learning and education

Reflective practice

I approach my research, teaching, and administrative work through reflective practice. I attend to a small web of values: human dignity, professional integrity, rationality, democracy, along with caring about and for the Earth. I rely on these values to help me recognize the purpose of my work which, in turn, helps me take action.

Some old news: The tech industry, libraries, and non-profits seek practitioners who know how to learn new things. Such institutions seek people who can find and frame problems in conditions of uncertainty. And, they seek people who work effectively in teams, who can envision, ideate, prototype, communicate, and steer design work.

Accordingly, I think that graduates of the Information School need to know how to take action to build things. Knowing specific skills, methods, and technologies is important. But, that’s not enough. Our students also need to be intellectuals who can appraise the promises and perils of envisioned designs, interventions, and courses of action.

Homo Faber, man the maker; Homo Sapiens, man the thinker: How might these two archetypes, of practice and of theory, be placed into dialog? This ancient question can also be formulated as a contemporary proposition: While know-how is necessary, it is not sufficient; therefore, society calls for professionals who blend skills for building and critical thinking—know-how plus know-what, integrated (1).

This view—question and proposition—shapes my teaching, every class meeting, every video, every activity and graded assignment, every opportunity to advise or teach. Indeed, this view stimulates my thinking about education and propels me to move forward, to be a better teacher.

I think the best way to position students to learn to be builders and critical thinkers is through design, not a narrow conceptualization, such as “design thinking,” but a broad and ever-developing one (2).

… the designer [is] one who converts indeterminate situations to determinate ones. Beginning with situations that are at least in part uncertain, ill defined, complex, and incoherent …, designers construct and impose a coherence of their own.

Donald A. Schön, 1990, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, p. 42

I believe that excellent work, whether practice-oriented or academic, requires disciplined engagement with theory: framing commitments, process steps, evaluative criteria, and so forth. At the same time, excellent work cannot be planned out, in full detail. Excellent work unfolds, in steps, where each new step is both anticipatory of the future and responsive to prior steps. Designers are in conversation with all of the steps (the big picture) and with each particular step (the details).

How, therefore, do theory and practice go hand-in-hand? Donald Donald Schön answers this question by developing an epistemology of practice (3). In all of my work, I seek to draw on his ideas of reflective practice, and develop my skills.

In two decades of teaching, in many regards I have succeeded, even if I frequently fall short. That’s how it goes. Each step forward leads to new opportunities to do better.


Looking ahead. As I move forward, my central focus is to develop excellent learner experiences and to help position students to be reflective practitioners and responsible innovators . My goal is to engage and develop answers to the following questions:

  1. Skillful practice and value sensitive design. What is skillful practice, especially when working on value sensitive design projects? Working answer: Skillful practice is reflective practice with a particular ontological framing.
  2. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do I best incorporate diversity, inclusion, and equity into my teaching? Working answer: I believe in small things, done well, which accumulate into integrated practice, such that students of all backgrounds and interests are supported.
  3. Instructional practices and the Earth. How do I align my teaching with the Earth? Working answer: I don’t know. That said, I would like to explore radical instructional methods for positioning students to experience relationships with the natural world while pursuing their work with tools and technologies.

Acknowledgements. My views on learning and education have been shaped by sustained conversations with brilliant and caring colleagues, including Stephanie Ballard, Bob Bokio, Allyson Carlyle, Megan Finn, Mike Freeman, Batya Friedman, Rowena Harper, Mike Katell, David Levy, Nick Logler, and Jill Woelfer, and more recently Andrey Butenko, Ishita Chordia, and Beck Tench. Hundreds of students have given appreciations and critiques, for which I’m grateful.

(1) The distinction between know how and know what was made by Weiner (1950) and is, I believe, as important today as it was at the dawn of the nuclear age. See Hendry, Friedman, & Ballard (2021) for a discussion of knowledge types and value sensitive design.

(2) My own work with Batya Friedman explicates a broad and every-developing view of design (Friedman & Hendry, 2019). Works on design that have been particularly influential and from which I continue to learn, include: Dunne, 1993; Escobar, 2017; Jantsch, 1974; Nelson and Stolterman, 2012; Pangaro, n.d.; Papanek, 1984; Rosner, 2018; Schön, 1990; Simon, 1996; Wiener, 1950 Winograd and Flores, 1986.

(3) Donald A. Schön (1990).

Dunne, J. (1993). Back to the Rough Ground: Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Escobar, A. (2017). Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Friedman, B., and Hendry, D.G. (2019). Value Sensitive Design: Shaping Technology with Moral Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hendry, D.G., Friedman, B., and Ballard, S. (2021). Value sensitive design as a formative frameworkEthics and Information Technology, 2339–44.

Jantsch, E. (1975). Design for Evolution: Self-Organization and Planning in the Life of Human Systems. New York: George Braziller.

Pangaro, P. (n.d.). Notes on the Role of Leadership and Language in Regenerating Organizations.

Papanek, V. (1984). Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago Publishers.

Rosner, D. (2018). Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press [ISBN-13: 978-0262037891]

Schön, D.A. (1990). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers. [ISBN-13: 978-1555422202]

Simon, H. (1996). Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [ISBN-13: 978-0262691918]

Wiener, N. (1950). Human Use of Human Beings. New York: A Da Capo Paperbook.