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.

Teaching is not like parenting

There’s a storm raging in Britain at the moment. I’m not talking about St Jude. I’m talking about the argument about whether or not teachers should be qualified when they go into the classroom.

I went into the classroom as an unqualified teacher. I was one of the early Teach First teachers (’04 cohort, as it’s know). It was great for me: I got paid from day one, I felt as though I had responsibility, and even when I was in one of the ‘valleys of despair’, I had this a deep, quasi missionary zeal that I was a good person doing a difficult but good thing. Hashtag holier than thou.

But the kids I was teaching? They were under the impression that I knew what I was doing. They had at least one term (or a third of their year) of being taught English —a subject whose grades are kinda central to career success (whatever we feel about exam systems here) — by someone who was half drowning. I was enthusiastic but sloppy. I didn’t follow up. I didn’t cross-check my lesson plans with every learning objective. I didn’t differentiate well enough. I didn’t give the appropriate formative feedback that would really have helped each of them move forward.

I was lucky to be in a great school with a fantastic head and a strong staff of talented, experienced teachers. They guided and supported me when I failed and they made me a far better teacher. I must have been hard work.  I still value everything I learned from them; it was through them I appreciated how much teachers need to know and how much they need to do in order to be effective.

Because teaching is not like parenting, Anthony Seldon. Parents don’t look after 30 kids at once, for a start. Most parents also have a vested interest in the (few) children they do manage. And parental accountability is a whole different species.

The “teacher X factor” is not just “passion and intellect.” I would argue you don’t need to have a shining academic brain yourself in order to be an effective teacher (I disagree with at 2:1 or higher degree for trainee teachers). Passion is critical, of course, but passion needs to be accompanied by an appreciation for methodological working. Teachers who don’t follow through are teachers who don’t help students learn. And the real “teacher X factor” is hard-won experience and dedication—neither of which are demonstrable in the first few months or years.

Of course learning to teach when you are removed from a classroom doesn’t make sense. But most university-led teacher training courses spend a good portion of their time in schools. The difference is this: responsibility for the learning of scores of children is not immediately dependent on the enthusiastic rookies that get parachuted in. There is a slow, steady transfer of responsibility while the rookies are supporting and learning from established, experienced teachers—both at the chalkface and in the staff room.

Six weeks’ training didn’t cut it for me. I left teaching after two and a half years for lots of reasons, but principally because I had  a lot of questions around pedagogy and social and cultural ramifications within classrooms that hadn’t been addressed during my training, and I didn’t have the time to answer while I was working. So I abandoned my post and went off to do a Masters.

It still doesn’t seem right to me that I was the one who learned the most while I was teaching. Who’s to blame for that? That’s easy: me.

Designing education #1: the double diamond

I’ve had some insanely inspiring, illuminating and thought-provoking conversations this week. And recently. In general. I may be about to head back to a world of beans on toast, but this kinda nourishment from these kinda colliding ideas will somehow keep me going. A bunch of conversations I’ve had with tech heads, inventors, game designers, investors and a whole heap more have brought me back to look afresh at an old question that’s for a long time been bobbing about in my head:

How do you design an education programme?

I’m in the process of reviewing and refining and redesigning the elements of what we do with Spark+Mettle. I want to spend the next few weeks taking a non-educator approach to looking at education design.  Not from a sweeping policy level, but from the grassroots/chalkface/blackbox level. I’m excited to consider game theory, behavioural economics, investment analysis (and any others—suggestions?), but today I’m going to kick off with mapping a straight design process.

I’m thinking an education mash-up bonanza. Bit like this:

I’m not an expert in any of these things, so this mashing attempt of mine will be light-touch. But it’s my way of trying to keep a fresh look at how we can teach and how we can learn, whether we’re in a classroom or far beyond it.

I’m not a designer, but I have worked and studied education for close on a decade. I can tell you the difference between learning aims and objectives, how to differentiate and scaffold to support learners’ individual attitudes and abilities, how to maximise the use of different activity types, how to set up neat evaluation criteria. I can think long term, mid-term, short-term. I can knock out a lesson plan and the worksheets or whatever other tools are needed to make it work. I can figure out ways to enable learners to progress and to understand how and why they’re moving forward and getting better.

Eugenie teacherI was once a classrooom teacher.  Teachers do cool shit. I have infinite, infinite respect for them. (I was a good teacher in some ways, but flakey in others. I was Miss Broad Strokes rather than Miss Meticulous. That’s all fun and good when you’re up at the chalkface; but it’s the behind-the-scenes, red-pen work of careful scrutiny and clear feedback that really makes the difference. That was not where I shone. It’s good I’m not teaching any more.)

