• Jordan Lippman

I have dyslexia, ADHD, and depression and I was an outsider socially, athletically, and academically in school from when we started reading out loud in 1st grade through my postdoctoral fellowship. And now my son is experiencing the same thing in 4th grade. I stand for preventing other children from being traumatized by school. That is why I founded Collaboration Nation: to re-imagine and re-make learning in schools to promote Equitable Collaboration through transparent research and transformative professional learning experiences.

In my role as a facilitator with Collaboration Nation, I often find myself standing in front of educators who are sitting around tables, leading professional learning experiences. That relationship tends to suggest a “traditional” teacher-student relationship, with me, the instructor, dispensing wisdom and knowledge to people who know less about the topic.

Of course, as I know quite well from my own educational experience, this model is not the most effective way to reach students, and it’s definitely not the best way of reaching educators. This has been known since the early nineteenth century when Piaget and Vygotsky introduced theories of constructivism, according to which people learn by constructing or building their own understanding and meaning. This is something that most educators can agree on.

It’s been a key part of my work with Collaboration Nation to help move our education institutions away from the traditional teacher-directed or transmission model of learning that drives the continued oppression of anyone who does not fit the mold and toward a learner-centered (see Education Reimagined) facilitation model with discussions and experiences that fully engage all participants as they are all pushed to step out of their comfort zones to grow. This idea is captured by the emerging concept of Equitable Collaboration, which I coined to capture the goal of creating the conditions and competencies needed to cultivate equity within the processes and outcomes of learning—in other words, to ensure that everyone is welcomed and challenged to grow while shared goals are accomplished.

For facilitators and educators to allow space for students to own their learning, it requires us to pull back and hand over control to the learners. This is challenging. Even though I’ve long been aware of the need to relinquish control over the learning that occurs in events I facilitate, I’m still learning. That’s my takeaway from my recent experience co-facilitating a pre-conference workshop called “Bringing Equitable Collaboration to Schools” on June 25, 2019, at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference, in Pittsburgh.

As described in a blog post, the afternoon event put a spotlight on student voice, demonstrating the importance of making space for students to share their perspectives, and for teachers to be able to listen.

I left the session feeling excited, and even overwhelmed by the power of what those 19 students had shown me—and I wasn’t alone. I heard from one teacher after another how exciting it was to share the room with such bright, thoughtful students, and what a different perspective it offered to engage in professional learning in partnership with these young people, rather than orchestrating their learning experience for them. Student voice has always been an incredibly powerful component in equitable learning, but my experience in the session brought that fact home with renewed force.

As it turned out, however, I was missing something important, and it wasn’t long before I was clued in to what that was--and fittingly enough, it was the students’ themselves who enlightened me.

The young people who brought so much to the session were there because of Dr. Tyra Good, Professor at Chatham and CEO of Good Knowledge Connections. Tyra and I met at several remake learning events in the past, so when she asked to bring her students to the pre-conference workshop at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference, I was delighted.

After bringing her students to the conference, Dr. Good, in turn, invited me to join her and her group of scholars at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, where local filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva was presenting his newest photography exhibition, “OpticVoices: Roots,” an immersive exhibit that invites viewers to caption photographs via social media. The exhibition focused on four key events: the killing of Antwon Rose, Jr., the Black Lives Matter movement, the Holocaust, and the 2018 shooting at the nearby Tree of Life synagogue. Set against the backdrop of the Holocaust Center’s ongoing exhibits highlighting the history of the Holocaust and its connection to contemporary events, the exhibit brought together the common pain and suffering of African American and Jewish people and was incredibly powerful.

It’s very telling that this was the setting where I first had an opportunity to get to know several of Dr. Good’s students. In that particular space, encountering Emmai’s exhibit as a Jewish person, I came across not as Dr. Lippman, the educator, but as a fellow person--one who was having a powerful experience in the midst of these images, a number of which depicted events that are extremely close to me. Put another way, it was natural for me to open myself up more in that space, and for the students to open up to me.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to speak to as many students as I could, and I asked for feedback on our June 25th session that they had attended. I knew what the students had brought to the experience for me and the many teachers who had expressed their appreciation of the #GOODscholars, but what did the students themselves think about what they’d seen and heard?

Their answers took me by surprise.

Here’s a sampling:

“When I first walked in I thought I didn't fit in with the teachers. I felt as if they overpowered me. The teachers I worked with were super cool”
“When I first got there . . . they weren’t paying me no attention. We were supposed to do icebreaker questions, And no one asked me a question so I got up and left”
“I wanted to leave . . . I felt that they didn’t want us to be there. I got very direct signals from people that made it clear they did not want us there.”
“They should have known we were not there just to sit there and hear them talk about equity. When you’re the black kids … they tried to tell us what we should be saying instead of hearing what we need.”

It was eye-opening, to say the least. If I’m being honest, a lot of what they had to say was disappointing—I would have liked to think they’d enjoyed themselves more, and perhaps felt empowered by the experience.

Personally, it was a struggle to accept these viewpoints, which punctured the good feelings I’d been left with following the conference. But after some reflection, I returned to the conclusion that letting student experience guide the learning process is essential. Nothing could matter more than honoring what the students had told me--and learning from their feedback.

The truth is, I’m still processing what I learned from Dr. Good and her scholars. The reason I wanted to write about it now is that this progression, from standing up before an audience facilitating their experience, to recognizing the importance of student voice in forging their own experiences, to learning and truly hearing how far that experience fell short for the students themselves (and how similar those shortcomings are to what these students experience in the school system year in and year out)—this journey is exactly the one that inspired me to write this blog post. It’s also the kind of experience that is fueling a book-length exploration of my learnings I’m currently at work on.

But amid the disappointment, I can also point to a valuable lesson: that when students can see you as an authentic person, as someone they can relate to, they will be more willing to open up. I believe that’s what happened at the Holocaust Center event, and that seeing me in a place where I was authentically myself helped spur the students to tell me what they really thought, rather than concluding that I wouldn’t understand or, worse, telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. It’s a key lesson, and one that I’ve taken with me.

I feel lucky to have been one of Dr. Good’s "students. " Some of what I have learned is that it takes careful preparation to empower students to be advocates and allies; it is critical and that this deeply personal and challenging work is grounded in a personal "Why". As I emerge from my time as her student, I realize I want to be a better ally and to help other white people do the same.

Together with the students’ comments, these new insights have helped to spur the next leg of this journey. Together Collaboration Nation is convening a summit on Equitable Collaboration and SEL not just including students and their voices, not merely striving to put those voices at the center of conference programming, but actually putting students in a position of co-conspirator.

I will be moving to Boston this year -- this will not end my work in the region, but it will mean I need to shift to fewer events that have a bigger impact. As I'm leaving, I've been reflecting on everything I've done here, and pouring my insights into the design of the 2020 Summit on Equitable Collaboration and SEL. The dates of the 2-day summit are Thursday and Friday, December 2nd and 3rd, 2020.

We’re always looking for partners and co-conspirators, so if you’d like to get involved, e-mail me at or go to to join our mailing list and receive updates.

You can also join our session at TRETC, on October 14. We will explore strategies for authentically bringing student voice into instructional design making to advance Equitable Collaboration.

Written by Dr. Jordan Lippman

Research Director at Collaboration Nation

CEO of The TeamBuilders Group

  • Adam Reger

At round tables, students and educators buzz with conversation. On screens at the front of the conference room, timers alert participants that less than a minute remains.

The teams on this side of the room have been handed what conference co-host Mr. David Ross, calls an America’s Got Talent challenge. Mr. Ross is returning to the classroom after 20 years of leadership roles - as an author and former senior director of the Buck Institute for Education (now called PBLWorks) and former CEO of P21. Mr. Ross asks the teams to present their work with as much flair and personality as possible. The teams rehearse, keeping one eye on the timer.

It’s a summer afternoon on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, and teachers and students from across the greater Pittsburgh region have convened to think and talk about equitable collaboration. What does the term mean, and how can it be achieved in schools?

This half-day pre-conference event, Bringing Equitable Collaboration to Schools, was convened at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference by Collaboration Nation, a new non-profit that is dedicated to nothing less than changing the world by helping educational leaders and stakeholders to re-imagine and re-make learning in schools.

Along with approximately 25 principals, district administrators, coaches, and teachers from 14 different school districts, 8 educational service providers, and 4 universities, 19 high school students are here. The students are participants in the Learn & Earn Summer Youth Employment program, offered by Partner4Work, Allegheny County, and the City of Pittsburgh.

The students are enrolled in a course, Perspectives in Education, taught by Dr. Tyra Good, Professor of Education. Her work focuses on creating equitable school district conditions and community partnerships.

Dr. Good brought the students to complement their in-class learning on engagement and equity. “We’ve also been talking about, as a student, how do you speak up and advocate for yourself?” Dr. Good says. “I asked them to be fully engaged and present today and to share their thoughts, because a lot of time what happens is that seasoned adult professionals are making the decisions, and the students don’t understand what these decisions are or why they’re being made.”

The timer goes off. A team at the back of the room volunteers to go first. “When I say, ‘Got,’ y’all say, ‘LIT’! Got!” prompts Dr. Stanley Whiteman III, Acting Elementary School Principal at the Duquesne City School District.

His teammates chime in with the refrain: “LIT!” Then, working as a team, the other educators and students at the table unpack the “Get LIT” peer-feedback strategy developed by The TeamBuilders Group:

Other teams give their most AGT-worthy performances. At the end the “judges”—the audience members themselves, voting by applause—deem the first team worthy of the “six-digit prize” promised by Ross: 100 Grand candy bars.

The Role of Student Voice

Now that energetic collaboration has occurred, the moment is ripe for reflection. Our session co-host, Dr. Jordan Lippman, who is Research Director for Collaboration and CEO of the TeamBuilders Group, solicits feedback from participants. What was the collaborative experience like? What did team members notice?

A student volunteer said that it was strange working with people—teachers—she normally wouldn’t collaborate with. It was hard, a teacher says: “Five minutes isn’t enough time to make a plan with people you’ve never met before.”

