skip to content


Kurt Lewin's Change Theory in the Field and in the Classroom: Notes Toward a Model of Managed Learning


Edgar H. Schein
Professor of Management Emeritus
MIT Sloan School of Management

Page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7

-Page 1-

Few people have had as profound an impact on the theory and practice of social and organizational psychology as Kurt Lewin. Though I never knew him personally I was fortunate during my graduate school years at Harvard's Social Relations Dept. in 1949-50 to have been exposed to Alex Bavelas and Douglas McGregor, who, in my mind embodied Lewin's spirit totally. As I will try to show in this essay, Lewin's spirit and the assumptions that lay behind it are deeply embedded in my own work and that of many of my colleagues who practice the art of "Organization Development." This essay will attempt to spell out some of Lewin's basic dictums and show their influence in my own and others' contemporary work. I will endeavor to show how my own thinking has evolved from theorizing about "planned change" to thinking about such processes more as "managed learning."

I. "There is Nothing So Practical as a Good Theory:" Lewin's Change Model Elaborated

The power of Lewin's theorizing lay not in a formal propositional kind of theory but in his ability to build "models" of processes that drew attention to the right kinds of variables that needed to be conceptualized and observed. In my opinion, the most powerful of these was his model of the change process in human systems. I found this model to be fundamentally necessary in trying to explain various phenomena I had observed, and I found that it lent itself very well to refinement and elaboration.

My own early work in clinical/social psychology dealt with the attitude changes that had occurred in military and civilian prisoners of the Chinese Communists during the Korean war (Schein, 1956,1961,1968). 1 found contemporary theories of attitude change to be trivial and superficial when applied to some of the profound changes that the prisoners had undergone, but I found Lewin's basic change model of unfreezing, changing, and refreezing to be a theoretical foundation upon which change theory could be built solidly. The key, of course, was to see that human change, whether at the individual or group level, was a profound psychological dynamic process that involved painful unlearning without loss of ego identity and difficult relearning as one cognitively attempted to restructure one's thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.

Unfreezing as a concept entered the change literature early to highlight the observation that the stability of human behavior was based on "quasi- stationary equilibria" supported by a large force field of driving and restraining forces. For change to occur, this force field had to be altered under complex psychological conditions because, as was often noted, just adding a driving force toward change often produced an immediate counterforce to maintain the equilibrium. This observation led to the important insight that the equilibrium could more easily be moved if one could remove restraining forces since there were usually already driving forces in the system. Unfortunately restraining forces were harder to get at because they were often personal psychological defenses or group norms embedded in the organizational or community culture.

The full ramifications of such restraining forces were only understood after decades of frustrating encounters with resistance to change, and only then did we begin to pay attention to the work of cognitive psychologists on perceptual defenses, to what psychoanalysts and the Tavistock group were trying to show us with their work on denial, splitting and projection, and to Argyris's seminal work on defensive routines (e.g. Argyris, 1990; Hirschhorn, 1988). In trying to explain what happened to POWs I was led to the necessity to further "unpack" the concept of unfreezing and to highlight what really goes on there. Unfreezing is basically three processes, each of which has to be present to some degree for readiness and motivation to change to be generated.

1. Disconfirmation

It is my belief that all forms of learning and change start with some form of dissatisfaction or frustration generated by data that disconfirm our expectations or hopes. Whether we are talking about adaptation to some new environmental circumstances that thwart the satisfaction of some need, or whether we are talking about genuinely creative and generative learning of the kind Peter Senge focuses on, some disequilibrium based on disconfirming information is a pre-requisite (Senge, 1990). Disconfirmation, whatever its source, functions as a primary driving force in the quasi-stationary equilibrium.


Disconfirming information is not enough, however, because we can ignore the information, dismiss it as irrelevant, blame the undesired outcome on others or fate, or, as is most common, simply deny its validity. In order to become motivated to change, we must accept the information and connect it to something we care about. The disconfirmation must arouse what we can call "survival anxiety" or the feeling that if we do not change we will fail to meet our needs or fail to achieve some goals or ideals that we have set for ourselves ("survival guilt"). 

Page 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 6 > 7





Bookmark this page

  • Bookmark to: Mr. Wong Bookmark to: Oneview Bookmark to: Linkarena Bookmark to: Folkd Bookmark to: Digg Bookmark to: Bookmark to: Facebook Bookmark to: Reddit Bookmark to: Jumptags Bookmark to: Simpy Bookmark to: StumbleUpon Bookmark to: Slashdot Bookmark to: Propeller Bookmark to: Furl Bookmark to: Yahoo Bookmark to: Spurl Bookmark to: Google Bookmark to: Blinklist Bookmark to: Blogmarks Bookmark to: Diigo Bookmark to: Technorati Bookmark to: Newsvine Bookmark to: Blinkbits Bookmark to: Ma.Gnolia Bookmark to: Smarking Bookmark to: Netvouz


Share |