Sunday, April 14, 2013


We talk a lot about collaboration when it comes to teaching in modern learning environments. It’s used in terms of the way teachers work with each other, the way teachers work with students, and students work with students. But are we talking about the same thing?

Collaboration, when it comes down to it is one of those words that has perhaps become slightly difficult to define. Dillenbourg as far back as 1999 suggested that the term had become fashionable and had resulted in overuse and overgeneralization; something that he suspected made it difficult to articulate the various contributions that authors were making on the subject.

So when a group of teachers we spoke with recently talked about their team situation, a number of scenarios arose. For example at times the group talked about working alongside each other on a particular task, or to solve a particular problem. They’d work together, all contributing to the discussion, until a decision had been reached, or the task completed. Picture it in Lego, it’s everyone, hands on, building the same model. Is this collaboration?

Or how about the example of the same group of teachers taking a task, breaking it up into parts, and then, individually, going off to complete the different sections of it. Later they return, between them putting the pieces together, and using this approach, complete the task. Is this collaboration?

Thirdly, the example of something needing doing, an event needing organising, and one person taking it on, coming back to explain to the group what is going to happen. Would this be collaboration?

Arguably, and coming back to Dillenbourg (1999) in a collaborative approach work is done together whereas in a more cooperative approach a task is split and then ‘reassembled’. He refers to this as the ‘division of labour’ and adds that many consider collaboration to be synonymous with collaboration. The third example above might better be considered as ‘coordination’ with one party taking the lead role, and simply reporting back.

A number of authors have written on the different stages of collaboration as it shifts from coordination, to cooperation, to collaboration (Peterson, 1991). Possibly though in a teaching team sense, there’s not such a neat and tidy movement through the stages. Instead depending on the task, the purpose, and the level of input required from everyone, maybe teams shift between collaboration, cooperation and coordination.

Perhaps therefore, when approaching a particular task, teaching teams need to be mindful of the approach that is most appropriate, at that particular time, for that particular job, before deciding if they will collaborate, cooperate, or coordinate.

Or maybe, just maybe, this just a case of semantics, and to what extent does it matter how we define ‘collaboration’ anyway? Perhaps, we just need to get on with it!


Dillenbourg, P. (1999). What do you mean by collaborative learning? In P. Dillenbourg (Ed.), Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and computational approaches. (pp. 1-19). Oxford: Elsevier.

Peterson, N. L. (1991). Interagency Collaboration Under Part H The Key to Comprehensive, Multidisciplinary, Coordinated Infant/Toddler Intervention Services. Journal of Early Intervention, 15(1), 89.


  1. Chris - thanks for sharing. Your writing continues to challenge my thinking about teaching. I am looking at collaboration stories between teachers and between schools.

  2. Very insightful - I look to you and your school as a base of knowledge and innovation for which to base my beginning teaching career. Thank you for challenging my thinking.

  3. Hey Chris,

    Like the research links you add to your posts!
    Collaboration is a funny one, especially when we try to get specific about it, and sometimes I think it's important we do, (especially when we see it's not happening at all.)
    Collaboration is rarely taught as a specific, personal skill. It needs to be. Every CV in the known universe seems to include 'team player', and though I believe each applicant thinks it's true, we know that the reality sometimes just doesn't match up.
    To make a specific collaborative team work, each individual needs to work in a way that's *different* from how they'd work on their own. They may need to yield their default habits to serve a group purpose and group process. For some, collaboration means being confident and taking risks, for others, it means being quiet (for once) and letting others come forward.
    Specific, altered behaviours that require different efforts for each person.
    Recognising the personal expectations of collaboration gives us a better position to assess tools such as google docs. The document is simply shared publishing, but the medium encourages more collaborative behaviour. It's the behaviour that matters, and that behaviour is a personal expectation. One teacher at a time in their own minds and in their own behaviour.

    The examples in your post mostly seemed to reflect flexible, adaptable teams who get things done a bunch of different ways. Maybe that adaptability is the most important thing, and collaboration is just one of the ways things need to be done. Does everyone have those skills, and how do we make them explicit?