Kurt Lewin: groups, experiential learning and action research
Kurt Lewin was a seminal theorist who deepened our understanding of groups, experiential learning, and action research. What did he actually add to theory and practice of informal education?
introduction | life | field theory | group dynamics | democracy and groups | t-groups, facilitation and experience | action research | conclusion | further reading and
Lewin's (1890-1947) work had a profound impact on social psychology
and, more particularly for our purposes here, on our appreciation of
experiential learning, group dynamics and action research. On this page
we provide a very brief outline of his life and an assessment of his
continuing relevance to educators.
Kurt Lewin was born on September 9, 1890 in the village of Mogilno in Prussia (now part of Poland). He was one of four children in a middle class Jewish family (his father owned a small general store and a farm). They moved to Berlin when he was aged 15 and he was enrolled in the Gymnasium. In 1909 Kurt Lewin entered the University of Frieberg to study medicine. He then transferred to the University of Munich to study biology. Around this time he became in involved in the socialist movement. His particular concerns appear to have been the combating of anti-Semitism, the democratization of German institutions, and the need to improve the position of women. Along with other students he organized and taught an adult education program for working class women and men (Marrow 1969).
His doctorate was undertaken at the University of Berlin where he developed an interest in the philosophy of science and encountered Gestalt psychology. His PhD was awarded in 1916, but by then he was serving in the German army (he was injured in combat). In 1921 Kurt Lewin joined the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin - where he was to lecture and offer seminars in both philosophy and psychology. He was starting to make a name for himself both in terms of publishing, and with regard to his teaching (he was an enthusiastic lecturer who attracted the interest of students). His work became known in America and he was invited to spend six months as a visiting professor at Stanford (1930). With the political position worsening considerably in Germany and in 1933 he and his wife and daughter settled in the USA (he became an American citizen in 1940). Kurt Lewin was first to work at the Cornell School of Home Economics, and then, in 1935, at the University of Iowa (this was also the year when his first collection of papers in English - A Dynamic Theory of Personality - was published).
University of Iowa remained Kurt Lewin's base until 1944. There he continued
to develop his interest in social processes, and to undertake research
in that area. Significantly, he became involved in various applied research
initiatives linked to the war effort (from 1940 onwards). These included
exploring the morale of the fighting troops, psychological warfare,
and reorienting food consumption away from foods in short supply. His
social commitments were also still strong - and he was much in demand
as a speaker on minority and inter-group relations. He wanted to establish
a centre to research group dynamics - and in 1944 this dream was realized
with the founding of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.
At the same time Kurt Lewin was also engaged in a project for the American
Jewish Congress in New York - the Commission of Community Interrelations.
It made use of Lewin's model of action research (research directed toward
the solving of social problems) in a number of significant studies into
religious and racial prejudice. It was also out of some of this work
in 1946 with community leaders and group facilitators that the notion
of 'T' groups emerged. He and his associates were able to get funding
from the Office of Naval Research to set up the National Training Laboratories
in 1947 in Bethel, Maine. However, Lewin died of a heart attack in Newtonville,
Mass. on February 11, 1947, before the Laboratories were established.
Here we will not enter into the detail of Kurt Lewins field theory (it is beyond our remit). However, it is necessary to note its key elements. To begin it is important to recognize its roots in Gestalt theory. (A gestalt is a coherent whole. It has its own laws, and is a construct of the individual mind rather than reality). For Kurt Lewin behaviour was determined by totality of an individuals situation. In his field theory, a field is defined as the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent (Lewin 1951: 240). Individuals were seen to behave differently according to the way in which tensions between perceptions of the self and of the environment were worked through. The whole psychological field, or lifespace, within which people acted had to be viewed, in order to understand behaviour. Within this individuals and groups could be seen in topological terms (using map-like representations). Individuals participate in a series of life spaces (such as the family, work, school and church), and these were constructed under the influence of various force vectors (Lewin 1952).
Hall and Lindzey (1978: 386) summarize the central features of Kurt Lewins field theory as follows:
Kurt Lewin also looked to the power of underlying forces (needs) to determine behaviour and, hence, expressed a preference for psychological as opposed to physical or physiological descriptions of the field (op. cit.).
this we can see how Kurt Lewin drew together insights from topology
(e.g. lifespace), psychology (need, aspiration etc.), and sociology
(e.g. force fields motives clearly being dependent on group pressures).
As Allport in his foreword to Resolving Social Conflict (Lewin
1948: ix) put it, these three aspects of his thought were not separable.
All of his concepts, whatever root-metaphor they employ, comprise
a single well-integrated system. It was this, in significant part,
which gave his work its peculiar power.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Kurt Lewin had a profound impact on a generation of researchers and thinkers concerned with group dynamics. Brown (1988: 28-32) argues that two key ideas emerged out of field theory that are crucial to an appreciation of group process: interdependence of fate, and task interdependence.