When I taught, we had some schemes of work within the department that we could adapt and use, but we were also encouraged to develop some of our own that could be shared with and adapted by others.  Different schools work in different ways, but I’d imagine that this would be fairly common practice across the UK.

So if you ask a classroom teacher how to design an educational project (an overarching scheme of work, or individual session/lesson) from scratch, I’m guessing they’d ask questions such as:

  • What are the desired learning outcomes?
  • How do we break these down into aims and objectives?
  • What activities could we set up that would enable these aims and objectives to be met?
  • Is there a good mix of whole-class, group, pair and individual activities?
  • Is there a good mix of teacher-led and learner-led activities?
  • What else needs to be included to support the high-achievers and the low-achievers?
  • Is the assessment criteria clearly linked back to the aims and objectives? Will I know whether or not they have achieved them?
  • How does all this link back to the national standards?

And I’d add: would I want to be a learner in this lesson? (Aside: so funny how teachers are encouraged to set up active learning opportunities, but are often taught to do so sitting at tables in rows in a stifling room.)

Lesson plan

That’s how I reckon classroom teachers tend to design education projects—but hollar at me if you think different. The progressive approach allows for as much learner freedom (with suitable scaffolding) as possible—a space where learners feel as though they are learning for themselves and growing, rather than a space in which they feel as though they are being force-fed information, fois-gras like. I’m a big fan of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development on this.

Good teaching is an art as well as a science. Yes, best practices are based on centuries of psychological research—behavioural, developmental and cognitive—plus decades of advances in neuroscience. But however much we might try to breakdown an excellent teacher into his or her constituent parts, there’s still some stuff that can’t be rote learned,that instead is acquired through empathy and experience, adapted by an individual to fit their character and personality.

What I’m interested in now is how we can map design theory to education. Is there anything that educators can learn from how the design world designs stuff?

The Design Council shares its design approach on its website. They call it the “Double Diamond” design process model.

Design council design process

“Divided into four distinct phases, DiscoverDefineDevelop and Deliver, it maps the divergent and convergent stages of the design process, showing the different modes of thinking that designers use.”

I’m just going to go straight ahead and lift what they write by way of explanation.

The first quarter of the double diamond model marks the start of the project. This begins with an initial idea or inspiration, often sourced from a discovery phase in which user needs are identified. These include:

The second quarter of the double diamond model represents the definition stage, in which interpretation and alignment of these needs to business objectives is achieved. Key activities during the Define stage are:

The third quarter marks a period of development where design-led solutions are developed, iterated and tested within the company. Key activities and objectives during the Develop stage are:


The final quarter of the double diamond model represents the delivery stage, where the resulting product or service is finalised and launched in the relevant market. The key activities and objectives during this stage are:

What I find SUPER-INTERESTING is that, for the majority of classroom teachers, designing lessons or units of work only focuses on the second part of the “double diamond” process. They dive right in at the ‘brief’ stage, they’ve already been given the criteria (by Gove almighty) of what they need to teach, and they’ve probably had direction from exam boards/head teachers/department leads about how to teach it.

So when it comes to the person who is standing in front of the classroom, teaching the 28+ kids, the one who knows these kids better than anyone else—their input and insight only comes in the final stages.

And when it comes to the kids, the ones who are meant to be doing all the learning and realising their potential—their input and insight comes after this whole “double diamond” process is over.

And if you look back at the double-diamond, one of the first things to happen in the “discover” stage is market research and user testing.

What do we learn from the design process? We should be getting the learners involved in the education design process RIGHT FROM THE START.

We should be testing our joint assumptions, collectively, from the beginning, rather than fois-gras-ing our opinion down learners’ (and teachers’) throats, o Gove.

There are a huge number of things I miss about teaching, and there are a gazillion things I admire about the education system that we have, and there are a number of things I’d like to say to politicians who hold young people’s futures in their pale, limp hands.

Here I’ll just say—decentralise THIS. Put down the workbooks and syllabuses, and put into the hands of learners and their classroom teachers the ability to discover and define what they want to learn and what they want to teach.


At Spark+Mettle we talk about the importance of having a sense of agency—a sense of control over your life and choices—and how it is one of the nine strengths that is central to flourishing. Nowhere, I feel, is this sense of agency more important than amongst our future generations as they sow the seeds of their aspirations, and the badass adults who are nurturing them as they grow.

Look at me, I’m getting all Dewey-eyed. Boom boom.