Shifting the practice of education from polite cooperation to purposeful collaboration

Cooperation or collaboration?

img_8242-11.jpgIn lists of the various ‘Cs’ of the 21st century ‘collaboration always seems to make an appearance. In this past week I worked with a group of educators, looking at agile learning spaces, thinking about how we need to work to ensure engaged learning for students in these spaces. The necessity of real teacher collaboration was the consistent theme across the groups.

Do you think educators, teachers and leaders, are collaborating or cooperating?

They were still unable to truly achieve the desired outcome because they confused pleasant, cooperative behaviour with collaboration.” (HBR April 2015)

The difference collaborating and cooperating

Hord (1986) undertook a study of research on organisational collaboration and presented the difference:

  • Cooperation – People working together, separately and autonomously. There may be mutual agreement around the task, but the work does not progress beyond that.
  • Collaboration – A relational system within group, where individuals share aspirations for the outcomes. It operates in a model of joint planning and joint implementation.

Collaboration facilitates pooling resources and dividing labour, it alleviates isolation, sustains motivation and creates energy. However, it also feels time-consuming to collaborate and there is significant personal investment necessary to sustain it.

Teacher collaboration and student learning

In many schools teachers make efforts to cooperate, but it is much less common to find teachers actually collaborating. In daily practice, teachers… often use the word ‘collaboration’, while what they do… is actually cooperation.
(Meirink et al, 2010 p.164)

The so-called ‘new pedagogies’ of the 21st century require a student-oriented approach, which means educators give up old routines and shift prevailing beliefs, as openness and transparency become essential elements of practice. Collaboration is critical to this. The effectiveness of collaboration can be observed in the way individuals interact within teams.

Collaboration and learning are closely related. Effective collaborative teams show a high level of interdependency and autonomy, and are characterised by group cohesion, the glue that holds the team together. Alignment around the vision is important for effective collaborative teams, where goals are shared and a strong team approach is evident.

Moving from Cooperation to Collaboration

Level 1: Show and tell – low level collegial activity, hearing about each other’s’ practice

Level 2: Let me help – Critically looking at another’s teaching practice

Level 3: Share and share alike – Openly exchanging materials and ideas

Level 4: We’re in this together – Collective responsibility for the work of teaching in the team

If teaching teams remain at the levels 1 and 2, they will stay ‘cooperative’. It takes deliberate effort and shared commitment to progress to true collaboration. (Adapted from Meirink et al)

How do you grow a culture of collaboration in your school?

  1. Don’t give up at the first (or second) attempt – collaborative relationships grow from successful previous experiences
  2. Make the outcomes clear – goals that are mutually held assist in growing collaboration
  3. Get some quick wins – achieving some short term goals as a team will encourage progress
  4. Challenge preconceptions about collaboration – our own personal experiences impact assumptions and decisions

(adapted from Hord 1986)



Ashkenas, R (2015), There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration HBR (Blog), April 20, 2015

Meirink, Imants, Meijer & Verloop (2010) Teacher learning and collaboration in innovative teams, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40:2, 161-181

Hord (1986) A Synthesis of Research on Organisational Collaboration, Educational Leadership, Feb 1986

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