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Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools

reviewed by Ira E. Bogotch - October 28, 2009

coverTitle: Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools
Author(s): Eleanor (Ellie) Drago-Severson
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 1412950724, Pages: 368, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

Educational leaders have “theories” of adult learning even if they are not articulated (Hawley, 1989).  Adult learning and educational leadership are natural partners in the many managerial tasks surrounding instructional leadership, mentoring programs, professional development sessions, personnel decisions, and the implementation of new programs. Everything that educational leaders do involves learning – thus making adult learning theory a necessary component of good educational leadership practices.  No book I have read makes this case better or stronger than Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in our Schools by Ellie Drago-Severson.  I’m certainly not alone in this opinion. To quote one of the book’s advanced testimonials:

The astounding range of material in this book begins to integrate elements of leadership and adult learning I have not yet seen adequately included and developed in any one book. (Ackerman, n.d.)

Professor Drago-Severson successfully marries research with professional development activities in terms of both process variables and content, the two underlying dimensions of pedagogical-content. Drago-Severson bridges theory to practice with “practical ideas” and “small steps” (p. 106).  The misused phrase “research-based” is rejuvenated because this book is not only research-based in words, but in leadership actions as well. Marrying research to professional development is what keeps learning alive for practitioners. The author’s phrase “in my research” is repeated throughout the book as a reminder that all the ideas are grounded in study/learning/experience. Maybe not since Michael Fullan’s seminal work, The Educational Meaning of Change has a researcher made implementation as exciting as the development of ideas and policies. That excitement is palpable (p. 274), so different from most of the findings that characterize implementation research (Bogotch, Acker-Hocevar, & Townsend, 2010; see also Bogotch, 2002). In contrast with the sheer joy of developing ideas, most studies of implementation fall flat as predictable patterns (of failure) and cynicism emerge. Not so here in Leading Adult Learning by Professor Ellie Drago-Severson.

Drago-Severson writes:

My model … focuses on the person as an active meaning maker, the ways in which adults make meaning of their experience, and the different kinds of supports and challenges adults need in order to grow. (p. 18)

As far back as the 1970s, Thomas Greenfield (1975) was teaching educators to “look inwards” to create meaning even as they attend to the external environments and mandates of public education.  In 1983, Smirich reminded all of us that leadership was “the management of meaning and the shaping of interpretations” (p. 351), seminal ideas adopted by Bennis and Nanus (1985), Barth (1990), Evers and Lakomski (1991), and Elmore (2004) among others.  In fact, all this made perfect sense to me as I was writing up the results of my fourth study in a series on adult learning leadership.  I concluded my final paper by thanking my adult leadership graduate students: 

I’m real pleased you people created your own structure. I now have new models. (Moore & Bogotch, 1993, pp. 33-34)

What new models?  As I look back on my works, I realize now that I had no clue of what adult leadership learning models had emerged from these research studies. But now, I know what I don’t know. And so will you after you finish reading this book. 

Leading Adult Learning is an intelligently written book for intelligent readers that requires patience in the same way school leadership requires patience and nurturing. It requires you to be respectful, dignified, and focused on school improvement holistically and for the long haul – as in lifelong learning.  It is not a one-size-fits-all or “the buck stops here” steroidal look at changing schools. Rather, it expects all educators, our superintendents, principals, and assistant principals, to re-discover the core values of educational leadership and the significance of adult learning theories.  The book treats educational leadership as if the field had already grown up into adulthood, a presumption still built as much on faith as on reason. Leading Adult Learning is in the author’s words, “learning-oriented” (p. 36). This book will help all of us grow individually and professionally.

Theory, of course, must be relevant and reasonable.  Leading Adult Learning builds on the author’s research and related theory. The author is deeply indebted to Professor Robert Kegan of Harvard where there has been a long tradition in bringing adult ideas to the teachings of educational leadership dating back to 1979 and the publication of Leadership and Learning: Personal Change in a Professional Setting by Jentz and Wofford. That tradition continues on today through the good works of Roland Barth, Gordon Donaldson, Richard Ackerman, and Pat Maslin-Ostrowski, just to name a few. But of them all, it is Dr. Drago-Severson who has comprehensively and systematically applied adult learning theories to educational leadership learning and development, especially to in-service professional development (p. 20) building on the works of Fullan, Hargreaves, and Hord.

