Practitioner learning in ‘swampy’ domains

I have to admit that throughout most of my career my ideas about, and practice in, effective teaching have been relatively incoherent and intuitively arrived at, rather than the products of careful and analytical thought. According to Yvonne Hillier (1998) this is common even amongst the most experienced and well-trained of teachers.

At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the view that deliberate reflective practice is at the opposite end of the spectrum from intuition: I think that valuable insights can be gained from both rational thinking and from inspiration, and that in principle it is valuable for professionals in any practice to be receptive to insights that come unexpectedly, unplanned, and from unlikely sources, as much as those that are the product of rational processes of deliberation and analysis. This view connects closely with the idea that effective teaching is not necessarily a neat and tidy business.

The tension between these different modes of apprehension has often been polarised into antagonistic and supposedly irreconcilable approaches to the practice of teaching (and indeed practice in other domains): I believe rather that these modes of thought should be seen as complementary, and that teachers need to be able to negotiate a balanced track between the two to be really effective.

Highly relevant to this suggestion is Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant survey (2011) of psychological research studies into the way we make decisions: It is as if, he argues, that there are two ways in which we make decisions, which he calls Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is very quick, in fact more or less involuntary. It utilises what might be called ‘intuition’:

We have all heard….stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces “White mates in three” without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day…. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvellous that the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician – only more common. The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic….Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognise familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it. (Kahneman p11)

System 2 thinking, on the other hand is slow, requires motivation and effort, and uses what we might call ‘rationality’. We use these different systems in different circumstances, confronted with different types of problem. We prefer to use System 1, which evolved as a survival mechanism, and with which we make very quick decisions based on the continually developing capacity for correct intuitive judgements which we have developed throughout the whole of our past lives. Of course these decisions may sometimes be wrong, but in familiar situations System 1 decision-making has evolved to be accurate most of the time, and as a result it takes a great deal of conscious effort to go against what it tells us.

System 2 is used for problems that do not require an immediate solution, and/or which demand that we follow a procedural algorithm in order to solve them, such as a complicated long-multiplication sum. Kahneman argues that we only use System 2 reluctantly, when we have to, because it takes effort and energy, whereas System 1 thinking is effortless and easy. System 1 decision-making is more likely to be accurate the more familiar we are with the situation we are in; it can work astonishingly well in such familiar situations, even if the problems involved are very complex, indeed too complex to be easily solved by the use of System 2 heuristics and algorithms.

This research-based psychological typology of our decision-making capacity is strikingly reminiscent of Donald Schön’s well-known theoretical distinction between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (1983). The key issue for practitioner learning, therefore, given the need for expertise in tackling both well-defined ‘high ground’ problems and complex, ill-defined, ‘swampy’ problems, is how best to develop and improve ‘reflection-in-action’ or System 1. For a new idea to contribute to changed System 1 decision-making, according to Kahneman, and in different terminology, to Schön, the practitioner has to ‘practice’ using it, reflect on this practice consciously and probably collaboratively (System 2 activity), and repeat this many times over a long period. ‘The accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics’ (Kahneman 2011, p 11): there are no short cuts, no quick intellectual fixes or magic bullets, in shaping our intuitive capacities.

This System 2 work of developing System 1, essential to practitioner learning, is difficult, both to carry out and to reflect on: it takes a great deal of conscious effort because it involves a decision to engage in practice in a different way from that informed by our System 1 thinking. This demanding process is one way to imagine that practitioners might strive to enhance their intuitive capacity for ‘divergent thinking’, cited by Schön as an essential capacity for tackling ‘swampy’ problems. Such careful, effortful, disciplined and probably repetitive practice over time does lead to changes in patterning and routines in relation to our work, which gradually influence changes in our intuitive responses to it, and so to our intuitive judgements and actions. What is needed as part of practitioner learning, therefore, is to support a deliberate process of learning that mimics the way our intuitive decision-making capacities have unconsciously and continuously developed and evolved, since we used them to save ourselves from being eaten by lions on the plains of Africa millennia ago.

Hillier Y (1998): Informal practitioner theory: eliciting the implicit.  Studies in the Education of Adults, 30 (1) 35-52

Kahneman D (2011): Thinking, fast and slow.  London: Allen Lane

Schon D (1983): The reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd


2 thoughts on “Practitioner learning in ‘swampy’ domains

  1. This is an interesting idea Jay. Thank you for sharing it.

    The concept of ‘swampy’ problems appeals to me tremendously. It is of course not unlike the notion of wickedity ( Or even Ron Barnett’s notion of supercomplexity. That is, it is helpful to move beyond the irreconcilable nature of intuition and forethought. I like this framing of system 2 thinking as a way of developing system 1 thinking.

    What I am now left wondering is – how do we think about the nature of ‘problems’ themselves. Of course for problems we can instead say – dilemmas, challenges, difficulties, decisions … what I mean is, what if we find our professional lives are beset not by irreconcilable ways of thinking but irreconcilable challenges? Or challenges that can only be resolved with considerable compromise. Or if what we are asked to do and to be requires a moral or philosophical exploration.

    This framing is very useful for teachers making not absolutely but probably best fit right or wrong decisions about classroom management. The swampy challenge can be weighed up in terms of costs and benefits. But does it allow us to rise to the demands of professionalism? Or decisions that may appear uncomplicated and common sense but with system 2 thinking are deeply problematic.

    I do of course have several such irritations that are bugging me just now. No doubt they will emerge in the fullness of time.

    Thanks for your post – useful and interesting.

    1. ‘Does it allow us to rise to the demands of professionalism?’ – well it depends which version of professionalism we subscribe to. For me professionalism is about the continual struggle to do one’s best, whatever the context, whatever the problems, and whether or not you will ever know for sure that what you did was the best that could have been done. Schon’s conception means that in swampy situations we may only be able to say afterwards about a particular decision – ‘well, that wasn’t too bad’! – ie, there will almost always be ways to think that a slightly different decision and action might have been better – but you won’t ever know whether this is true or not! The trouble is some of the most important decisions are about trying to find a course of action which ‘works’ as well as possible for everyone concerned, rather than one that doesn’t work at all. The question of whether it is absolutely the best course of action will always be open to debate, both before and after the decision is taken. It is in these kinds of context that the version of professionalism I feel drawn to, operates. That is why for me the concept of ‘best practice’ is wholly inappropriate in our context, asd no one can ever say for sure what best practice is in a particular situation. Sorry, I’m rambling a bit here….but then, messy writing goes with swampy subject matter!

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