles; and OU can even launch a Masters programme on Systems thinking in practice (presumably attracting funding for it).

The spread and uptake of these ideas are causing political disruption.  There is jostling going on because the very nature of ‘blame’ depends on linear cause and effect and we do a lot of that in our parliamentary system.  People in power depend on the paradigm of the hierarchy for their continued high salaries and power so they do not gain by adoption of ideas of heterarchy and ‘responsible autonomy’ (although I wonder if there may be a bit of that behind our new government’s localism and big society ideas).

On pages 13/14 Schon talks about the four different types of ideas.  The fourth one is “root concepts which underlie all theory making” (p14).  and further in the same paragraph he says “as new root concepts move into good currency their influence on the larger social system is enormous, since they influence not only a particular public policy, practice, or situation but the entire range of activities and practices of the system as a whole”.  So Ken Robinson (as mentioned in Bridget’s post) is drawing on this in his commentary on education and in my field World Health Organisation now emphasises that health is dependent on the social and environment conditions in which we live out our lives (rather than biology and lifestyles) – I am sure there are more.

Linking back to part 2, this seems to connect into the notion of ‘institutionalisation’ of systems thinking and practice.

Am I grasping at straws in looking for this? (or could it be the same as once you buy a red car, you see more of them?)

In doing so I was posing the question – what can I learn about systems thinking and practice in society if I think of it as if it is an emerging idea in good currency?  I found it a useful framing and have learned too from other students’ responses.

Policy formation and implementation

Schön describes how the prevailing understanding of policy is of the centre ‘formulating’ policy and the periphery ‘implementing’ it, as if they are completely separate.  However, his view of public learning says that we need to think of it differently.

The problem shifts to one of working out how to set up and guide a “network of related processes of local public learning” (page 14) around central policy themes.  In this setting every example of ‘local implementation’ is in fact a “process of local social discovery” (page 15).  Central policy statements are “take-off points for chains of transformations in localities” (page 15).

I really like framing central policy in this way.  To see central policy statements as springboards from which we learn and discover locally – rather than simply a set of instructions or constraints.  Feels quite liberating.  Is this what our new government intends when it speaks of localism?

Behaviour that characterises a learning system

There are transformations in local systems.  The transformations in the local systems influence each other – partly because they are supported in doing so.  The gradual shift of transformation in the whole creates the context for each of the local transformations.  This can then “go critical” as “ideas underlying the family of transformations come into good currency” (page 15) and as more and more people get involved.

I can see these ideas from Schön live on in notions such as self-organisation that we looked at in juggling the M-ball.

Schön’s view of government’s role for society

Schön is from the US so he talks specifically in relation to the federal government but I can see his ideas applying in UK too.  He says that the federal government has been built on a “theory of the stable state” (page 15).  But this is no longer appropriate.

For government to become a learning system it must change both the “social system of agencies and the theory of policy implementation and change” (page 16).

Learning tends to happen in the periphery and government needs to be able to ‘move learning’ around.

I love the sentence

Central comes to function as facilitator of society’s learning, rather than as society’s trainer (page 16)


Schön does comment that the notion of public learning can apply to ‘institutions’ – by which I think he means organisations – as well as government.  He comments that “decentralised and disconnected social systems” (page 7) such as church, hospitals, social welfare systems are often equipped with ‘governments’ – i.e. entities “capable of carrying out directed inquiry for the whole” (page 7).  So, for example, in my workplace – a local authority – we have a central ‘chief executive’s office’ which relates to delivery directorates.  Also in partnerships we have a core governance structure known as a Board or Executive linked to other governance structures.  I can see that much can be gained if we apply Schön’s ideas to the role that these central structures need to play.


Schön, D.A. (1973) Beyond the stable state pp.30, 116 – 179. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton and Company INC, New York reprinted as Chapter 1 in Blackmore, C. (Ed) (2010) Social learning systems and communities of practice, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2009) Systems Thinkers, The Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London.  Chapter 28 on Chris Argyris and Chapter 29 on Schön.

3 thoughts on “Schön’s concepts

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