Interdependence of fate. Here the basic line of argument is that groups come into being in a psychological sense not because their members necessarily are similar to one another (although they may be); rather, a group exists when people in it realize their fate depends on the fate of the group as a whole (Brown 1988: 28). This is how Lewin (1946: 165-6) put it when discussing the position of Jews in 1939:
It could be argued that the position of Jews in 1939 constitutes a special case. That the particular dangers they faced in many countries makes arguing a general case difficult. However, Lewins insight does seem to be applicable to many different group settings. Subsequently, there has been some experimental support for the need for some elementary sense of interdependence (Brown 1989).
Task interdependence. Interdependence of fate can be a fairly weak form of interdependence in many groups, argued Lewin. A more significant factor is where there is interdependence in the goals of group members. In other words, if the groups task is such that members of the group are dependent on each other for achievement, then a powerful dynamic is created.
Lewin had looked to the nature of group task in an attempt to understand
the uniformity of some groups behaviour. He remained unconvinced
of the explanatory power of individual motivational concepts such as
those provided by psychoanalytical theory or frustration-aggression
theory (op. cit.). He was able to argue that people may come
to a group with very different dispositions, but if they share a common
objective, they are likely to act together to achieve it. This links
back to what is usually described as Lewins field theory. An intrinsic
state of tension within group members stimulates or motivates movement
toward the achievement of desired common goals (Johnson and Johnson
1995: 175). Interdependence (of fate and task) also results in the group
being a dynamic whole. This means that a change in one member
or subgroups impacts upon others. These two elements combined together
to provide the basis for Deutchs (1949) deeply influential exploration
of the relationship of task to process (and his finding that groups
under conditions of positive interdependence were generally more co-operative.
Members tended to participate and communicate more in discussion; were
less aggressive; liked each other more; and tended to be productive
as compared to those working under negative task interdependence) (Brown
1989: 32; Johnson and Johnson 1995).
Democracy and groups
Gordon W. Allport, in his introduction to Resolving Social Conflicts (Lewin 1948: xi) argues that there is striking kinship between the work of Kurt Lewin and that of John Dewey.
One of the most interesting pieces of work in which Lewin was involved concerned the exploration of different styles or types of leadership on group structure and member behaviour. This entailed a collaboration with Ronald Lippett, among others (Lewin et. al 1939, also written up in Lewin 1948: 71-83). They looked to three classic group leadership models - democratic, autocratic and laissez-faire and concluded that there was more originality, group-mindedness and friendliness in democratic groups. In contrast, there was more aggression, hostility, scapegoating and discontent in laissez-faire and autocratic groups (Reid 1981: 115). Lewin concludes that the difference in behaviour in autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire situations is not, on the whole, a result of individual differences. Reflecting on the group experiments conducted with children he had the following to say:
This presentation of democratic of leadership in groups became deeply influential. Unfortunately, as Gastil (1994) notes, Lewin and his colleagues never developed their definition beyond this rough sketch. This has left them open to the charge that their vision of democratic leadership contains within it some worrying themes. In particular Kariel (1956, discussed by Gastil 1994) argued that the notion is rather manipulative and Úlistist. What is more there has also been some suggestion that Maos mass-line leadership in China, used a model like Lewins to mask coercion under the guise of participative group processes (discussed by Gastil 1994). Such a possibility would have been disturbing to Lewin, whose commitments and intentions were democratic. He argued that democracy could not be imposed on people, that it had to be learnt by a process of voluntary and responsible participation (1948: 39). However, the problem becomes clearer when he discusses the nature of democratic leadership at moments of transition. Change needed to be facilitated and guided.
T groups, facilitation and experience
In the summer of 1946 Kurt Lewin along with colleagues and associates from the Research Center for Group Dynamics (Ronald Lippett, Leland Bradford and Kenneth Benne became involved in leadership and group dynamics training for the Connecticut State Interracial Commission. They designed and implemented a two-week programme that looked to encourage group discussion and decision-making, and where participants (including staff) could treat each other as peers. Research was woven into the event (as might be expected given Lewins concern for the generation of data and theory). The trainers and researchers collected detailed observations and recordings of group activities (and worked on these during the event). Initially these meetings were just for the staff, but some of the other participants also wanted to be involved.
Lippitt (1949) has described how Lewin responded to this and joined with participants in active dialogue about differences of interpretation and observation of the events by those who had participated in them. A significant innovation in training practice was established. As Kolb (1984: 10) has commented:
It was this experience that led to the establishment of the first National Training Laboratory in Group Development (held at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine in the summer of 1947). By this time Lewin was dead, but his thinking and practice was very much a part of what happened. This is how Reid (1981: 153) describes what happened:
What we see here is the basic shape of T-group theory and the so-called laboratory method. Initially the small discussion groups were known as basic skill training groups but by 1949 they had been shortened to T-group. In 1950 a sponsoring organization, the National Training Laboratories (NTL) was set up, and the scene was set for a major expansion of the work (reaching its heyday in the 1960s) and the evolution of the encounter group (Yalom 1995: 488).
