Posted by on Feb 18, 2010

The term gets quite a bit of air time these days.  I defy you to go to a conference and avoid hearing the word less than a dozen times.  Go to a session on wikis, and it’s a collaboration bonanza.  People love to talk about it.  People love to challenge others to use it.  People love to say how important it is for kids to learn through it.  Problem is, I’m not sure people actually know what it means.

Go ask five people right now and see if you get a clear, common definition.

Ask yourself, and see if you have a clear definition.

We most certainly live in an age where it’s never been easier to stand in a space and mix our ideas together with others.  There’s great power in the act.  We’re certainly made smarter and sharper and our learning is grown richer because of it, but I fear we’ve done a poor job really understanding the what and why of the whole idea.

I think we should stop and clarify with our staffs and even our selfs.  We should let them wrestle with it.  Let them see that we aren’t just talking about cooperative work.  Collaboration and cooperative learning are two very different ideas.  Certainly the circles of their constructs overlap in Venn Diagram fashion, but there’s more in the separate circles than there is in the overlap.  We need to understand the circles.  Find their boundaries.  And then find what it is that makes collaboration such a powerful force in learning.

I’ll admit, I’m still fighting with the circles myself.  Still struggling to understand the space between the two.  Still working to see what would happen if we found ways to really let our learning step out of the cooperative and move into the collaborative.  Where would it take our students?  Where does it take us?

If you really want to wrestle with the ideas, I don’t think there’s a more challenging description of the two than what Ted Panitz has framed up.  I’d strongly encourage you to go read it.  Then wrestle with it.  Let it work on you a bit.  Then come back and share your thoughts on it.

Can we hope to get our students to engage and collaborate using the tools we champion when we ourselves haven’t clearly established our own vision of what is evidenced when collaboration takes place?  If we aren’t clear on what we expect to find when it happens, should we be advocating for it?

I know there’s great power in the process.  I just believe we have to understand what it is that comprises it.  And then, perhaps we might even start thinking about including it in our assessments and give our students meaningful feedback about it.

Thanks to caribb for the use of the Flickr image.


  1. Chris Fritz
    February 19, 2010

    You can give me the best baseball bat in the world, but I still won’t be very effective with it. The thing is, I don’t exactly know when or how to swing it, or even where in the field I should aim to send the ball. Collaborative tools like wikis are the same.

    I think as educators, we get really excited once we begin to understand how powerful tools like wikis can be, then we rush to implement them. For really effective implementation though, thoroughly understand WHY and WHEN wikis are powerful is paramount.

    Thanks for taking a step back and asking the critical questions. For all other readers, he provides a really great link too. I’m going to repost it here just to emphasize what a great resource it is!

  2. Scott Meech
    February 22, 2010

    Good points as usual Ben. The greatest difficulty I have with this idea of “collaboration” is that many of us espousing this at conferences don’t know how to collaborate well themselves. We have a lot of people who are interested in advancing their own cause but who are not really collaborators per se.

    Education is notorious for talking about these topics and yet not doing things well themselves. School districts are divided into “kingdoms” of knowledge and “empires” of control. We tend to talk a good game but end up having poor follow through.

    This discussion reminds me of my approach with my classes that I used to take all the time. I would ask my students to create the project’s rubric. They were given ownership over the importance of the quality as I led them through a discussion. What they never realized was that the rubric always reflected what I wanted even though they were the ones who talked it through.

  3. Pam Joyce
    March 15, 2010

    As an educator and a student, I think I’m finally starting to ‘get’ the idea of collaboration. From a teacher perspective, I was striving to facilitate collaboration amongst students but what I observed was something I liked to call ‘collaborgab’. Senior high school students artfully deciding who is responsible for what parts of an assignment and completing the tasks in isolation in order to spend the class time socializing. Of course, this is more in keeping with cooperative learning. All of that was before I started using digital platforms to facilitate students’ collaborative assignments. I was thrilled with the results but the students did not value the experience – they discovered that it was difficult to collaborate.

    Now, as a graduate student, I can sometimes relate to the sentiments of my own students. They were always fearful of not being credited with their contributions in a collaborative exercise. It was more difficult to determine whose idea was most compelling; who dedicated the most time and energy; who took more control… it was always about the race, the competition. It’s all about the assessment of this kind of learning. Ben, I’m glad you state that we need to start thinking about assessing collaboration.

