The Reflective Bible Teacher

In 1983, Donald Schön published The Reflective Practitioner. The book is not explicitly Christian. I am not sure whether he is a Christian, as the book gives no indication either way. Even still, the Christian community can benefit from scholarly work and research and I think we, as Christians, should leave no stones unturned as we seek to do the work of God.

This book is about practitioners – architects, engineers, psychotherapists, and others – and how they perform their work. Schön’s main assertion is about a new type of thinking, what he calls reflection-in-action. It is this type of thinking that I believe will help Bible teachers become much more effective, and reflective, in our effort to help others find Christ.

Schön begins by explaining a vast change in the professions beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The professions are in the midst of a crisis of confidence and legitimacy…the professions themselves, the long-standing professional claim to a monopoly of knowledge and social control is challenged.” Put bluntly, once doctors, lawyers and professionals were seen as all knowing. But now, with the increase in knowledge for common people and growing arguments in the field, they have lost this status. Schön stated that the age of “technical rationality,” or the thinking that professional activity consists in instrumental problem solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique, is ending. In other words, the notion that every problem is a neat package that can be solved through equations, research, and an existing body of knowledge is over.

Let me give an example of the end of “technical rationality.” During the 70s and before, you may remember going to a doctor, and him (usually a him, at that point in history) giving you medication for this illness or that. It didn’t matter what he gave you or how much, you took it. We trusted their opinion and advice without question. Now, however, most of us will go into the doctor’s office with some theory about what we have (we looked it up on the internet according to our symptoms), we have some idea what medications we are willing to take, and for the most part we can tell our doctors what we want and don’t want. And this is not just limited to medicine. This end to technical rationality can also be seen in law, construction, architecture, and so on. For good or ill, practitioners have lost their stranglehold on the world and power is much more evenly divided.

Schön explains that with every practice, there is a high ground and a swampy lowland. The high ground is “where practitioners can make effective use of research based theory and technique.” Those who dwell here are devoted to an image of solid professional competence and are fearful of entering a world in which do not know. This high ground, Schön asserts, often contains problems of little importance. The swampy lowland, on the other hand, is “where situations are confusing messes incapable of a technical solution.” Professionals who dwell in the swampy lowlands face the crucially important problems of the world. They are willing to forsake their places of importance, and often describe their methods of inquiry as “experience, trials and error, intuition, and muddling through.”

The training that many practitioners receive in college is no longer adequate if they wish to get to the swampy lowlands of practice. Schön speaks about a new kind of knowledge professionals need, a reflection-in-action. A kind of thinking that is “implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.” Much like a good jazz musician manifests a feel for the music as they make on the spot adjustments to the sounds they hear, practitioners who use this type of thinking make judgments about the best course of action second by second. “As a practitioner experiences many variations of a small number of types of cases… He develops a repertoire of expectations, images, and techniques. He learns what to look for and how to respond to what he finds…thereby conferring upon him and his clients the benefits of specialization.” Reflection-in-action is central to the art through which practitioners sometimes cope with the troublesome “divergent” situations of practice.

So what does this have to do with teaching the Bible? Are we practitioners? In a sense, we are. We have a practice to teach others the Word of God and do so in ways that they can best learn, accept, and thrive in. The easiest way of teaching the Bible is to get a question sheet, write down the answers we learn, and then transfer our knowledge about the passage to those who are willing to listen. “Good” Bible students listen and take notes and then write a testimony. “Not so good” (never bad) Bible students question the answers, won’t write notes, won’t write testimonies, and so on. This is, in essence, a form of technical rationality. We know the answers, we have a beeline to God through His word and through our ready-made question sheets. We tell them the answers and as soon as they respond to the answers we give them, they are growing. This is truly the “high ground” of Bible study. The Bible students of yore looked forward to earning their titles, loved attention by senior leaders, and could look forward to a life of leadership as defined in the past.

But, in the famous words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a’ changing.” From what I have seen, the old ways are wearing thin and we can no longer rely on the high ground to help most people grow into Christian leaders. Many young people don’t want to earn a title, let alone use them. Many want little – or no – contact with leaders, and are much happier in the ministry if they have none. Moving into the swampy lowlands seems an integral part of helping the new generation. The new generation wants to be heard, and it takes time and effort to understand them and the way they think. It takes careful listening on the part of both the teacher and the student in every Bible study. Gone are the days of telling people to write a testimony, and them doing it without question. Guilt rarely works, and telling people they need to repent eventually turns into a “white noise.” Now, more then ever, Bible students need to understand the explicit value in everything they do, or they will not want to do it.

I don’t claim that this is a positive change, nor a negative one. Nor am I making any judgments about what is done by anyone currently, or what was done in the past. I know for a fact that some Bible teachers have taught in this “reflection-in-action” way for many years, as I have been cared for by some of them. I am also not calling for comprehensive changes in the way things are done, simply a call to discuss this new view toward the work we are doing. I am calling for us to understand the complexity of each person, and their life situation, and their emotional and intellectual state, and to love and serve them accordingly.


  1. Thanks, Tuf, for your post that is quite relevant to practical life. Schon’s characterization of 2 kinds of practitioners, including us “shepherds and Bible teachers,” is so pertinent:

    1) the “high ground” people, and
    2) the “swampy lowlands” people.

    It reminds me of the sharp contrast in the 4 gospels between:

    1) the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, representing the “high ground leaders,” and
    2) Jesus, representing the “swampy lowland servant.”

    The religious leaders exerted their tenure, seniority, and positional authority to compel their members to basically “fall in line.” So, they were always rigid, inflexible, controlling, highly predictable, draconian, and boring. In contrast, Jesus was surely constantly practicing “reflection-in-action,” and thus totally unpredictable, always serving and nuanced, highly liberating, and very exciting.

    I’m not sure if I’m stretching the application of Schon’s point beyond what he intended in his book. Am I?

  2. How would you say this method of reflection in action is different from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius?