Defining (and Driving) Collaboration

edtech and global education

By Jordan Lippman and Janine Perri

In today’s world, both employers and educational institutions place a high value on soft skills that are transferable across professional, academic, and social situations. One of the most frequently cited skills is collaboration, which has seen a resurgence in interest among educational organizations who are dedicated to preparing students to be productive members of society and for the future of work. In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report listed coordinating with others, people management, and complex problem solving–all hallmarks of collaboration–as the top skills predicted to be critical for future jobs.

The Collaboration Nation Survey

From 2016-2017, Collaboration Nation conducted a study of collaboration instruction and assessment in K-12 classrooms in the United States. In this study, 82 educators from 39 districts and organizations answered survey questions about their experiences with teaching collaboration skills, as well as the tools and support they need to be successful in fostering collaborative learning.

This survey fills a critical gap in the research surrounding collaboration and group work and deepens our understanding of how decision-makers in educational institutions can better serve students and teachers in acquiring and transferring these essential skills.

How Do You Define Collaboration?

Most educators who responded to the Collaboration Nation survey defined collaboration in terms of outcomes, as in this representative response, “Groups of people working together to solve a problem or achieve a vision.

Researchers such as Deanna Kuhn, who is a Professor at Teachers College, have argued that both the “process” and the “outcome” are integral to understanding collaboration and to teaching it. It is problematic that most educators who responded to the Collaboration Nation survey focused on the outcome or product of collaborative work. Educators may not be paying enough attention to the process of collaboration. It is possible that many educators think about collaboration as a black box that just happens. To promote collaboration in the classroom, educators must scaffold the process, and this requires a nuanced understanding of the skills, steps, and conditions that are required for students to engage in productive collaborative learning.

The 21st Century Skills Reboot

The Collaboration Nation study seeks to build upon current conversations and research related not only to collaboration as a skill in and of itself, but also how collaboration fits into larger pedagogical trends in the “21st century skill reboot.” The 21st century reboot incorporates a variety of new teaching methods and frameworks intended to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century workforce and society. Some of the movements include social-emotional learning (SEL), project-based learning (PBL), and deeper learning. Collaboration is a theme that runs through all of these approaches and activates them to prepare students for the future.

There’s a growing body of work from various foundations and education institutes that is defining new ways of learning and educating. For example, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is seeking to better understand and advocate for advancements in promoting student social and emotional learning (SEL) and academic success. CASEL works closely with educators, districts and states to provide strategic guidance. Similarly, Getting Smart and the Buck Institute for Education have teamed up on the High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) initiative to collate the latest research and guidance on Project-Based Learning. The Hewlett Foundation’s push for Deeper Learning has helped regalvanize interest in collaboration as a component of deeper learning. Deeper Learning is an educational framework for thinking about how students master skills needed to become engaged global citizens who are competitive in the workforce and higher education. Six foundational design principles of deeper learning include:

  • rigorous academic content,
  • critical thinking skills,
  • effective communication skills,
  • academic mindsets,
  • self-directed learning, and
  • ability to work collaboratively.

Going back even further, the roots of 21st century skill movement began in 2002 with The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (, who first identified the 4Cs as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Since that time, our knowledge of how to teach 21st century skills has grown. James Pellegrino and Margaret Hilton’s 2012 consensus report for the National Research Council was the first synthetic analysis of 21st Century Skills to marshal the extensive body of research on learning. Pellegrino and Hilton’s framework laid the foundation for the recent work by the Hewlett Foundation on deeper learning, as well as Collaboration Nation. In fact, the Collaboration Nation study is spearheaded by Dr. Jordan Lippman, founder of The TeamBuilders Group, who was a graduate student of Dr. Pellegrino’s. The Collaboration Nation study seeks to extend the research on collaboration, using practitioner insights to inform and complement the existing research.

A Glimpse at the Data

A report of the Collaboration Nation survey data will be published this summer, but we are excited to share one particularly striking initial finding with you.

Notably, the survey data indicates that educators explain challenges that students experience with collaboration by focusing on causes that reside within students rather than causes that are within the control of educators or the school system itself. This is a troubling finding. Educators may be guilty of the “fundamental attribution error,” a psychological phenomenon that happens when people attribute the cause of other people’s struggles to something that is within the control of that person, rather than something external such as enabling conditions or circumstances. According to Dr. Patrick Crawford, who is an advisor to the Collaboration Nation survey and the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center, “this is a powerful statement that should be internalized by all educators.”

The reason for concern is that research has shown that educators tend to respond to students with anger and punishment rather than empathy and support when they believe students are to blame for their performance (Georgiou et al. 2002; Rudolph, Roesch, Greitemeyer, & Weiner, 2004). Educators need to pay more attention to the process and not just the outcome; reframing their thinking from students intentionally not engaging in collaboration to thinking about the experiences and skills students need. As our previous post on Getting Smart argued, educators need to provide explicit skill-building experiences as well as highly compelling PBL experiences. The forthcoming Collaboration Nation report will analyze the enabling conditions and circumstances even further and provide guidance on strategies for reframing educator mindsets.

Learn More

In future posts, we will discuss the insights gleaned from the Collaboration Nation survey. Specifically, we’ll look at how educators approach instruction and assessment, as well as how districts can support educators in fostering collaboration skills in the classroom.

The Collaboration Nation survey report will be available this summer. If you’d like to receive a copy when it is available, sign up for our email newsletter.

For more, see:

Jordan Lippman, Ph.D., is a learning engineer, consultant, and researcher who is focused on building more equitable schools and adaptive citizens through the continuous improvement of collaborative learning cultures. He is the founder of The TeamBuilders Consulting Group and Research Director of the Collaboration Nation survey. Connect with him on Twitter: @lippmanphd.

Janine Perri is a writer and marketing professional who has written for various universities, businesses, startups, marketing firms, and nonprofit organizations. She has also taught English in South Korea as the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.