The approach was not without its critics in part because of what was perceived as its Gestalt base. In part, because it was seen by some as lacking substance. Reid (1981: 154) reports that Grace Coyle, who had spent time at Bethel, felt that many of the training groups handled group situations badly; and that the leaders were starting to believe that they had discovered everything there was to know about group relations and were unaware of the inquiry and work of others. There may have been some element of this but there was also innovation here. Four elements of the T-group are particularly noteworthy here according to Yalom (1995: 488-9) (and they owe a great deal to Lewins influence):
Kurt Lewin is also generally credited as the person who coined the term action research.
His approach involves a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action (ibid.: 206). The basic cycle involves the following:
This is how Lewin describes the initial cycle:
The next step is composed of a circle of planning, executing, and reconnaissance or fact finding for the purpose of evaluating the results of the second step, and preparing the rational basis for planning the third step, and for perhaps modifying again the overall plan (ibid.: 206). What we can see here is an approach to research that is oriented to problem-solving in social and organizational settings, and that has a form that parallels Deweys conception of learning from experience.
The approach, as presented, does take a fairly sequential form and it is open to literal interpretation. Following it can lead to practice that is correct rather than good as we will see. It can also be argued that model itself places insufficient emphasis on analysis at key points. Elliott (1991: 70), for example, believed that the basic model allows those who use it to assume that the general idea can be fixed in advance, that reconnaissance is merely fact-finding, and that implementation is a fairly straightforward process. As might be expected there was some questioning as to whether this was real research. There were questions around action researchs partisan nature the fact that it served particular causes. There were also questions concerning its rigour, and the training of those undertaking it. However, as Bogdan and Biklen (1992: 223) point out, research is a frame of mind a perspective that people take toward objects and activities. Once we have satisfied ourselves that the collection of information is systematic, and that any interpretations made have a proper regard for satisfying truth claims, then much of the critique aimed at action research disappears. In some of Lewins earlier work on action research (e.g. Lewin and Grabbe 1945) there was a tension between providing a rational basis for change through research, and the recognition that individuals are constrained in their ability to change by their cultural and social perceptions, and the systems of which they are a part. Having correct knowledge does not of itself lead to change, attention also needs to be paid to the matrix of cultural and psychic forces through which the subject is constituted (Winter 1987: 48).
Action research did suffer a decline in favour during the 1960s because of its association with radical political activism (Stringer 1999: 9). However, it has subsequently gained a significant foothold both within the realm of community-based, and participatory action research; and as a form of practice oriented to the improvement of educative encounters (e.g. Carr and Kemmis 1986). The use of action research to deepen and develop classroom practice has grown into a strong tradition of practice (one of the first examples being the work of Stephen Corey in 1949). For some there is an insistence that action research must be collaborative and entail groupwork.
Just why it must
be collective is open to some question and debate (Webb 1996), but there
is an important point here concerning the commitments and orientations
of those involved in action research. One of the legacies Kurt Lewin
left us is the action research spiral and with it
there is the danger that action research becomes little more than a
procedure. It is a mistake, according to McTaggart (1996: 248) to think
that following the action research spiral constitutes doing action
research. He continues, Action research is not a method
or a procedure for research but a series of commitments
to observe and problematize through practice a series of principles
for conducting social enquiry. It is his argument that Lewin has
been misunderstood or, rather, misused. When set in historical context,
while Lewin does talk about action research as a method, he is stressing
a contrast between this form of interpretative practice and more traditional
empirical-analytic research. The notion of a spiral may be a useful
teaching device but it is all too easily to slip into using it
as the template for practice (McTaggart 1996: 249).
this brief cataloguing of his work shows, Lewin made defining contributions
to a number of fields. He had a major impact on our appreciation of
groups and how to work with them; he pioneered action research;
he demonstrated that complex social phenomenon could be explored using
controlled experiments; and he helped to move social psychology into
a more rounded understanding of behaviour (being a function of people
and the way they perceive the environment). This is a formidable achievement.
Sixty years on, he still excites discussion and argument, and while
we may want to qualify or rework various aspect of his work (and that
of his associates) we are deeply indebted to him both for his insights
and the way he tried to bring a commitment to democracy and justice
to his work. The consistent theme in all Kurt Lewins work, according
to David A. Kolb (1984: 9) was his concern for the integration of theory
and practice. This was symbolized in his best known quotation: There
is nothing so practical as a good theory (1951: 169). Its
a lesson that we still need to learn.
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