Cooperation vs Collaboration
OPPOSING IDEAS OR TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN?
“Working together well doesn't come naturally. It's something we learn how to do.”
When researching for this article this line from Kenneth A. Bruffee’s 1995 paper, Sharing our toys, seemed to pretty much sum everything up.
Working with others is not easy because there are so many variables that must be considered.
When it’s just you, you call all the shots, you have all the responsibilities, and you do all the work. But once you involve someone else, things can start to get complicated…
You have to ensure everyone is on the same page, from the roles, to the timeline, and the end goal, all while managing people’s different interests, capabilities, and egos.
SO HOW DO WE LEARN TO WORK TOGETHER?
In schools, one of the best tools we can use to help students learn how to work together is group work.
But we need to do more than just put our students into groups and hope they figure it out.
We must design group work intentionally with the desired outcome we have in mind for having our students work together in the first place.
And that leads me to pose the question:
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COOPERATION AND COLLABORATION?
Did you have to pause and think for a second?
Cooperation vs Collaboration Over Time
A Google Books Ngram of cooperation and collaboration's frequency through 2008
We use the words so interchangeably that sometimes it feels like they have lost their meaning. As you can see in the chart above, since about 1990, there has been a noticeable decline in the frequency with which we use cooperation, while collaboration has steadily increased.
And in the microcosm of education, it has become more lopsided...
Before we attened ISTE 2019, we did a quick search of program, and found cooperation appeared just 10 times for all the presentations, while collaboration appeared 241 times. That is a substantial difference.
SO IS THIS A PROBLEM OR A TECHNICALITY?
While some may see this simply as a matter of semantics, I think it’s something more. We talk about how important it is to define student learning, but what happens if we don’t define it properly?
If we don’t clearly define the ways we want our students to work together, then the students won’t know how they’re working together. And if we just keep using a blanket term for anytime 2 or more people are working together, students will never understand their real capabilities.
GROUP WORK IS THE WHAT, LEARNING IS THE WHY, THE QUESTION IS HOW?
So to finally answer the subheading’s question, cooperation and collaboration aren't opposing ideas, they're just at different ends of the group work spectrum.
How the project or activity is designed will determine how cooperative/collaborative it is.
While some argue that cooperation is more teacher-focused, and collaboration is more student-focused (Markulis and Strang, 2002), we agree with Jacobs (2015), who believes that any group learning is student-focused.
Looking at the Latin roots of the two words, cooperation emphasizes the transmission of knowledge, whereas collaboration suggests a transaction of knowledge (Markulis and Strang, 2002).
But despite the differences in approaches, cooperative and collaborative projects make many of the same assumptions. They both place the teacher as a facilitator, instead of a “sage on the stage,” they both believe that small group activities will help develop “higher-order thinking skills,” and they both have the student accepting responsibility as an individual and as a member of the group for the learning that takes place (Matthews, Cooper, Davidson, & Hawkes, 1995, p. 37).
So how the students gain knowledge in a group project comes down to how the project is structured.
IS THE PROJECT HIGHLY STRUCTURED OR IS IT MORE OPEN?
Cooperative projects will be more structured, often times, assigning specific roles to students, or having the students be responsible for only a specific part of the overall activity. Here, the teacher has taken more steps to guide exactly what is learned.
Whereas in a collaborative project, the students work more in unison, in real-time, towards a common goal, and the teacher has left it more open to the students to determine how they work together and what they learn from the experience.
So in cooperative, the teacher is creating a setting for the students to learn facts from one another. Here, each student digs deeper into a particular topic and then shares they learned with the group. While in collaborative, the teacher creates an environment for the students to exchange what they already know and to build upon each other together (Markulis and Strang, 2002).
At Storillo, we like to say collaboration is a marathon, so let’s not forget to run the 5k that is cooperation!
Which style of project you use will be determined not only by what you want your students to accomplish, but by where they are in their own development.
And like I said before, this is a spectrum, it’s not binary, so your projects can have some elements that are cooperative, and other elements that are collaborative.
To help you determine what you want to accomplish when you do group work with your students, here is a list of questions from Markulis and Strang that should help!
- What are the pre-conditions of each approach?
- What training/knowledge do I need?
- What is my view of these students?
- What knowledge or skills do the students already possess?
- What is the purpose of this assignment?
- What are my goals?
- What do I think the students will learn?
- What is the appropriate structure for the group?
- Will I measure success and if so, how?
- How will I handle team problems?
- Am I interested in teaching process?
- What do I expect the students to bring to the process?