In a subsequent debriefing session with Dr. Good, students reinforce that interpretation: “They were actually listening to us,’” a number of students tell her. “Our teachers don’t even ask us for advice and they were asking us what we thought and what we felt.’”

Dr. Good adds, “The ‘Get LIT’ activity was fun for the students because they always see teachers as knowing everything, but students told me, ‘The teachers were confused like we were confused. We thought teachers knew everything.’ They wished their learning in class was more like that.”

It is telling that many students found that the adults at their tables enjoyed and appreciated their presence while other students felt the teachers were talking at them or past them without honoring their voice. Clearly, there is much work to still be done, if student voice is not honored in a session about equitable collaboration.

“A lot of teachers said to them, ‘This is awesome. I’m so glad you’re here,’” says Dr. Good. “It made the experience more tangible instead of being in spaces where you’re talking about a group of people or a population, but the people you’re talking about don’t even have a voice in that conversation.”

Indeed, in the run-up to the Get LIT activity, Candee Nagy, assistant principal at Baldwin High School, calls Dr. Lippman over with a request: she needs students at her table!

Nagy is expressing a widespread sentiment among the adults in the room: that student voice is absolutely invaluable for understanding and achieving equitable collaboration.

According to Dr. Lippman, “We were hoping that a key takeaway from the Pre-Conference session would be that educators would rethink the unintended impact of specific learning models within the school, such as their behavior management approach on students. We learned this is a conversation that cannot occur without student voice at the center of it.”

When it’s time to share responses, a student raises her hand. Working with teachers was uncomfortable at first, but because they were all tackling the same challenge, she grew more relaxed and ended up seeing them in a different light. Others report that they got the message that they should take risks in their group work, and that the AGT challenge was intended to let them get to know one another better.

Equitable Collaboration

Once the candy bars have been distributed, Dr. Lippman asks participants to reflect silently with a couple of questions:

  • In how many groups, did everyone participate?

  • Were all voices heard, or were some silent?

Only about half of participants’ hands go up. A discussion develops around the question of the extent to which the teams’ collaboration resembles what occurs in schools. It’s an opportunity, Dr. Lippman says, to think about how the tasks students are given make room for equity . . . or not.

This call to be more thoughtful and intentional harkens back to the definition of equitable collaboration that session organizers presented at the start of the event:

“An evolving perspective on the conditions and experiences needed to cultivate equity within the processes and outcomes of learning - so everyone is welcomed and challenged to grow while shared goals are accomplished.”

With this new perspective in mind, each team tackles a new set of questions:

  • What messages about learning, intended or unintended, did they notice in their teams’ collaborations?

  • How were those messages communicated, and how do the messages reflect the current practices of schools?

Research on Educator Collaboration

Dr. Lippman anchors the experience in “Three Things to Know,” summarizing the findings of research he and his colleagues have done at Collaboration Nation.

Dr. Lippman emphasizes three key points:

  1. Educators tend to define collaboration in terms of the outcomes it produces, rather than the process itself.

  2. Educators cite unequal participation in groups as the biggest challenge for students.

  3. Explanations for challenges in collaboration often blame students, which leads to less empathy for the students.

Bridging the divide between this kind of academic work and actual practice is a crucial challenge, says Mrs. Mary Claire Arena, TBG’s specialist in literacy, early childhood education, and outreach.

“What does this mean for schools?” she asks, and goes on to stress that participation and collaboration, though often treated as synonymous, are not the same thing.

What’s needed instead, she says, is to "slow down and create the necessary conditions for equitable collaboration," chief among them the sharing of a common language. She introduces the Educator Inquiry Process used by TeamBuilders to support professional learning and system change.

Educators or education leaders interested in participating in the 2019-2020 study of Equitable Collaboration PD please sign up at

Learning Models

In an activity designed to bring out examples of Learning Models that exist within school ecosystems, table teams had the opportunity to collaborate again.

Drawing a “T” on large sheets of paper, teams list on left side the various learning models (programs and practices such as Project-Based Learning or PBIS) that exist in their schools, and on the right ideas of how equitable collaboration might enhance those models.

After hanging their masterpieces for all to see, students and educators rise and stroll the “gallery,” engaging silently with others’ answers and posting pink sticky notes with questions and responses aimed at deepening these important conversations and pushing them forward.

The pre-conference culminates with participants writing postcards to themselves, offering reflections on the day, key insights to keep in mind, and resolutions to keep the day’s work going.

Before the day is over, though, Ross makes an announcement: he can’t remember when he’s ever worked with a group where students spoke up so much, or made their voices heard so clearly.

Can we have a round of applause for these students?” he asks.

The adults clap loudly for the students at their tables, their partners in thinking hard about what equitable collaboration might mean, and working together to try it out for themselves.

Adam Reger is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a focus on education.

Collaboration Nation is a non-profit organization composed of educational leaders, academics, organizations, and networks who are committed nothing less than changing the world by re-imagining and re-making education. We do this through research and professional development on equitable collaboration.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Tyra Good.

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