A Historical Perspective
Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin is another important figure in defining experiential education. He was born in a small village in modern day Poland in 1890 (Perron, 2002). Lewin was one of four children born in a middle class family. His family owned a small farm and general store in Mogilno, Poland until 1905 when they moved to Berlin. Then in 1909, Lewin enrolled at the University of Freiburg to study medicine but soon transferred to the University of Munich to study biology. During this time, Lewin was politically active as part of the movement for women’s rights as well as socialism. He served in the German army during the start of World War I, but left due to a war wound. After leaving the army, Lewin obtained his Ph.D from the University of Berlin.

While working on his Ph.D. Lewin began to work with Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Koehler, two of the founders of Gestalt psychology. When Hitler came to power in Germany, in 1933, Lewin left Germany for England, before eventually moving to America. Between 1933 and the time of his death in 1947, Lewin went on to teach and research at the Cornell, University of Iowa, and M.I.T. His research helped him postulate the idea that neither nature nor nurture alone shaped a person’s behaviors and personalities. He summarized his belief B=f (P, E) with the equation in order to show that behavior is a function of a person (P) and their environment (E) (Swanson, 2009). The most pivotal of his theories in shaping experiential education however, are action research and change process.

When summarizing Lewin’s influence in the theory of experiential education, M.K. Smith said, "Kurt Lewin was a seminal theorist who deepened our understanding of groups, experiential learning, and action research" (Smith, 2001, p. 1). However despite Smith’s claims of Lewin’s importance to the field, contemporary educators fail to give Lewin the credit he deserves in evolving the field. Coghlan and Jacobs (2005) note that while "In the acknowledgement of Lewin’s place as the father of action research, his work on reeducation is rarely cited" (p. 444).

Lewin studies attempted to understand how groups function and develop by examining group behavior and how individuals act in groups. "Lewin’s work inspired and directly initiated the creation of an approach to learning about groups, participation in groups, interpersonal relations and change through action research..." (Coghlan & Jacobs, 2011, p. 44) He studied the roles of individuals in groups, but the dynamics between an individual and a group as well as a group and an individual. Worth note however is that Lewin focused on the change process and the roles that both individuals and groups play in the change process. His findings showed that groups as a whole were more than the sum of the parts (individuals) who comprised them. "A group is, therefore, not basically a collection of individuals, it is the interdependence found in all the relationships of the individuals and their environment" (Schellenberg, 1978, p. 79). Lewin’s studies support principles of Gestalt psychology that claim that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. He believed that group dynamics impact each individual’s behavior and consciousness. Furthermore, he believed that the way each individual behaves in a group affects those dynamics. Since group learning is a pivotal practice in experiential education, Lewin deserves credit as the person who realized that "...action research and the powerful notion that human systems could only be understood and changed if one involved the members of the system in the inquiry process itself" (Coghlan & Jacobs, 2011, p. 445). Therefore, Lewin’s ideology helped establish that group experiences lead to a process of reeducation in which people change their beliefs based upon an experience.

While attempting to theorize group dynamics and interrelatedness of the individual and the group, he made a special vocabulary and schematic conceptualizations and diagrams (Smith and Knapp, 1978, p. 79). He believed in the idea of reeducation by which people move from patterns of thought and action that previously defined their lives to new attitudes, actions, values, and behaviors. Some of the pivotal words in Lewin’s vocabulary that are essential to understanding his model of reeducation that has developed contemporary thought on experiential learning, are "unfreezing", "moving", and "refreezing" (Weisbord, 2004, p. 254) . He believed that unfreezing occurs when people change and experience the need for change. Then they move to a new set of behaviors and values. Lastly, the change becomes normal behavior upon refreezing. Hence when thinking about experiential education, different experiences that expose us to different groups and cultures unfreezes, moves, and refreezes our actions, values, and behaviors.

Additionally, Lewin’s idea of social interdependence helped formulate a concept called cooperative learning. Cooperative learning or problem-based learning is a learning process in which      people work in groups to teach each other and thus, maximize their learning. According to cooperative learning, individuals work together to maximize their learning. In addition, Lewin’s use of graphics to illustrate psychological models led the way for social psychologists to apply his work to counseling as well as education. Lewin’s ideas about social interdependence helped fuel the movement for cooperative learning.

