Key Theory #1: Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

As mentioned in the Hypothesis posting, I’m going to look at key three pedagogical theories that I think are relevant and useful to leaders of organisations. Here’s the first. Say hello to Vygotsky. Hiya, Lev!


The Theory

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian developmental psychologist born in 1896. He came up with the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD): “the range of tasks that a child is in the process of learning to complete. The lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill reached by the child working independently (also referred to as the child’s actual developmental level). The upper limit is the level of potential skill that the child is able to reach with the assistance of a more capable instructor.” The role of the teacher is to “scaffold” their support, so that as the child develops more confidence and capability, the teacher removes some of their scaffolded guidance. “More support is offered when a child is having difficulty with a particular task and, over time, less support is provided as the child makes gains on the task. Ideally, scaffolding works to maintain the child’s potential level of development in the ZPD.”

Relevance to Leaders

Successful leadership of teams is based on an understanding of the capabilities of the individuals within it, as well as a belief in the fact that they all have the potential to develop their skills and understanding further. Applying the ZPD theory to organisations offers leaders a way of being able to assess what a team (both the whole and its individual members) can currently do, and also what they are capable of, and providing scaffolded opportunities to move from the former to the latter.



I’m creeping forward with my research project for Clore Social. The first version of my hypothesis is as follows:

A basic understanding of key progressive pedagogical theories can enable leaders to build and nurture more effective teams, and therefore increase their social impact.

I’ve chosen to focus the scope of this research project on just three pedagogical theories that have been hugely influential on me both as a teacher and now as a leader. I want to see whether they hold any value to other leaders in the social sector. I’m aware that leading people is just one of many aspects to leadership, but my hypothesis is that it is central to effective leadership and increased impact.

There are some problems with the hypothesis though. The first it that is that it is slightly self-aggrandising. When I say slightly, I mean, quite a lot. It might make people think that I’m going to provide revolutionary insights. I’m not. The second problem is that I haven’t set up a clear before/after—eg, how I am I going to measure to what extent it is true, and in addition to what extent my interviewees’ reading of my very short intros to three key pedagogical theories have in any way influenced or informed what they do.

Any thoughts or suggestions on how to toughen it up would by much appreciated…


Early ideas on teaching and leading

As part of the Clore Social Leadership thing I’ve got to undertake a research project, and I’ve decided to explore the intersection of teaching and leading. After some initial thinking on my own, I still have a lot of work to do to narrow it down into a feasible project.

My intention is to identify three key areas of pedagogical theory that have relevance to leadership beyond the classroom, and then to interview a cross section of 6–8 successful leaders in the social sector to explore whether or not these theories have a practical application in their own leadership methodology and style.

There are two areas that I have currently identified:

  • Understanding yourself as teacher/leader—specifically being aware of your own areas of expertise/strengths, as well as being conscious of your own biases (and how these may play out, positively or negatively, when working with others). Within this area, there’s then a chance to explore a few key teaching styles, eg:
    • “sage on a stage”
    • coach etc
  • Understanding those you are teaching/leading—here I’m interested in using Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development to illustrate the importance of scaffolding learning and development. Again this is an opportunity to look at a few key learning styles, eg:
    • visual/kinaesthetic/auditory etc
    • learning by imitating/learning by doing

My initial aim is to turn these notes into a one page summary document that I can share with potential interviewees, that is a clear explanation of these areas and a starting point for a conversation.

I’d love to know your reaction to these two areas, any questions that you have, and any suggestions for any key areas that I have not included so far! And if you have any suggestions for people I should interview, I’d be thrilled.