One of the most frustrating trends in schools is the confusion between collaboration and cooperation. Although dictionaries treat them as synonyms, they are quite distinct from each other in the educational context… or, at least, should be.
I am very fortunate, as I have experienced both scenarios in my teaching experience so far, so I will try and describe the differences between collaboration and cooperation from my perspective (and that of some the outstanding colleagues I have worked with).
I define this as “a group of people who are all working together towards the same end”. The end result is quite specific, and is intended to be pretty much the same for everyone. A good example of this is a field trip or school camp. It is probably desirable that all the students have the same experiences at a time like that. Some narrow and specific assessments might fit this scenario too – a writing sample perhaps.
Cooperation is not going to create the conditions in which all teachers, and students, will be at their best as they are unable to express their own individuality and style. In the cooperative context, a “happy medium” or compromise is essential and, therefore, is never going to illicit the passion, individuality or intrinsic motivation necessary to promote real inquiry learning.
I define this as “a group of people working together” and like to leave it is simple and open as that. Adding more to this definition will naturally chip away at the possibilities that true collaboration can offer. When genuinely collaborating, teachers and students can have similar goals in mind, or be operating within the same context, yet navigate their own paths depending on who they are as people.
For a teacher, this can mean discussing and reaching consensus with their team about the big picture or enduring understandings they are working towards, but then having the the freedom and artistic license to go back to their classrooms and teach in a style and manner that reflects who they are as a teacher and who their students are as learners. For a student, this could mean working on the same “topic” or context as their classmates, but developing their own inquiries within that context based on their own interests and curiosities.
Teachers and students are highly likely to collaborate naturally and spontaneously as they go about their business – they will certainly share their ideas, resources and successes, seek help when frustrated, tell stories of their experiences and become part of a healthy collaborative community.
The Damning Truth
Sadly, in most schools, the buzz word is collaboration, the truth is cooperation and the reality is neither! Collaborating in many schools means sitting in a room and, very often, all trying to agree exactly what to do. If, as an individual teacher, you question the status quo, or make it clear that you intend to do things differently, or advocate for the different needs of your students… you are deemed “uncollaborative”. You may, in fact, be being “uncooperative”… but, as a school, you need to have the discussion about whether everyone needs to be doing things the same way, or whether you will adopt a more sophisticated shared understanding of what collaboration means.
All too often, in my experience, administrators have been behind the confusion between these two words. In order to try and guarantee quality (and equality) for fee-paying parents, the following sentence can often be heard slipping from even the most inspiring educational leader’s mouth:
“Students need to be having the same experience in one classroom as they are in the classroom next door.. otherwise parents will compare.”
I strongly rebut that sentence, with a sentence of my own:
“Students can be having highly varied experiences from one classroom to the next, what matters is that they are all instances of meaningful and powerful learning.”
Asking teachers to teach everything the same will inevitably become students all doing everything the same. Forget collaboration or any any other jazzy educational words. The only word for that is “mediocre”.