It is impossible to synthesize all of the good ideas I found in this book. For each of the four pillar practices, (1) teaming, (2) providing leadership roles, (3) collegial inquiry, and (4) mentoring, Drago-Severson takes us through the constructivist-developmental stages of adult learning from instrumental learner to socializing learner to self-authoring learner to self-transforming learner.  Her descriptions of each category of learners are vivid and valid. They are so well written that you will not only see yourself inside these ways of knowing, but you will also see others, not as problems, not as your “least preferred co-workers,” but rather as colleagues who come to tasks and relationships with diverse learning styles.  And, for each category, the author provides concrete examples (experiences), supports, and challenges.  Her descriptions are so clear and practical that just by injecting one or two of her ideas into your conversations with others, you will be able to relate better to these diverse individuals almost immediately.  When the author tells you that such diversity is not a matter of intelligence, you believe her. The book allows you to become everyone’s leader as you literally bring out leadership in yourself and in others.

The tone of Drago-Severson’s writing is warm, wise, and welcoming.  She invites and engages you from the preface to the epilogue, even if you are a bit hesitant and skeptical as I tend to be of any text. The theory of constructive-developmental not only actively engages you, but it also encourages you to co-construct theory as you grow along with the author and her participants.  In other words, the ideas and practices become your own ideas and practices as you implement them at work.

Still, for any one academic opinion, there are always alternative views. Professor Drago-Severson does not enter into today’s accountability discussions focusing on NCLB, AYP, NAEP, TIMSS, PISA or any specific local, national, or international barometers that have dominated educational leadership in the 21st century so far.  Rather, the author aligns herself with educational scholars such as Dewey (reflective practices) and Greenfield (values), asking school leaders to first look inwards as learners and then to look toward the people with whom they work.  For each of the four leadership pillar practices, the author describes a concept called a “holding environment” (p. 58, p. 221), where we can reflect and hold generative conversations about the schools we really want and need in the 21st century. It will take patience, research, theory, and hard work, all of which are modeled for us in this outstanding book.


Barth, R. (1991). Improving schools from within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bennis, W. & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row.

Bogotch, I. (2002). Enmeshed in the work: The Educative Power of Developing Standards. Journal of School Leadership, 12, 5, 503-25.

Bogotch, I, Acker-Hocevar, M., & Townsend, T. (in press). Leadership in the Implementation of innovations. International Encyclopedia of Education 3rd edition. E. Baker, B. McCaw, P. Peterson (eds). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier.

Elmore, R. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evers, C. & Lakomski, G. (1990). Knowing educational administration: contemporary methodological controversies in educational administration research. New York: Pergamon Press.

Fullan, M. (1982). The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press.

Greenfield, T. (1975). The decline and fall of science in educational administration. Interchange 17, 57-80.

Hawley, W. (1989, July). A critical look at the proposals of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration for improving the education of school administrators. In D. Carver (Ed.). Proceedings of the SRCCE Forum on Improving the preparation of school administrators: An agenda for reform. Nashville, TN: Southern Regional Consortium of Colleges of Education.

Jentz, B. & Wofford, J. (1979). Leadership and Learning: Personal Change in a Professional Setting. New York: McGraw Hill.

Moore, R. & Bogotch, I. (November, 1993). No longer “neglected”: Adult learners in graduate education programs. Paper presented at the Mid-South Educational Research Association: New Orleans, LA, ERIC Documents No. 367905.

Smirich, L (1983). Concepts of culture and organizational analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28, 339-358.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 28, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15815, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:27:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Ira Bogotch
    Florida Atlantic University
    E-mail Author
    IRA BOGOTCH has been teaching educational leadership for the past two decades. His research interests have varied from the school principal, central office relationships, contexts of urban schooling to issues of social justice, the history of public educational leadership, and school reforms. Ira currently serves as the Associate Editor for the International Journal of Leadership in Education and is on the editorial boards of Urban Education and The Professional Educator. In 2008, Ira co-authored a book titled Radicalizing Educational Leadership: Dimensions of Social Justice and co-edited a book titled The Elusive What and the Problematic How: The Essential Leadership Questions for School Leaders and Educational Researchers, both published by Sense in The Netherlands.
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