Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When are we collaborating and when are we cooperating?

Just out of curiosity I started typing collaboration vs cooperation into Google.  I didn’t get past the “s” in “vs” before the first suggested searches were “collaboration vs cooperation” and “collaboration vs teamwork.”  I clicked a few results and read a little to help me define the difference.  I liked how Kozar (2010) summarizes these differences: “cooperation can be achieved if all participants do their assigned parts separately and bring the results to the table; collaboration, in contrast, implies direct interaction among individuals to produce a product and involves negotiations, discussions, and accommodating others’ perspectives.”  Nelson (2008) also simply explains that cooperative work is a way to ensure you stay out of each other’s way until the work is finished and that a cooperative task, could in the end, be done by one person given enough time and resources.

Recently I was part of a few vision meetings where we got to hear different groups talk about what a Bismarck Public Schools’ graduate looks like in the 21st century.  We heard a lot about what many are calling the 4 C’s (critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration).  At the end an administrator asked the students who had been talking about collaboration, “How often do you get to work in groups?”  Those that said they were given time to work in groups said that most of that time was parceled out to individual members of the group to be put together at the end.  Kozar’s and Nelson’s very definitions of cooperation.  For example students are assigned a group project to present on the phases of mitosis.  Student one takes prophase and metaphase, student two takes anaphase and telophase, student three takes cytokinesis and agrees to do all the talking.  They break up and agree to have their parts done by the end of the week.  None of the students learns the other’s part and no one gets a full picture of how cells replicate their nucleus but the work gets done.  On the athletic court we go far beyond cooperation all the time.  Imagine a basketball practice where teammates are sent to different parts of the court to learn their individual parts of the offense and defense never knowing what the other pieces look like.  Then on game day are asked to put it together into a seamless showing of skill and teamwork.  Players on our teams often know their teammates roles as well as their own.

So how do we enhance cooperation to the level of collaboration in the classroom?  Several of the 8 essential elements of Project Based Learning (PBL) are a good place to start.

A need to know

When projects are based on significant content a strong need to know often comes forward.  By giving students a strong connection between what they will learn and how they will use it goes a long way toward sparking an interest in learning.  When students make those connections in a group, they are more likely to work collaboratively to produce a quality product.

Student voice and choice

Giving students a voice in the project requirements and a choice in what gets accomplished as well as how time for the project is budgeted will encourage students to work collaboratively toward a goal they can all get behind.  Giving students a chance to become passionate about their work will spur collaboration.

21st century competencies

This one has a pretty obvious connection since one of the 21st century competencies is collaboration.  The projects students work to create should give them multiple opportunities to use and enhance their competencies in order to be prepared for a career in the 21st century workforce.

In-depth inquiry

By asking students to go beyond the textbook or Google to find answers that require students to bounce ideas around and learn from each other forces cooperation to the level of collaboration.  By requiring students to use their strengths together to accomplish a goal that goes beyond what can currently be read on the Internet will require students to collaborate.

A public audience

Lastly a public audience can provide an outlet for the knowledge that students gain from their collaborative practice.  Imagine the power of being able to present a project that you and a team worked to create to experts in the field.  Business projects to chamber members, health and science to doctors and nurses, government projects to local and state leaders.

Cooperation is not a bad word in education.  I was taught a long time ago by Muppets on Sesame Street that cooperation was a good thing.  By our own students’ accounts much of their group time is spent cooperatively.  Toady our students need to be able to cooperate and collaborate effectively.  In order to provide both opportunities we need to think of them as different skills.

I miss the science classroom often and wish I could step back now to replace my mitosis project with a meaningful project that encouraged students to develop skills like collaboration and critical thinking while learning important content aligned to our standards.

PBL is not the only answer to spurring collaboration in our classrooms.  I would like to see folks leave comments below that share your own strategies for encouraging our students to collaborate.


Kozar, O. (2010). Towards better group work: seeing the difference between cooperation     and collaboration. English Teacher Forum. 2, 16-23.

Nelson, R. (2008). Learning and working in the collaborative age: A new model for the workplace. Video of presentation at Apple Education Leadership Summit, San Francisco CA. www.edutopia.org/randy-nelson-school-to-career-video.

Solis, A., Lamar, J., & Olabuenaga, G. (2014). PBL 101 Workbook. Buck Institute for Education. Novato, CA.


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