March 1999 // Commentary
Bringing Old Ideas to New Times: Learning Principles of Kurt Lewin Applied to Distance Education
by Steven Stahl
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Steven Stahl "Bringing Old Ideas to New Times: Learning Principles of Kurt Lewin Applied to Distance Education" The Technology Source, March 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Kurt Lewin articulated three essential ideas in the late 1930s and early 1940s that can be used today to improve distance education courses taught both by the Web and interactive television: (1) the significance of learners playing an active role in discovering knowledge for themselves; (2) the importance of a cohesive approach to instruction that includes cognitive, affective, and psychomotor activities to support permanent changes in attitudes, ideas, and behaviors; and (3) the powerful impact that the social environment of the learner has in supporting change.

Active Learning

Most instructors agree that learners place more belief in knowledge they have discovered on their own than in knowledge presented by others; yet all too often these same instructors fail to trust students to learn anything not explicitly stated by the instructor. This is particularly true as it is applied to two-way compressed video or one-way video interactive television systems, where instructors continue to use classroom lecture practices. All too often, instructors have no confidence that learners can discover meaning for themselves; instead, instructors perceive that lecturing is essential to ensure that students "get it." Thus, they adopt a behaviorist rather than a constructivist approach to instructional design. The instructor often becomes so focused on the desired outcome that the process by which the outcome can best be attained is forgotten or ignored. If it is true that it takes more than the mere transfer of information for attitudes, ideas, and behaviors to change, then the instructor who relies on lectures may be failing to support the very learning that leads to long-term change.

Instruction must be planned with a clear vision of what the students will do with the content presented. It is critical that students interact with the instructional content and that activities be developed to promote and support open-ended, self-directed learning. Content should never be delivered for memorization, but instead for use as a tool in planned and sequenced activities. This requires carefully planned design, respectful feedback and dialogue, and (for the instructor new to this model of instruction) a leap of faith to believe that students will come to appropriate conclusions over time. In turn, the students' learning may take the form of changed attitudes, development of new skills, and different beliefs as to the likely consequences of a given action; all of these influence the learners' daily decision-making in future endeavors.

For example, if an instructor wants students to be able to differentiate between the possible outcomes of different approaches to a situation, he/she could instruct students to examine and then modify a given scenario to improve outcomes. This would replace the kind of unilateral, non-interactive explanation that is standard in the lecture format. The scenario could be illustrated through a role-playing exercise, a story, or an illustration of a true historical event. Throughout the process, students would discuss their perceptions of anticipated changes and reflect on why such changes might occur. Learners would engage in a wide-ranging exploration rather than a search for "the right answer." The instructor's role would thus become one of questioner, promoting deeper student examination than would be likely without facilitation.

An instructor in a Web-based environment might facilitate such a dialogue over a two-week period and require students to make references to outside resources. In a synchronous environment such as interactive television, the process might occur over a 30-minute period and be based, in part, on previously assigned readings.

This process is in sharp contrast to a behaviorist model that assumes that the goal of instruction is to transfer knowledge from expert to learner (Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995). A constructivist model respects learners as decision-makers in their own learning, and it supports the confidence of the participants, since their personal concerns are validated and explored with peers and the instructor.

A Cohesive Approach

Lewin wrote that a piecemeal approach to guiding learners to accept new ideas, attitudes, and behaviors is ineffective. Instead, a cohesive approach must be utilized to support changes in cognition, affect, and behavior. From an instructional perspective, the implementation of this principle seems difficult in a distance environment; it requires instructional designers to plan cognitively challenging tasks, address the affective issues that stimulate learner recognition of the need for change, and provide opportunities for action. Moreover, motivational aspects must be included in instruction. This writer takes exception with authors who place emphasis on the importance of keeping activities enjoyable, exciting, and agreeable (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Engagement need not necessarily be fun or agreeable for learning to occur. For example, if instruction is aimed at encouraging firefighters to take steps to improve safety in their work environment, then the instruction must stress that the failure to act responsibly may result in tragedy. In order to obtain the desired impact, cohesive learning strategies—even if they are not particularly enjoyable—must be employed. For example, an instructor might initiate dialogue among learners about actual serious accidents and their causes or show videos of tragic events, followed by other reflective assignments.

To promote active learning, the instructional designer must identify how learners will use their bodies to solidify the learning. In the example above, learners could be asked to physically examine a potential work site and identify potential hazards. Even simple tasks that require students to move around the room—to join different groupings, to post or manipulate information or materials—can have a significant impact upon learning. Failure to address all three of these areas (cognitive, affective, and physical) in every lesson plan results in less than maximal learning outcomes.

The Impact of the Social Environment

Lewin theorized that before changes in ideas, attitudes, and behavior will occur, modifications in a learner's perception of self and his/her social environment are essential. He also argued that it is easier to create change in a social context than individually. These principles are supported by others, including Fischer (1997), Brown (1993), Bruffee (1993), Slavin (1990) and Newcomb (1962); they challenge the instructor to create among learners a social environment that supports self-confidence and the perception that change is occurring and accepted within the learning environment. This requires both time and planned interaction among participants.

A preliminary step to creating a community of learners is establishing the foundation for a respectful, accepting, and caring environment (Vella, 1995). With preparation, instructors can create conditions that give students the freedom to experiment with new behaviors, ideas, and attitudes in a social environment. This social environment can be face-to-face as in video conferencing, voice-to-voice as in an audio bridge, or through synchronous and/or asynchronous chat such as an Internet mailing lists, discussion boards, or Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

As more dependable, high-quality desktop video conferencing equipment becomes available, additional options will develop. Through dialogue, students can negotiate and renegotiate meaning as a community of learners attempting to reconcile conflicting perceptions and assumptions (Brown, 1993). Students' questioning of viewpoints and theories and the critical analysis of cause and effect can support rich learning experiences and should be encouraged. Though it can be challenging to accomplish in distance environments, the opportunity exists to encourage group sharing that supports individual responsibility and distributed learning.

Key to such an environment is respect (Vella, 1995): respect among learners, between learners and instructor(s), and for the community in which the learners are embedded. This means conveying the attitude that everyone present is there to learn, to practice, and to make mistakes. Respect can be achieved in any form of distance learning that permits collaboration among participants.

The education community continues to experience an increasing shift from face-to-face to distance learning environments. This qualitative change will be facilitated if we incorporate the teachings of earlier thinkers in adult learning theory. Lewin stressed the importance of active learning, cohesive instruction, and social environment to support learning that leads to permanent change. If these ideas are adhered to, we will come to see active learning not as a supplement to lecture, but as the primary mode of instruction. Cohesive instruction can be viewed as systems theory applied to the micro-world of instructional design and teaching. The effective use of social connectivity in distance instruction will keep distance education a viable learning environment.

[Editor's Note: Kurt Lewin, born in Prussia in 1890, is recognized as the founder of modern social psychology. He immigrated to the United States in 1933 and established the Research Center on Group Dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). Lewin was a pioneer of experimental social psychology and conducted numerous studies in areas including cognitive dissonance, group cooperation and competition, and group dynamics. He authored over 80 articles and published 8 books before he died in 1947.]


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Bruffee, K. (Ed.). (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Moore, M., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

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