Image courtesy of jphilipg

For those who don’t know, I grew up in a small town in northern Canada. Until my early teens, we didn’t have much of a shopping centre other than the Coop Mall which had a grocery store, a hardware store, and a clothing store all of which were part of The Cooperative. I had no idea what that meant until much later in my life. You can understand then why I found it amusing that my television idol at the time, The Friendly Giant, talked about cooperation. I had no idea why he would be discussing groceries on TV. Weird.

Much (much) later in life, I found myself in a very collaborative MA TESOL program working through the differences between cooperating with others and collaborating with others. It seems so simple on the surface, but the nuances of working through material with two or three other people certainly helped refine my definitions of those two terms.

For the sake of this post, I will oversimplify my understanding of what these two terms mean. I will use the building of house to illustrate my point.

When you cooperate with someone in building a house, you hire someone to design your house, a different person to build the foundation, another person to run the plumbing, someone else to do the electrical work, and so on. Each of these people need someone else to finish their task in order to do the next part. You can’t do the foundation if you don’t have the blueprints. You can’t install the electrical panels unless the walls are up. None of these people have a part in the work of the others, but they need each other in order to get their work done.

When you collaborate with someone in building a house, you all get together to discuss, plan, and work on the different sections together, focusing on the strength and expertise of each person. You don’t have the electrician build the walls, but he does consult with the builder in order to work out where would be the best places to run electrical lines, install outlets boxes, and put in pot lights. The plumber works with the person pouring the foundation in order to find the best way of making sure the pipes are properly vented and not going to cause problems in the case of a leak. All of these people work with the architect in order to find the best ways of getting things done according to the specs and desires of the owner.

In education, we are often guilty of referring to cooperation as collaboration when we don’t really work together to streamline the process. The curriculum developer doesn’t consult with the teachers who don’t communicate with the director and so on. When we work together, we see the much bigger picture and can reduce the frustrations and confusion that often comes from everyone working independently. Can you imagine what our classrooms would like if we collaborated on more things together as educators and administrators?

We want our students to work collaboratively in their learning, but we fail to do it, or even properly understand it ourselves. I believe most people see the benefits of it, but there are too many obstacles in our way. When we deal with people, politics, and money, things always get messy. Maybe it is time we just rolled up our sleeves and started digging in the muck.

2 thoughts on “Collaborating

  1. Hi Nathan, great post – the collaborate vs cooperate is a distinction well worth discussing these days, as subtle distinctions seem to appear here and there in various literature. As I understand it (and to follow your lead in oversimplifying) cooperation is when everyone works together and has the same goal, collaboration is where everyone works together and has their own goals.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Glen. I think we define collaborate and cooperate differently, but I think we are on the same page regarding the need to work together to support each other as educators as well as helping our students.

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