The Theories

There are three pedagogical theories that I’ve used as a base for a conversation with leaders in the social sector. Here are my brief summaries of each:

  1. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

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 a team is based on an understanding of the capabilities of the individuals within it, as well as a belief in the fact that those individuals all have the potential to develop their skills and understanding. 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.

  1. Freire’s Critical Pedagogy

The Theory

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher born in 1921. In his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire opposed the “banking” style of education (namely that students are empty bank accounts that are open to deposits from the teacher). Instead he argued for a form of education in which the learner is also the co-creator. It should be a “dialogic” process: a conversation between student and teacher. He was a strong advocate of education models that resisted “dehumanizing” or “oppressing” students, believing instead that the best form of education is a more authentic one in which we all acknowledge that we are incomplete, and use mutual learning as a way to become more fully human.

Relevance to Leaders

People, whether they are 14 or 43, are more invested in the tasks that they are doing and the projects they are undertaking when they are actively involved in the shaping of them. Successful leaders must therefore not just relay pre-determined tasks and activities that need to be completed, but instead explore with team members the best approach to delivering the outcomes required for a certain project. In Freire’s Critical Pedagogy, there is also less of a dichotomy between the leader and the team—although there can still be distinct roles (eg, the leader is responsible for setting the overall strategy).

  1. Duckworth’s Grit and Self-Control

The Theory

Angela Lee Duckworth is an American psychologist working at the University of Pennsylvania. Her lab there focuses on two traits that predict achievement: grit and self control. “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, manuscript submitted for publication).” Duckworth argues that character— not intelligence, quality of instruction, family situation or income level—is the crucial determinant of achievement in school. Alongside grit and self-control are five other character strengths that are key to achievement: zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

Relevance to Leaders

We often regard hard skills, such as being a graphic designer or running marketing campaigns, as key attributes pf those we hire and support. However developing high-achieving teams comes from not just supporting the learning and development of these hard skills, but also the key character strengths that individuals hold. Character strengths are not fixed. They can be proactively and constantly developed. Leaders who recognise, support and reward the growth of these character strengths will have happier and more effective teams as a result.

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