Four Pillar Practices That Support Teacher Learning and Development with Adult Learning Theories Serving as Foundational Underpinnings

For our EDTC 6106 module 2 blog post I wanted to apply my understanding of adult learning theories to the context of professional development for educators. Work by Ellie Drago-Severson peaked my interest during this module. Her current title is: Professor of Education, Director, Ph.D. Program in Education Leadership at the Teachers College Columbia University. Her research, reading, writing and teaching centers around adult learning and professional development. Her bio from TC website states her scholarly interests: 

Leadership for adult development. Supporting teachers, principals, assistant principals, superintendents and other educational leaders in their professional and personal development in K-12 schools and adult education settings (domestically and internationally). Designing learning environments that support adult and leadership development. Coaching for growth. Adult learning and literacy. Enhancing doctoral research training. Qualitative research methodology.”

For this blog post I highlight the research findings from her article: Helping teachers learn: Principals as professional development leaders and how they support teacher learning. She discusses four “pillar practices” that principals use and how adult learning theories support them. If you are interested in learning more about her background I found the bio on the TC site helpful: bio link here.  

Acknowledging Challenges that Educational Leaders Face

In the article Drago-Severson starts out by addressing that school leaders have a challenging responsibility to lead in “a context of multifaceted educational challenges”. She acknowledges some of the real obstacles and realities that are faced by leaders in education like: teacher shortages, teacher turnover, standards-based reform, accountability, school context and culture, financial resources, principal experience, and an increasingly diverse population. As well as, responsibilities by leaders that may take away from their ability to lead such as managing instructional leadership, scheduling, budgeting, and “other responsibilities to being primary adult developers and architects of collaborative learning communities”. She advocates for nurturing principals development/capabilities to support teachers and become what she calls “learning leaders” or “effective adult developers”. I appreciated this background knowledge as a premise for acknowledging that educational leaders face many complexities. 

The Pillar Practices

In this article Drago-Severson presents research findings from a 2 year qualitative interview and document analysis study which looked at the practices that 25 school leaders from varying school backgrounds and levels of financial resources used to “support teacher learning” and “the developmental underpinnings informing the practices”. One goal of the research is to highlight the practices potential to support teachers transformational learning (changing teachers fundamental ways of thoughts and doing). She discovers that the 25 school leaders employed four common practices to support teacher learning, and calls them pillar practices. 

“In this paper, I examine these practices, how the principals make sense of them, and illuminate how they manifest in the different contexts in which these leaders serve. In addition, I discuss the developmental principles informing these practices and highlight why these practices can support adults with different needs, preferences, and developmental orientations. By understanding the range of practices these principals employ to support teacher learning in their own specific contexts and identifying the developmental principles underlying such practices and the process of growth, we can better support the teaching and growth of children and adults in schools.” 

I found that the pillar practices supported by adult learning and developmental theories to be strong examples for educational leaders to reflect and possibly inform professional development for K-12 teachers so that they are better equipped to meet challenges and better supported in their growth.

Adult Learning Theories as a Foundation

One last important aspect important to note before I go into the four pillar practices is the lens through which she address the underlying principles of the practices. Put simply, she primarily uses a constructive-developmental theory lens, but also address that adult learning is holistic and draws from multiple other adult learning theories to inform her analysis and illustrations of the developmental underpinnings of the principals’ practices as well as the learners developmental capacity to engage in the practices. Stating, “I focus on how teachers with developmental orientations need different forms of support and challenge to maximize opportunities for growth.”  

Four Pillar Practices Explained

Below I explained the results of Drago-Severson’s research and the four pillars she identifies. While she goes into a lot of details for each pillar I tried to synthesize the information and pull out relevant understandings and provide examples from the text and other places I have seen the pillars used in my experience as a teacher.

What I appreciate in this research is that the 4 pillars are embedded in the constructive-developmental and transformation learning theories, and can help educational leaders support developmentally diverse ranges of teachers learning, growth and ways of thinking. They follow Knowle’s theory of adult learning in acknowledging that teachers have different learning needs, preferences, and readiness to learn. As well as, allowing opportunities for teacher to express self concept, experience and motivate them to engage and learn from others. In Ellie’s words, “the research shows that teacher learning can be understood as more than the accumulation of facts, knowledge, and skills; it is a process of transformation, provided that appropriate supports and challenges are in place”.  

Other articles (which I intend to read) published in more recent years that support teacher learning from Drago-Severson include:

Drago-Severson, E. (April 2016). Learning designs: Use a variety of practice to connect with all. Journal of Staff Development, 37(1), 38—42. 

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2018, June). The DNA of development: A new model for school change focuses on adult learning. The Learning Professional, 38(3), 22—27. Oxford, OH. Learning Forward.


Drago-Severson, E. (2007). Helping teachers learn: Principals as professional development leaders. Teachers College Record, 109(1), 70-125.

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