Collaborating, cooperating… or neither?

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”.





  1. learningtowearthebigshoes ( for you!)

    Hey Sam,
    Gong Xi Fa Cai. Xin Nian Kuai Le!
    Would you agree then:
    Collaboration is sharing – of resources, ideas, and experiences. A group working to stimulate and challenge each other.

    Cooperation – coming together as a team. I think this is what I see my co-teacher teams doing. Sharing tasks, working together to make it work, helping each other to achieve the task. (Which may sometimes be just getting through the day!)

    Can we have Collaboration without Cooperation? Cooperation without Collaboration?

    Completely agree with your sentiments on “Students need to be having the same experience in one classroom as they are in the classroom next door.. otherwise parents will compare.” How can any of us have the same experiences even if we are in the same classroom? We all have different needs, challenges, strengths and comfort zones. This is something we need to educate our parents on – children are not an asset to be compared.
    Hope all is well.

    • sherrattsam

      Yes, co-teaching is perhaps the most powerful form of cooperating, and collaborating, that we see in schools. Collaboration can, as you say, just be the group “working to stimulate and challenge each other”. I might steal that line! The frustrating thing for me is when people believe collaboration goes beyond this and becomes an attempt to make everyone the same… Just not natural!

  2. concentricthinking

    Nail – Head….?! You know what I mean. Right now I am being seen as “uncollaborative.” I have such a different philosophy on how things should be done, I disagree, I challenge, I say no…. This has given me a bit of a negative reputation as people are viewing me as being difficult. I believe there are two types of difficult in any school setting. There is a difficult teacher who is just difficult, and will always resist just because. The second type of difficult (the one I see myself as) is the person who wants to keep asking “why,” always seeking to take a different approach in being better, thinking and re-thinking of how to make things run a little more smoother with a touch of clarity. At the moment the students are organizing an overnight trip. My teaching partner said that he has a few students in his class that are challenging him and speaking up. We had a discussion about this, and I suggested that he allows the students to take care of it and step back. He left the room saying, “Unfortunately, I have some students like you in my class.” Well, didn’t that hit me like a lightning rod. Aren’t they the exact students we are trying to develop and isn’t that what we are trying to instill in them? I now that I want to promote such qualities… the confident and expressive communicators that challenge and are relentless till they are satisfied with what they are looking for. So, if you ask me what type of relationship I have with my teaching partner, it is not a very good one. It is falsely manufactured were we are forced into a room and are seen planning and meeting. It does not go beyond that. We smile and keep walking. My question is this…. “If we have such differences (philosophical ones) can true collaboration/cooperation ever be achieved?” I think I already know the answer to that…..

  3. sherrattsam

    I feel your frustration!

    Remember, though, that you are working with a culture in which speaking up, acting out and challenging adult authority figures might be a completely strange concept. Just as it may take time for kids to get the balance between challenging and disrespect just right, It may take time for your colleague to see the difference between the two also.

    It could be worth chatting to a few Kenyans to see how deeply embedded the respect for elders is and to to see if questioning and challenging adults is such a new thing, then chatting to your colleague and other colleagues about the type of students you are looking to develop in your school. How willing is everyone to work towards students who display the attributes of the learner profile?

  4. Pingback: Collaborating with Computers to Learn to Collaborate with Humans |

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