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  5. Gail Horton
    March 17, 2010

    The process of making a great team is often well underway as the students, often have characteristics identified by those part of the ‘thriving’ team experience. That a ‘great team’ is made by ‘collaboration and ‘facilitation,’ becomes an expected part of each of the components of the process, as well as of the final team outcomes. But, what if the team of hard-working, maturely interacting, willing to support each other, individuals have, amongst them, one or more ‘social loafers’, and what if the team engaged in mandatory peer evaluation, which is believed to provide “considerable incentive ” for active participation in team assignments,” (Bailey, 2005) fails? Would the social loafer be identified by the diligent, focused others ,and would the social loafer engage in negatives about the diligent students, or even a second social loafer? Based on commentary developed from reading Bailey’s articles, I think, it is reasonable to state that thriving teams thrive regardless – “able to deal effectively with unexpected events,” (Bailey, 2005), and, although group dynamics shift often to the lowest common denominator, the motivated thriving team will graciously carry the social loafer toward the completion of the task getting the job done. In the U2IG world, high performance results more often than poor performance, however, in the world of the high school students, the development of characteristics of the ‘thriving’ team requires hard working, diligent, mature, and wise facilitation to create effective and, thus, thriving teams.

    Bailey. M. ‘Ten Great Tips for Facilitating Virtual Learning Teams’.
    & ‘VIrtual teams: Surviving or thriving’?

  6. Disappointed Teacher
    March 17, 2010

    Ben, please tell me that you were being sarcastic in your last paragraph when you spoke about assessing collaboration. If you were, ignore this post. But if you were not, please read on. I felt as though you were on the right path up until that last comment.
    Gaining a better understanding of collaboration should be for the purpose of encouraging it and the many possibilities that can arise out of it. The more we as educators understand what constitutes collaboration the better we can model it for our students. Not the better we can assess how well they do it. Why must the end goal for many educators always be about assessment? Is it not enough to show the students what a powerful tool it can be? Couldn’t they be interested and excited by the possibilities that it opens up for their own learning? Might that alone encourage this type of behavior as opposed to collaborating for the purpose of earning marks?
    I think it is unfortunate that while I may be providing my students with feedback about ways to make their collaborative time more effective some teachers will be holding clipboards and rubrics while assessing how well their students were using a particular learning and sharing strategy.

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  8. Frances Bell
    March 18, 2010

    @Disappointed Teacher I think that the term assessment (like collaboration) is understood very differently by different people. To me, assessment is something that we strive to do well whilst recognising that some of the important things that students might be learning are always slightly out of the reach of our attempts to assess them. I work in Higher Education and expect to have dialogue with my adult students about what they may learn and how that relates to teaching, learning activities and assessment i.e. I can acknowledge the fuzzy relations. So why do assessment? Accreditation of student learning is part of my professional duty (supported by quality systems including external examiners). Also, importantly, students value assessment and if we can encourage them to engage with the process in stead of just consuming the marks, then we can help become better at really tough things like collaboration by carrying forward things like self- and peer-assessment (maybe called reflection and postive communication) into their personal and working lives. Really, they are developing strategies that work for them.

  9. Nadine Norris
    March 18, 2010

    The best explanation I’ve seen lately about what needs to happen for effective collaboration was provided by Randy Nelson from Pixar on the Edutopia site, . Randy breaks down what’s needed for collaboration very simply. He says that collaboration is essentially amplification of a process by connecting interested people who bring their own skills and experiences that include “failure and recovery”. In addition, being “interested” in finding solutions or completing the process is essential. Being interested helps the communication process because one who is interested will translate their message in a way that is easily understood by others in the group.

    I listened to his talk again after reading your post. This time I tried to think in terms of how one would assess the effectiveness or even the existence of collaboration. Perhaps a rubric wouldn’t really be the way to go here. I would ask the following questions (based on what I learned from Randy Nelson).

    Am I “interested” in the process and the other people involved?
    Did I enthusiastically “accept every offer”?
    Did I recognize my partners expertise based on their own experiences?
    Did I contribute my expertise based on how I have “failed and recovered”?
    Did I make my partners “look good”?

    If the answer to these questions is yes, I have successfully engaged a collaborative process.

  10. Clint Lalonde
    March 18, 2010

    A conversation very similar to this trying to understand the similarities and differences between collaboration and cooperation happened recently in the forums over at SCoPE. One of the participants there posted a link to a table created by Dave pollard that I found useful in understanding the similarities and differences between cooperation, collaboration and coordination (just to toss another C in there). The table is at

  11. Neil Stephenson
    December 22, 2010

    We’re trying to assess collaboration at th teacher level. Read more here:

  12. Sarah
    December 22, 2010

    Thanks for the post and I’ve enjoyed the discussion that’s gone with it.
    @Nadine Norris: I enjoyed the video, thanks for the link. I like his analogy of the production line and I think it’s a really good example that emphasises the difference between collaboration and cooperation. (If anyone else is watching this comparison starts at about 6m50secs).

    I recently wrote a post about a very similar thing: When group work isn’t group work ( after numerous observations in my own and other classes of how children were working IN groups but not AS groups. For me really highlights the point you’re making about collaboration and cooperation.

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