Transformational adult learning and growth: a conversation with Ellie Drago-Severson

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware. ~ Martin Buber

Columbia University

Columbia University

It was my privilege to meet in New York with someone whose writing has shaped my PhD research and my school-based work in building a teacher growth model: Ellie Drago-Severson.

Ellie is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education Leadership and Adult Learning & Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her ‘four pillars’ of professional learning are: teaming or partnering with colleagues within and outside the school; providing teachers with leadership roles; engaging in collegial enquiry; and mentoring (or coaching).

While I have read her work (including Helping teachers learn: Principal leadership for adult growth and development, 2004; Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development, 2004; and Learning for leadership: Developmental strategies  for building capacity in our schools, with Blum-DeStefano & Ashgar, 2013) it was most interesting to hear her stories of working with teachers, school leaders, schools and districts to help them apply learning theory to practice. One example was of a school which, after working over time on the learning of its teachers, now consistently achieves the highest student achievement scores in its district.

Teachers College

Teachers College

Ellie’s examples of working with educators were based in some fundamental principles:

  • Teachers are adult learners who own their own learning and should be provided with choices. They should be able to choose if they are ready for growth. Even in mandated programs they should be able to choose their own paths.
  • Developmentally, learners may initially want ‘the answers’ or to be told how to improve, but the aim of adult learning should be to develop self-authoring individuals. Coaching should aim to grow individual capacity (e.g. Developmental Coaching, Cognitive Coaching).
  • Talk defines and drives behaviour (similarly to the beliefs of Adaptive Schools I explored here). Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (2002) looks at how language determines feelings, governs action and impacts learning. As well as talk, the quality of listening has been confirmed by research to be a developmental support for learning.
  • Change should start at a slow pace, with volunteers, building momentum and reach over time.
  • ‘Push back’ (resistance or questioning) should be welcomed and explored.
  • The key to learning is a trusting nurturing environment in which people feel ‘held’; they need to be simultaneously supported and challenged. It is vital to spend the time building culture and developing group norms and ground rules for confidentiality.

Strategies that Ellie uses when working with educators include:

  • Exercises from Developmental Coaching, such as those which help individuals to identify the underlying beliefs driving their behaviour and build a plan to address those beliefs;
  • Informal ‘drop in / drop out’ lunches to which staff are invited but not required. Lunch time conversations based on professional readings and the question ‘What might this look like in your practice?’
  • Journals for teachers / coaches / leaders as a sacred technology-free space for thinking.

There are many affirming ideas here for my school’s work in designing and implementing a teacher growth model, including the importance of a trusting environment, the role of talk and language, deliberately going slow, and providing scaffolds for ownership and differentiation of learning.

Some questions that arise are:

  • To what extent are we differentiating our teacher growth process for teachers? Is it enough for their experience to be one of meaningful, self-driven ownership?
  • What further strategies might we employ to build the cognition and engagement of teachers in their own learning (such as optional journals and online portfolios, or informal lunches to talk about teaching)?
  • How might we support those staff who are not yet self-authoring learners to develop their capacity for self-directed learning?
trust & rapport from the High Line: Eduardo Kobra's mural

trust & rapport from the High Line

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