As previously mentioned, Lewin’s work is significantly related to Gestalt psychology, and Gestalt theories are connected with experiential education. One approach often utilized by Gestalt therapists is that individuals are part of dynamic life space, a term coined by Lewin. Tension systems, a term that Lewin used to describe conflicting vectors in the life space, causes problems in an individual’s life space that result in "unfinished business" (Weisbord, 2004, p. 82). According to Lewin, healthy people resolve unfinished business and live their life with as little unfinished business as possible. Group counseling is one way that individuals can deal with unfinished business. Hence, the connection between Lewin and experiential education is the use of group counseling practices such as adventure therapy as a method to reduce tension systems and unfinished business. Group experiences enable individuals to work together to learn about each other and reduce problems.

When looking at Lewin’s role in experiential education, Edward Schein vividly points out "...The power of his theorizing lay not in formal propositional kind of theory but in his ability to build ’models’ of processes that drew attention to the right kind of variables that needed to be conceptualized and observed..." (Smith & Knapp, 2011, p. 176). Experiences cause for the variable that Schein points out to experience "unfreezing", "moving", and "refreezing". Lewin recognized that our habits, personalities, and actions are formed as a result of our internal cognitive models that are built overtime. An experience promotes individuals to unfreeze a habit, and promote it to be removed from the way we think. Following unfreezing of a habit or action, Lewin proposed that individuals move to a new level of processing (Schein, 1995). Lastly, in order to establish the new habit as commonplace, the habit has to be refrozen back into an individual’s cognitive process. One analogy to illustrate Lewin’s views on the role of experience in reshaping internal processes would be a math equation in which a variable or series of variables is rearranged and moved in an equation as a result of something new being introduces to the equation. For example the equation Y=2x+ 10 is divided by 2 and the equation is changed and settles at new state. Therefore, Lewin’s beliefs of "unfreezing", "moving", and "refreezing" is, in a way, algebra enacted on human process.

It is also worth noting, that American educational theorist David Kolb, whose renowned models for education and learning are considered some of the most influential ideas regarding experiential learning, bases much of his modeling off of processes devised by Lewin. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle uses diagrams to illustrate learning processes, and therefore lends credit to Lewin’s use of diagrams in order to represent mental processes. Kolb’s model, which is a process consisting of experience, reflection, conceptualization and experimentation, evolved from Lewin’s belief that "...even extensive first-hand experience does not automatically create correct concepts" (Coghlan & Jacobs, 2005). Furthermore, Lewin realized that learning is a circular process of planning, action, and fact finding that takes into account reflecting upon a concrete experience. Mark Smith (2001) further demonstrates the linkage between Kolb and Lewin when he writes, "David Kolb’s interest lay in exploring the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences- and the different styles of learning that may be involved" (p. 2).

Similar to Plato, Lewin also viewed educators as change agents. As noted by Thomas Smith and Clifford Knapp (2011) experiential educators lead, and "...provide the need for change in many ways-by adjusting the parameters of an activity, imposing time limits, allowing or disallowing certain activities, and placing limits on members of the group" (p. 178). Since experiential educators often consider themselves change agents, Lewin believed that teachers have to sequence activities based on individual understanding. Therefore, the leader is pivotal in shaping educational experiences by providing opportunities for individuals to engage in action and reflection by sharing past experiences, observations and interpretations together.

When examining how Lewin’s ideology has shaped contemporary theories on experiential learning, it is important to examine how his ideas tie into the AEE definition of experiential learning. Recall, the AEE defines experiential education as "...a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values" (AEE, 2011). As noted, Lewin valued the importance of action in learning. He believed that participation in groups and interpersonal relations were reflective processes in which individuals change their values and behaviors as the result of an experience. Thus, when considering that the AEE definition stresses the terms "focused reflection" and "clarify values", one can draw the conclusion that Lewin’s view of the importance of action is, in fact, a direct experience that results in focused reflection and the clarifying of values.